+ San Francisco Kids Learn Old-School Science

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In a former high school auto shop on Church Street in San Francisco, Dan Sudran, 64, runs the Mission Science Workshop.

It’s become a national model and has spawned a dozen more in California, from Oakland to Los Angeles, with a half dozen other states.

They are known as Community Service Workshops.  They serve as a counterweight to the textbook-and-test approach to science prominent in the era of No Child Left Behind.

His do-it-yourself science laboratory is for him what a wizard’s lair is to a  sorcerer.  Look around at complete animal skeletons, hanging from the ceiling: a cow found in Salinas Valley, an ostrich acquired by way of a local butcher, a dolphin donated by a guy in Bolinas.

You can also see a mummified cat that a janitor found at a middle school — it’s fangs still agape in terror.  There’s a pelican in dramatic rigor mortis.  Poke around in bones, flippers, femurs, hooves, teeth and beaks, arranged in evolutionary order on a table — all courtesy of sundry bears, pigs, sea lions, armadillos and a human being or two.

But you’ll see living creatures as well.  Corn snakes and bald pythons slither in aquariums, and Maurice the skink has his own tank.

Kids in the Mission workshop find flywheels, oscilloscopes, microscopes, homemade radios, musical instruments and just about everything a science wizard would find useful.  

All old-school; no computers.

There’s an “Earth-science wing”  in a corner, with 5-million-year-old fossils of marine creatures.  These he gets from a seaside rancher (who wants the location of his rich fossil farm kept secret).

In the optical section, kids make colored shadows.  They experiment with light.  Sudran admits copying from a better-known cousin across town, the Exploratorium, which was an early supporter.

Like a magician willing to reveal secrets, Sudran loves to demystify mysteries about the world we live in.

He asks a visitor —  did you know that the teeth of a little mole are more like a person’s than a rodent’s?  Then he holds out a furry mole that’s been kept in the freezer since it died two weeks earlier.

Using tweezers, Sudran lifts the mole’s tiny, chilly lip to reveal — yes — molars.  (Rodents, by contrast, have two-pronged incisors.)


Sudran’s message to kids is that science is observation without prejudice.  You don’t have to be Einstein; just be as curious as Einstein.

Watch as a yellow balloon expands inside a narrow glass dome.

Ten-year-old Hannah covers her ears waiting for the loud burst.  She stares on the growing orb, as a machine sucks all the air from the dome.

Suddenly, the balloon shatters into yellow pieces — silently!  Like an explosion on TV with the sound turned off.    But this isn’t on TV — it’s right here on the table and it’s supposed to go POP!

“What happened?” she asks.

Those are magic words to Dan Sudran. 

The exploding balloon experiment is part of a lesson called “The Ocean of Air.”  The point is to show how air is like water in some ways.

Before the yellow balloon experiment,  Sudran filled a cylinder (with a hole near the bottom, middle and top wall) with water.  Students watched and saw how water leaks out of the holes.

Aminta Guevara, 11, drew what she thought she saw — the longest arc of water came from the top-most hole.

But that’s not what actually happened.  Says Sudran, “Observation is an art — the most important thing in science.  Let’s do it again.”

This time, students see that the longest arc of water comes from the bottom hole.  Water pressure is greatest at the bottom of the sea — and at the bottom of a cylinder.

To connect this idea to air:  now Sudran does the yellow balloon experiment.  He sets it up: takes a yellow balloon, a glass bell jar, an air-suction machine and a straw.

As the machine suctions the air from the jar, the balloon expands.  The straw provides an excape valve for air so the expanding balloon will not trap air in the top half of the jar and prevent that air from being suctioned out.

So. Why is there no POP?  It exploded, didn’t it?

Air pressure, like water pressure, is also greater at lower depths, says Sudran to the students.  That’s why sounds can be heard here on Earth.  But go higher — say to the moon — and the near-absence of pressure makes things quiet indeed.

The balloon experiment shows what happens without air.


Sudran is a homemade wonder, just like his workshop.

As Sudran was growing up in 1950s Kansas City Missouri, he cared little for science.  He earned a degree in history and got a law degree, although he never passed the bar.

From Texas to Idaho, he worked giving legal help to farmworkers, he organized for Cesar Chavez.  He also taught Spanish and guitar lessons.

In this way he learned methods that would later prove so useful in motivating students — and also motivating adults to support his ideas.

“Around 1979, I got this idea that it would be really cool to know how to fix things, like I never knew how to do growing up,” says Sudran. 

How did Sudran, with so little formal science training, get started on this project?   In 1990, he grew bored with his job as an electronics technician at City College.  He grew interested in the physics behind the things he was fixing.  How did electrons escape from atoms anyway?

He took a summer course at San Francisco State University and began to read prodigiously.  He started tinkering in his garage in the city’s mostly Latino Mission district.  He’d leave his door open and kids wandered in.

Says Sudran, “I guess they knew I spoke Spanish and stuff, and they wanted to see what I was doing.”

Sometimes he’d show them an oscilloscope, which lets you see an image of invisible signals — like the sound of your own voice.  He’d show them his collection of roadkill and animal bones — the perfect portal into the world of biology, he feels, because bones don’t rot or stink.

Says Sudran,

“I used to think all kids wanted to do was ride their bikes and set off firecrackers.  But they got so interested that they’d stop me when I’d be walking home.  They’d be waiting for me, and they’d want to look at a rock under the microscope.  They were surprised, like, ‘Gee, granite is made up of beautiful crystals.’ “


The workshop began 17 years ago in a couple of City College classrooms.

In 1991, Chancellor Evan Dobelle let him use classrooms to offer science workshops to local children.  It was a huge hit with students — and with teachers as well.

Paul Fonteyne, vice chancellor of San Francisco State University, was excited about the classes as well.  He applied for a pair of $3 million grants from the National Science Foundation to expand Sudran’s concept.  The first, in 1995, created similar workshops around the state.  The second, in 2000, took them national.

Since science begins with curiosity, Sudran asks these visiting students to write down the things they wonder about.  Here is a sampling of their questions:

  • How can the plug get electricity from the plug hole?
  • I wonder about where the toilet water, pee, and poo go.
  • I wonder how a bullet is strong enough to kill someone.
  • Why are we going to die?
  • I wonder how cell phones could communicate with other cell phones by having an antenna.
  • I wonder how airplanes don’t fall on the ground even though there is still gravity.
  • Who was the first person alive?
  • I wonder why girls and boys act different.
  • How do you make an ipod?
  • Who made up words?

Go for it!

To learn more about the Mission Science Workshop, go to: www.sfgate.com/ZFSN.  To learn more about Community Science Workshops, go to www.sfgate.com/ZFSO.

sole source: Nanette Asimov’s article in the San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate.com on 12/27/08.  www.sfgate.com

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com


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