Saturday, October 11, 2014

Science: Alive and Well in the Great Valley, Against the Odds

No, no enthusiasm here for science. None at all.
We are close to or on the bottom of every list there is: worst place to live, most polluted air, highest crime rate, highest unemployment. To listen to the people who write the articles, living in California's Great Valley is just one step away from living in hell itself. Maybe. It sure makes life tough on those of us who labor to make things better here: who is going to want to make a career in such a hopeless place? But to those who take delight in denigrating our home from their lofty perches of punditry, I have many choice words, none of which I choose to use here, except for this: I am proud of my community, and the people who live here. Fiercely proud.
Mrs. Geotripper hard at work teaching mineral properties.
The people of Modesto and Stanislaus County made a choice a few years ago just before we were hit with the depression in 2008: they passed a local bond issue to make their community college a place to be proud of, and in no way was this more evident than our science facility. The old building dated to the 1950s, and so did most of the equipment that filled it. Instead, they voted to construct the Science Community Center, which I strongly suspect is the finest teaching facility of its kind in California. We have state of the art laboratories and classrooms, study areas for collaborative learning, a state of the art observatory and planetarium, and...the Great Valley Museum. The GVM will be the go-to place to learn about the natural history of our nowadays very unnatural valley. The history is rich and complicated, and the valley, as changed as it is, is still a critical part of the west coast ecosystem, especially when the subject is migratory birds, salmon, or geology.
Choosing fossil samples and obsidian tears, next to the fluorescent minerals display.
We held one of the biggest fundraising events of the year for the soon-to-open museum today. It was called Wild Planet Day, and the experience reinforced what I already knew. Our community wants and demands good science education. They were willing to come out by the hundreds to experience science, and not the "learning" kind, but the interactive kind. Numerous volunteers held events in chemistry, physics, biology and the earth sciences, and the kids just ate it up! It was so busy I never had a chance to wander about, so all the pictures today were in the geology laboratory where we had displays and activities in mineral properties, paleontology, and stream erosion. 
Having a very close look at California sand.
Bureaucrats and profit-seekers are destroying science education in our society. Every kid is naturally interested in science, but we are killing their enthusiasm with a non-ending series of directives demanding adherence to regulations and curriculum guidelines that do not actually lead to true learning. How can the assessment scores of students in our society be so low when their inherent enthusiasm is so incredible?
The rich paleontological heritage of our valley that almost no one knows about.
How can science education thrive when students have to work through so many bullet points of assessment goals that they never learn that the first dinosaur ever found in California was found in their county by a boy aged seventeen? That the Hadrosaur that he found was a thirty foot long behemoth? Or that a few years later the same young man found a new species of Mosasaur, a 35 foot long swimming Komodo Dragon relative that was the terror of the Cretaceous seas? Or that only 13,000 years ago, our valley was inhabited by Sabertooth Cats, Short-faced Bears, Wooly Mammoths, Giant Ground Sloths along with horses and camels? If one wants to inspire students, let them know the rich and wonderful heritage of the land they live in.
Checking the radioactivity of uranium-bearing minerals.
Science is wild and wonderful! It is a catalyst to learning of all kinds, and such education needs to be encouraged and nurtured. The Great Valley Museum is going to be a wonderful facility to help us meet that goal. In the meantime, we do all we can to inspire the people who live in the truly Great Valley.
Modeling rivers on a stream table.

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