A Better Way to Process the Scientific Process

SciTrek Partners with Schools to Promote Inquiry-Based, Hands-On Approach to Learning

After seeing undergraduate students in their classes who are able to recite facts but struggle with performing labs and experiments in order to find answers themselves, UC Santa Barbara lecturer Darby Feldwinn and biochemistry professor Norbert Reich decided to create SciTrek, a program which focuses on teaching the scientific process to K-12 students.

SciTrek works with local schools to encourage an inquiry-based, hands-on approach to science, and seeks to target K-12 students, teachers, as well as both undergraduate and graduate students at UCSB. The program develops modules for students to work on with the assistance of volunteers from UCSB and the community. The module subjects meet state education standards and allow students to create and perform an experiment that will teach them the concepts involved instead of memorizing facts.

The Santa Barbara and Goleta school districts and the Laguna Blanca schools have participated in past years, and SciTrek plans to add the program to public classrooms in Montecito this fall.

Feldwinn said that, through SciTrek, they hope to expose students to performing experiments themselves at an early age, so by the time they are undergraduates themselves, they will have a thorough understanding of the scientific method.

“If you look at the education standards, they are all facts, facts, facts, and not about the process of science,” Feldwinn said. “Elementary school teachers have to teach all subjects, so they aren’t scientists and can have a hard time with the concept of supporting scientific inquiry. We want to help students learn how science works by having them ask questions and create ways to answer those questions themselves.”

Students who participate in the program practice reading, writing, and presentation skills, as well as exercising collaboration and teamwork ability. Reich said that the feedback gathered from students and teachers during interviews so far has been overwhelmingly positive.

“All the students we’ve spoken to have loved it, and all of the teachers are very enthusiastic about the program,” explained Reich. “There are so many people who want us to go out to their classrooms now that we simply don’t have the money or manpower to reach them all.”

Feldwinn added that the students who they have seen excel in the program so far are not those that are typically at the top of their classes. The open-ended, inquisitive approach that SciTrek supports has benefited many students who struggle in the normal classroom setting.

Reich said that the goal of SciTrek is not necessarily to make scientists of all the participants but to apply the spirit of scientific inquiry across all subjects.

“We don’t want to make little model scientists of everybody; we want to apply critical thinking skills to all subjects,” Reich said. “Our goal is to reach the people who aren’t going to be scientists in the future, and we want people to be educated about the process of science so that they can become well-informed citizens and voters.”

SciTrek received $42,000 in funding for the 2012-2013 school year from UCSB’s executive vice chancellor and the deans of the College of Letters and Sciences, Education, Engineering, and Creative Studies. This allows the program to extend its services to nearly 1,000 2nd, 3rd, and 5th graders, and creates volunteer opportunities for 150 UCSB students.

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