TOPS brings science to kids

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By CLAIRE ST. JOHN

Picture your stereotypical scientist: white lab coat, pale, scrubbed skin reflecting unnatural light in an underground laboratory, measuring and mixing and holding the results in front of slightly mad eyes.

Probably the type of guy who wouldn't deal well with a classroom of third-graders, right?

Now forget all that. The scientists who volunteer in the Teaching Opportunities for Partners in Science program can work a classroom into a froth of scientific interest without breaking a sweat.

The program has been bringing science into elementary classrooms for 11 years, ever since Judi Wilson of the San Joaquin County Office of Education started talking to scientists about how great it would be to get them in the classrooms to boost curriculum.

Soon enough, it happened, with a grant sponsored by Columbia College, office space and support at the San Joaquin County office and retired scientists such as Don Elder, a former aeronautical engineer who retired from Ford Aerospace.

Elder still teaches science to elementary students, and instead of a lab coat, lately he has been dressing as a Wright brother in commemoration of their historic first flight.

"The kids just glommed onto that information," said Sonora Elementary School School third-grade teacher Mary Gjerde. "They were really excited."

The program covers Tuolumne, Calaveras, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced and Alameda counties, but Tuolumne and Calaveras are looking for more volunteers.

"We would certainly like to get more (retired scientists) involved," said Phil Reiss, retired chemical engineer for Shell Oil Company.

Reiss teaches third-grade classes at Sonora Elementary one day a month and debases the stereotypical scientist myth.

Dressed casually, he moves from group of kids to group of kids, teaching them the difference between weight and mass which admit it almost everyone could use some brushing up on.

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The Union Democrat
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