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Group Urges San Diego Unified To Save Science Education

— San Diego public school students impressed the entire state earlier this year when they posted big gains in science test scores. Teachers want to build on that success but school officials say there’s not enough money to keep science initiatives intact. Now a group of concerned citizens is calling on San Diego Unified to save science education and adopt a 'green-tech' focus in the process.

Audio

Aired 12/15/09

San Diego public school students impressed the entire state earlier this year when they posted big gains in science test scores. Teachers want to build on that success but school officials say there’s not enough money to keep science initiatives in tact. Now a group of concerned citizens is calling on San Diego Unified to save science education and adopt a 'green-tech' focus in the process.

Science teacher Shauna Brammer helps hers students during a dissection lab activity at La Jolla High School.
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Above: Science teacher Shauna Brammer helps hers students during a dissection lab activity at La Jolla High School.

Beakers and bottles in a chemistry class at La Jolla High School.
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Above: Beakers and bottles in a chemistry class at La Jolla High School.

La Jolla High School students take part in a dissection lab activity during physiology class.
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Above: La Jolla High School students take part in a dissection lab activity during physiology class.

La Jolla High School requires a chemistry course for all students.
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Above: La Jolla High School requires a chemistry course for all students.

Mrs. Brammer's second period science class at La Jolla High is not for the faint-of-heart. Students dissect everything from a cat to pig feet. Today it's a cow's femur.

Mrs. Brammer's hands-on approach appeals to the teenagers who can stomach this class. She encourages them to think like scientists -- and that’s figuring out problems instead of memorizing facts and figures.

“Science is very overwhelming to a lot of students. It’s almost a threat because there is so much factual information,” Brammer said. “Look at the size of the textbooks -- they just keep getting bigger and bigger every year. (Teachers) can't possibly expect to throw all this information at (students) and expect them to regurgitate it.”

San Diego school officials realized that a few years ago, which is why they changed the district's approach to teaching science. The subject became more hands-on with kids asking and answering their own questions. Teacher training was bolstered. Schools were supplied with more lab kits for experiments.

As a result, elementary school students made dramatic improvements on state science tests.

But now, some worry the success may be fleeting. Bruce Reznick chairs San Diego Unified's community taskforce on science reform. He says a series of district reorganizations has left San Diego Unified without a science department or vision for science education.

“It seems as though there is an effort underway currently to really undermine the progress made and take what has been successful and move in a very different direction,” Reznick said.

San Diego Unified school trustee Richard Barrera says state budget cuts are causing school officials to lose sight of what’s working in science education.

“It doesn’t seem to have been a conscience decision on anyone’s part,” Barrera said. “In the middle of everything else (school officials) are trying to deal with, those issues have gotten lost. And if we don’t pay attention, then we’re going to see our whole approach unravel.”

Science supporters are now calling on school officials to do everything they can to make science education a priority.

They say that’s important because so much of the local economy will depend on green technology like energy, life sciences and resource management.

The idea is to keep San Diego at the forefront of environmental science.

Howard Tenebaum is one of a number of San Diego science teachers who already embraces a green-tech approach. In fact, Tenebaum created an environmental science class at La Jolla High. On a brisk school morning he took his students to a community garden full of plants and vegetables to study the differences in ecosystems.

Tenebaum wants to see this kind of learning at every school because its hands-on, investigative and relevant to the real world.

“It's in the news every day,” Tenebaum said. “It's the toilet-to-tap plan. Is it good to put windmills out in the East County? Some people say yes, some people say no. And I'm thinking, why aren't we talking about it in our classrooms?”

Tenebaum and many other science teachers say there are challenges. A lot of the more innovative classes are fun and teach important lessons but they don’t meet university requirements, and that makes them less of a priority.

And on top of that, money is a huge problem. Shaping the science curriculum is difficult to do when the district is facing a multi-million-dollar budget hole for next year.

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