Turnin’ Vermin into Learnin’

Education Workshop
Turnin’ Vermin into Learnin’

Make Your Own Gopher Here’s a fun new take on 3D visualization and design: Make Your Own Gopher!

Months ago, my colleagues and I were brainstorming the curricular connections we could make between making and high school coursework. Anatomy could be a rich area of overlap: students could laser cut slices of skulls and print mini skeleton models to have the kids explore skeletal structures, for example.

Dan Sudran, the executive director of Mission Science Workshop, was way ahead of us. I discovered this when he pulled out a bin of carefully sorted, actual gopher bones for construction and re-construction. Pelvises, front, legs, back legs, tails, skulls: each had its own cup full of tiny gopher parts, 60 sets in all. Dan and his teaching colleagues at this and other Community Science Workshop sites use these to get students to “make your own gopher”.

Dan, the founder, created this making activity with few resources. Gardener friends who trap gophers gave him the carcasses, and he just puts them outside to be cleaned off by Mother Nature over weeks and months. Then he sorted them and turned  those hapless gophers into a fun biology lesson.

Dan did the same thing with a 30-foot juvenile gray whale skeleton that washed up on a central Californian beach near Pescadero. He throws those 150 bones or so into the back of his truck, drives them to different schools, and  stages a “Whale Week” during which every class in the school gets a chance to puzzle the skeleton together. They discover the vestigial remnants of the whale’s pelvis, grown puny over millions of years of evolution.

fossilI visited Dan in his organization’s new Excelsior location of the community science workshop while on tour with my Young Makers colleagues yesterday as we visited other inspiring locations like Brightworks and Noisebridge. As I was coming in, Dan and his colleague Emilyn were moving a large, heavy chunk of fossilized sea floor (pictured left) that Dan had found on BLM land in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He spends his vacations looking for more objects that can spur more kinds of learning in his kids.

bubblesExcelsior Science Workshop is opening tonight from 6-8 pm at 35 San Juan Avenue in San Francisco (near the corner of Mission Street & Ocean Avenue.) Tonight, stations will be set up (including some exhibits that look just like ones we’ve seen at the Exploratorium, like the ever popular bubble table, right.) Come tinker, create and explore. Excelsior Science Workshop will request donations on a sliding-scale of $10-20 to help develop future science education programming.

Oscilloscopes: Lone screensExcelsior Science Workshop is a makerspace. It has tools and wood and lots of junk to hack and tinker. It was such a lively space, I didn’t notice until the end of our visit that there wasn’t a single computer in the whole room, and the only screens were that of the two oscilloscopes on the electronics bench. I was also impressed that they require no parental involvement, not even a permission slip, to come and use the space.

The vision behind Mission Science Workshop, Excelsior Science Workshop, and the growing network of community science workshops is to lower the barriers between kids and science as much as possible. What if kid-friendly, hands-on, science-rich workshop spaces were as ubiquitous as public libraries? What if kids could walk in anytime they wanted to work at a drill press, examine a specimen at the microscope table, or tinker with electronics? What if a mini science museum lived right around corner from where they went to school, and they could visit every day without hopping on a bus or a subway for an hour (and then be turned away at the doors of a beloved museum because they came without mom and dad?) Dan, Sol, and Emilyn are making this happen in sites across California.

Dan started Mission Science Workshop in 1991 in his garage to bring a hands-on laboratory / science museum experience  into his own neighborhood, the Mission District of San Francisco, which then, back before a few rounds of tech gentrification, was much more full of low-income and historically underserved youth. Dan’s original workshop moved to the former auto shop of Mission High School, where it still serves kids as young as kindergarten. The new Excelsior location will be run by an alum of the MSW program, Sol McKinney, who we saw teaching a class  to a roomful of engaged and excited second graders as we arrived.

Dan told me he wants to encourage people “to do their own thing, not by doing big initiatives, but just in cubbyholes here and there.” Mission Science Workshop has succeeded not because they knew where they were going as they began. “There’s no road,”  Dan emphasized. He’s learning by doing, just as the kids who come to his space are learning every day alongside him. “The learning is in the fussing.”

Here’s a great article about the new space tacked to their bulletin board, in both English and Spanish.


And please go drop in on them tonight, Wednesday, March 13 if you are in the neighborhood, and/or any day in their bright, gopher-bone-ful future!
Excelsior Science Workshop
35 San Juan Ave, San Francisco, 94112

Two last projects we loved during our visit to Excelsior Science Workshop yesterday:

exhibitsA 20-foot wave demo (right), built with duct tape, dowels, and balls, also prototyped, we are told, with skewers and gummies.

A playground telephone (below) built of two red and two blue funnels and about 80 feet of reclaimed irrigation tubing, and duct tape around the necks of the funnels. I’ve been wanting to add these to my kids’ play set for years! This is such a simple, clever design.


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Michelle, or Binka, makes . While at Maker Media, she oversaw publications, outreach, and programming for kids, families, and schools. Before joining Maker Media in 2007, she worked at the Exploratorium, in Mitchel Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, and as a curriculum designer for various publishers and educational researchers. When she’s not supporting future makers, including her two young sons, Binka does some making of her own, most often as a visual artist.

View more articles by Michelle "Binka" Hlubinka


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