UC Merced

Science, technology focus of Merced County schools

Chandra Bergmann, 22, a molecular biology student at UC Merced, shows the different parts of a pig’s heart to Merced County elementary school students on Friday at UC Merced. Students from around the county took part in a day about science, technology, engineering and math.
Chandra Bergmann, 22, a molecular biology student at UC Merced, shows the different parts of a pig’s heart to Merced County elementary school students on Friday at UC Merced. Students from around the county took part in a day about science, technology, engineering and math. tmiller@mercedsunstar.com

A science, technology, engineering and math event brought more than 300 local children to UC Merced, where they dissected pig hearts, played video games with bananas as remotes and discussed hydraulics.

The four areas of study, often referred to as “STEM,” are increasingly the focus in Merced County classrooms as teachers are working to prepare children for technology jobs and for the types of jobs that haven’t yet been invented.

The time on Friday at UC Merced was a collaboration of a couple of acronyms, SWEET and BEAT. That’s Students Who Experience Engineering and Technology, a summer academy designed by the Merced County Office of Education; and Biology Engineering Agriculture Technology, a nonprofit founded by UC Merced alumni.

José Gonzalez, superintendent of Planada Elementary School District, brought about 60 fifth- through eighth-graders from his district. Some got in as close as they could as a UC Merced student sliced and prodded a pig heart, while others kept their distance as they tried not to get queasy.

315Number of children who participated in STEM event at UC Merced

Gonzalez noted that Planada tends to be a community of blue-collar workers. Exposing those children to science and technology, he said, is important to widening their horizons. “We need to do our due diligence to provide opportunities to our kids,” he said.

Jeanne Knapp, who coordinated SWEET, said the summer academy looks to teach students the scientific method. The students come up with theories, test them and review them, which falls in line with the state’s Common Core curriculum.

Students are learning to assess problems with creativity, she said, rather than just answer multiple-choice questions.

“These are the skills these students will need in the decades to come,” she said. “That’s where the job market’s going to lead.”

The county has contracted with nonprofit BEAT, which set up the experiments and displays to spark the interest of the children.

“I’m hoping the kids will get a new appreciation of science,” said BEAT co-founder Michael Urner. “It’ll be a little different than what they’re used to in their textbooks.”

Schools in the area continue to ramp up that sort of hands-on learning with a science and technology focus. Summer school in Merced, which features reading and writing segments, saves the largest part of the day to study science.

Planada and Le Grand schools have also started programs to ready students for medical careers.

To support the relatively new style of learning, teachers have also become students again to learn to be better engineering instructors.

All last week, third- through eighth-grade teachers studied with UC Merced and Merced College professors so they can lay the groundwork for the children in their classrooms. A state Department of Education grant of $1.8 million will pay for the three-year program.

Future training will partner the teachers with instructors from the Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Thaddeus Miller: 209-385-2453, @thaddeusmiller

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