March 13, 2014

UC Merced students work to spark kids’ interest in science

UC Merced students are halfway through a weekly science program with children at the Boys and Girls Club of Merced County called “From Quanta to Quasars.” The youngsters are getting introductions to college-level ideas, which could be good to know since they are so close to the research university.

It was a regular Wednesday for the mostly 6- to 10-year-olds of the Boys and Girls Club of Merced County – they played games, did some homework – and talked about organelles.

That’s right, organelles. Mitochondria, riboflavin, the Golgi apparatus and the many more parts of cells that make up plants and animals. The youngsters were just reviewing before they moved onto types of muscle tissue.

The weekly science sessions are part of a program called “From Quanta to Quasars,” which is run by five graduate and 10 undergraduate UC Merced students. Each week the children learn about different elements of the universe, from the tiniest to the largest.

“Quanta” is a reference to quantum mechanics, or atoms, and “Quasars” refers to the very bright and energetic center of a distant galaxy.

“It’s scientific literacy in that it’s showing them the basic concepts,” said Steven Duval Ruilova, a 21-year-old senior studying molecular and cellular biology. “It’s also showing them that it’s much cooler than they originally think.”

The scientific concepts are too dynamic to be taught dryly and without the color they deserve, the Sacramento native said. Ruilova said college students are at just the right age to deliver that message to the children at the club’s home, the McCombs Youth Center.

Those ideas can create the spark needed to get the youngsters thinking about a career in science, he said. The interested children are always easy to pick out of the roughly two dozen. “Maybe four or five of the group will be answering all the questions,” he said. “They want to know 10 times more than we’re giving them.”

That thirst for science knowledge could serve them well, since they are growing up in the shadow of UC Merced, the first 21st-century research institution. A little more than half of the students on campus have a major that fits into the science, technology, engineering or math fields, according to the university’s last census.

Three of the campus’s top five most popular majors fit in those fields as well: biology, computer science engineering and chemistry. The other two popular majors are psychology and management. There are also about 100 clubs or groups related to science and math on campus.

The science and math majors are so important to the school that last year it opened the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) center to offer tutoring for higher level math, engineering and science courses.

April Morin, the program coordinator at the McCombs Center, said science learning has been a part of what children do at the center for several years. But the UC Merced students bring a greater knowledge and are able to perform more extensive demonstrations. “It’s pretty special,” she said.

This week, about two dozen children filled the room to discuss skeletal, cardiac and smooth muscle tissue. Hands around the room repeatedly shot up when the youngsters were asked about what they’d learned this week or during previous lessons.

James Jacklitsch, 8, was called on several times, including his explanation that chloroplast uses energy from the sun to make sugar.

James just may have caught that spark during the weekly science lessons. “I like to learn new things,” he said. “I want to be one of those bug scientists, or one of those scientists that learns about cells.”

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