The City: Our School Science Laboratory

I teach high school in a self-contained San Francisco classroom for youthful members of a residential treatment program for substance abuse and mental health. I can have about 15 – 20 students whose mathematics, reading, and writing abilities range from 7th grade to 11th grade. I don’t have a science laboratory on the school site but I do have access to a modern computer lab. Because the class is self-contained, I can schedule my courses every nine weeks and use block periods to teach three subjects per school quarter. The most difficult subject was science because without a laboratory it became difficult to make it come alive and interesting. But one day as I was hiking around the San Francisco Presidio, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, I used my digital camera to photograph trees, plants, the ocean, sea lions, squirrels, bugs, birds, sand dunes and plants.

I downloaded the pictures to my computer and created a PowerPoint of my hiking day to share with my students. This inspired my students, and one raised his hand and asked, “Why can’t we go on a hike and take pictures of nature?†Another student agreed, adding “We can get credit for science!†Then Robert, normally a very quiet student, told the class about the pollution in his neighborhood from a power plantâ€. We continued to share with one another ideas on developing a hands-on science project using the Bay Area as our laboratory.

That night I researched what other small schools were doing for science class, especially small alternative schools in New York City. I came across a small school for at-risk youth called Urban Academy and the Julia Richmond Education Complex. As I researched and reflected on science projects and my own education it became apparent to me that what I remembered the most about high school were the experiments and field trips. So I developed a motto for my classes that was “Less means more†meaning that the more specialized and in depth we study and research the more we retain in our long-term memory.

I spent the next few weeks developing a nine-week unit on specific science topics. I developed a course on plants that would require that students to read the textbook chapters and supplemental material. Then I created different groups assigned to a specific plant project that entails photographing the plants, researching and identifying the plants and creating a PowerPoint presentation. For example, some students identified native plants, native trees, exotic plants, exotic trees, vascular plants and non vascular plants all within our City. After, the group would gather the information and present to the classroom we would all go on a field trip to the area where the information was gathered and be assessed on our knowledge of plants.

As a result of our science projects we were able to create PowerPoint presentations to share with other teachers in the San Francisco County Schools.

Email:David Olivares

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