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Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Lectures and lessons come to life on Alachua County Science Bus

The bus, sponsored by the Cultural Arts Coalition, will house hands-on science exhibits for students

<p>The idea of the Science Bus originated in Tucson, Arizona, when Chris DiScenza founded the Physics Factory with a group of three other teachers. It is a refurbished school bus housing interactive physics exhibits. </p><p></p>

The idea of the Science Bus originated in Tucson, Arizona, when Chris DiScenza founded the Physics Factory with a group of three other teachers. It is a refurbished school bus housing interactive physics exhibits.

Most school buses transport students, but this one transports science.

The Cultural Arts Coalition (CAC) is sponsoring a Science Bus to aid in science education for underprivileged elementary students. The bus will house mini science exhibits and visit several schools, community centers, libraries and other public areas across Alachua County.

The Science Bus will make its first public appearance Saturday at 4th Ave Food Park's Opus Coffee located at 409 SW 4th Ave. Capacity on the bus will be limited to smaller parties, and hand sanitizer will be available at every exhibit in accordance with COVID-19 precautions. Attendees can visit the bus from noon to 3 p.m.

Though the first iteration in Gainesville, the Science Bus is not the first of its kind. The idea for this exhibit-on-wheels originated in Tucson, Arizona, when Chris DiScenza, a 43-year-old teacher with the Upward Bound program in Bradford County, founded the Physics Factory with a group of three other teachers.

The program sought to provide fun, engaging physics education to young students across Arizona, and it grew to include mentorship, resources for science teachers and other outreach opportunities. But at the center of it all was the Physics Bus — a refurbished school bus housing interactive physics exhibits.

When DiScenza relocated to UF to earn his doctorate degree in coastal engineering, he brought the idea for the bus with him. In 2014, DiScanza received a grant from the American Physical Society to run a Physics Bus of his own, but the vehicle eventually went out of commission in 2016.

“That bus got to be too old and mechanically just needed to be laid to rest,” DiScenza said.

An additional grant was subsequently awarded to the CAC, this time for a bus encompassing all areas of science. After the installation of shelves to showcase the exhibits and a courtesy makeover by a group of Alachua County art teachers, this new bus is ready to make its first stop in Gainesville Saturday.

Biology, chemistry, physics and more — the Science Bus will host exhibits showcasing a wide variety of scientific disciplines. DiScenza said the experiments, made mostly using materials from the Repurpose Project, are meant to introduce science in an entertaining manner, encouraging direct participation and a hands-on experience. 

Highlights include an old TV connected to a microphone that projects the soundwaves of the speaker; a collection of butterflies that can be viewed in full detail under a magnifying glass; and a cornstarch and water combination that “comes alive” with the commanding hum of a bass-focused speaker.

“The idea of a lot of these exhibits is just to spark their curiosity and imagination,” DiScenza said.

The Science Bus is part of the CAC’s larger initiative to make science education more accessible to students in Alachua County, especially those in East Gainesville. For the past nine years, the CAC has sponsored science clubs across the county with the help of local educators, student organizations and community members with science knowledge and activities to share.

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NKwanda Jah, the executive director of the CAC, said the idea for the clubs originated when she noticed the test scores of students in East Gainesville were significantly lower than those in West Gainesville. The clubs, she said, were conceived as a way to expose elementary students to science in a non-intimidating manner and through hands-on exhibits and activities. 

Jah and her volunteers have taken students to state parks, the ocean and other natural areas to connect students with science they see every day. Instead of a lecture or lesson, Jah said these clubs emphasize involvement with activities that keep students engaged. 

“The kids have been told to sit down and be quiet all day in the classroom,” Jah said. “When they get to science club, they get to get up and move around and touch and see how things work.” 

Jah added that the institution of these clubs has helped students improve in their classes. In the schools where the CAC has sponsored a science club, teachers reported that students who belonged to the club scored higher on their science tests than students who didn’t.

It worked so well, Jah said, that the schools asked the CAC to host activities during school hours as well. That way, every student could reap the benefits of extra science education, not just those attending the after-school sessions. 

The Science Bus will enhance the hands-on experience, offering students the opportunity to enjoy science without the pressures of memorizing terminology or cramming for a test. Jah said this emphasis on enjoyment is meant to combat the disdain many students have for school later in life, which she attributed to the overly complicated nature of science education. 

When students are intimidated by science early on, Jah said, they’re deprived of the foundation that will carry them through the rest of their academic careers. The Science Bus, introducing these ideas in a more palatable manner, aims to make science accessible to all — something Jah said is vital to not only a student’s educational experience but the human experience as well.

“We should all be learning and loving science. Science is about life.”

Contact Heather Bushman at hbushman@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @hgrizzl.

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