October 5, 2001

Elementary Institute of Science Finds Creative Ways to Spark Life-Long Pursuit of Science

An overall lack of study in the scientific fields by today's students has raised cause for concern for the future of technology-driven America. According to statistics from the National Science Foundation, the United States scores 17th in international tests of science and math at eighth grade levels. American students rank lower than the international average in general science and math assessments. The U.S. comes in last and second to last in physics and advanced mathematics scores. And in science performance, African American and Hispanic students consistently score lower than their Caucasian peers. In general, this trend leads to a significant under-representation in our country's workforce.

However, one local group is bridging this gap. From observing the chemical reactions that create black-and-white photos and baking apple crisp in solar ovens to exploring the intestines of a dissected frog, the Elementary Institute of Science (EIS) has discovered a successful formula for getting kids interested in science for life.

San Diego's popular after-school and summer science enrichment program has become a national model for sparking the creative juices of young minds, earning top recognition for science instruction. It has been recognized as one of just two programs in the U.S. and five worldwide taking the lead in developing hands-on science laboratory experiences for children. Its success has also been recognized by the late Dr. Jonas Salk, nobel laureate Dr. Renato Dulbecco, and Dr. John Slaughter, past director of the National Science Foundation.

For the last 37 years, EIS hosted a hands-on, science based program that challenges students for future careers as tomorrow's scientists and technology trailblazers. More than 4,000 children from over 80 San Diego-area public and private schools have gone through the high-content, low-cost program since its inception in 1964. Many have gone on to college and majored in science-related subjects at major universities including MIT and Harvard.

One EIS program targets students ages 7 to 13 and includes such subjects as computer science, biology, chemistry, natural and physical sciences, engineering and electronics, photography, oceanography and astronomy. The University Club, for students 14 to 17 and their parents, offers a look at opportunities for higher education and careers in science and technology. EIS also offers 16 to 18 year-olds opportunities to pursue eight-week, science and technology internships with the Salk Institute, The Scripps Research Institute, the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, and other local research institutions and museums.

EIS founder, elementary school teacher Tom Watts, initiated the program because of his concern about the pursuit of science education. Knowing San Diego has a rich and diverse science community, he felt science education was unconnected to classroom learning. Shrinking budgets and increased class sizes do little to connect classroom instruction to real world applications.

Partnering with local colleges and universities, scientific institutions and businesses, Watts sought to establish a premier science enrichment program that nurtured the intellectual curiosity of school children, provided hands-on experiences, and stimulated an appreciation and understanding of science and technology. Also, it had to be fund and accessible.

The result of Watts' vision is a program that has captured the attention of neighborhood strengthening organizations like the Jacobs Center for Non-Profit Innovation (JCNI). HCNI has partnered with EIS for the past six years. The relationship began with a strategic planning grant from the Jacobs Family Foundation to help EIS find a way to move from their former home in a 2,400-square-foot house to a new facility. Now the Jacobs Center's support of their mission has grown to include a challenge grant, as well as technical assistance in the areas of marketing, management, and more.

Overcrowded with waiting lists for the past several years, EIS is working to open its doors to more children. It is in the final stages of a $6 million capita campaign to fund the construction of a new, 15,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility. The campaign was led by the EIS Youth Board, which successfully raised $220,000 through a series of strategic fundraising efforts. They sought challenge grants to match the dollars they were raising. The Jacobs Family Foundation also supported the effort early on by pledging a $1 million challenge to kicked off the campaign.

Slated to open in the summer of 2002, the new facility will contain nine science labs and classrooms, a library, coral reef and freshwater aquariums, an outdoor amphitheater, a garden, a play field and lecture hall. Enrollment in this new building will reach 600 to 750 students.

With a design that was devised with the assistance of EIS's students, the interior will be organized around subject clusters, or suites, that encourage sharing and participation, and place all of the program's resources within the students' reach.

One of those students is Dylan Solomon, who came to EIS as a fourth grader with a desire to pursue football, not science.

"When I was young, I wasn't interested in science at all. But EIS changed that. The teacher at EIS are responsible for where I am today," he said. "Because of what I've learned at EIS, I want to pursue a career in engineering. I hope EIS can reach more kids like me."

Today, he is a student at Stanford University studying electrical engineering. His younger sister, Maya, joined the program in second grade. Both Dylan and Maya served on the EIS Youth Board, a group of current students and alumni who help guide the program development of EIS. Maya, a sophomore in high school, is considering a career in medicine. However, she is already blazing new trails as the newest elected member of the EIS board of directors.

"EIS has given my kids so much," said Inez Kuba, Dylan and Maya's mother.

An investment in EIS is an investment in the future -for the student, for the Institute, for the San Diego community, for businesses and corporations who require bright young minds to develop and introduce new products and technologies that make our lives more meaningful.

Doris Anderson, executive director, said, "EIS is not about testing, grading, scoring or ranking. Instead, it's about encouraging stimulating, nurturing and demanding the best. It's all about putting into kids' hands the tools of success."

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