President Barack Obama is touting the importance of science in the classroom and is on a mission to show how “cool” science can be. Students must be proficient in math and the related sciences in an ever-changing world in which the technology of today will be obsolete tomorrow.  And most educators will agree that the task is in making it fun enough so that a career in science is something possible and obtainable.

Making it “cool” has become the mandate of the Oakland Unified School District.

On Wednesday, the Oakland Zoo was invaded by fourth and fifth grade students from 50 district elementary schools for a special dinner. They were accompanied by their science teachers, supportive parents and scientists from a variety of fields ranging from marine biology, paleontology and chemical engineering.

As with last year, the 2010 dinner allowed gifted students an opportunity to get up close and personal with “real science” through demonstrations and artifacts at each table and have lively discussions with the scientist on the work they do in their chosen fields. The scientists roved from table to table in 30-minute conversations with small groups of students, presenting some outstanding hands-on demonstrations. The room was small and filled to capacity as everyone dined on “Herbivore’s and Carnivore’s Lasagna” along with grilled poultry with fungus and roots  No one seemed to mind the late afternoon heat as they were refreshed with bottles of Extract of Newton’s Favorite Fruit.   

Students from Horace Mann Elementary sat in rapt attention as scientist Jenna Judge, a first-year grad student at the University of California, Berkeley, passed around fossils that are thousands of years old and were found in northern California. She said that when she was in elementary school, her favorite subjects were science and that she became interested in marine biology while in high school. Her current field of research is in how the environment has changed earth’s history and how it affects animals now and in the future.
When scientist Jennifer Kerekes pulled out a box of fungus (mushrooms) the rapt attention quickly turned into “ah!” and an occasional “yuk!” as she demonstrated how the DNA of mushrooms is extracted by combining a few chemicals to make what looked like slimy goop at the bottom of a test tube. Currently working on her Ph.D. in microbiology, also at UC Berkeley, her focus is on ecology and bio-diversity.

A hilarious demonstration on teaching a computer how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich topped off the activities at one table. Students took turns and tried desperately to teach a computer to do the task without using their hands or anything other than words. It was a messy venture, but the computer – played by scientist Tony Mullen, a structural engineer with CalTrans – was eventually able to complete the assignment much to the delight of the computer programmers (the students). Mullen went on to say that this demonstration was on the importance of detail in designing the bridges that millions of people in cars and trucks cross every day. 

When asked what his interest in science was, fifth-grader Ayo Mattox-Wilson gleefully explained that he was interested in building things.

Every scientist present was able demonstrate how science is important in everyday life and each student came away from the event with an interest that could very well be in an area that is new and different from anything they may have previously thought.
Caleb Cheung, science manager with OUSD, was the lead coordinator and host for the evening. Sponsors for this event included Bechtel Foundation, Chevron Corporation and the Oakland Zoo. 

Dr. Joel Parrott, executive Director for the Oakland Zoo, summed up the evening best.

“Among us are current and future leaders of the scientific community,” he said. “Also among us are the tireless, extraordinary mentors, the ones that have brought all of us to where we are now – teachers. We hope that this evening will help to fuel new ideas for learning and bring about career opportunities that many youth have never explored or thought about.”