Image below: Fourth- and fifth-grade advanced learners participate in the Curved Blackboard Project after school.
"Why is the night sky dark?” Such is one of the many simple questions a child might ask that can lead to much deeper scientific inquiry. It’s also the prompt used by the Curved Blackboard — an after-school STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) initiative of Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) that mentors a diverse group of advanced learners — and it has engaged such MCB faculty as Neurobiology Division Head Marla Feller and developmental biologist and Department Co-Chair Nipam Patel.
“One of our goals is to have children interact directly with Cal scientists,” says Asha Harikrishnan, the program’s science coordinator. For the past two spring semesters, Feller and Patel have brought their particular scientific expertise to Berkeley classrooms. The first year, Feller spoke about vision and how humans and other animals use photoreceptors in their eyes to see the world. Patel used butterflies to talk about light and color — how some have evolved to use iridescent structural color instead of pigment color. In the second year, the focus was on dynamic motion and rhythms. Patel discussed how the length of the day informs animals and plants about seasons, while Feller spoke about circadian rhythms and the body’s clocks.
“The name ‘Curved Blackboard’ is an homage to Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity,” explains the program’s founder, Laura Gabriela-Duke. “He gave us the understanding that the farther we look into space, the further we look into time. General relativity has fundamentally changed our understanding of the universe.” Program developer Rachel Hurwitz has been instrumental in launching this as part of a program for BUSD’s advanced learners. So far about 75 children have participated from fourth- and fifth-grades, and the program will expand to middle schools next year.
“We're deeply committed to modern science's empirical basis, so we ask students to participate directly in experiments, even in difficult topics that some would consider beyond their reach,” says co-designer Kevin Cain. “Emerging tools from the open-source world allow us to frame complex topics in a way that invites young students to claim them as their own.”
There are benefits for the participating scientists, as well. “Initially I was worried that I would get no questions or interactions from the students, but they kept interrupting and taking the subject in new directions,” says Patel. “They were advanced learners with a fierce natural curiosity.”
Adds Feller, “In the end, we’re all just trying to understand the world around us.”
The Curved Blackboard Project is eager to expand its collaboration with UC Berkeley in identifying guest speakers and teachers among faculty, postdocs, and graduate students.
In addition, it’s looking for help with developing projects that use virtual reality. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or watch this vimeo video online.
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