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Inspiring Science With Frozen Roadkill and Harvested Whale Bones

Spencer Michels interviewed Dan Sudran from San Francisco’s Mission Science Workshop, who uses unlikely objects in an unlikely place to inspire kids about science.

When San Francisco’s newly constructed Exploratorium opened this spring on a pier sticking out into San Francisco Bay, it received plenty of plaudits from the press and others. The hands-on science and technology center had originally opened in 1969 and had become a favorite of generations of children and their parents.

It was envisioned and created by Frank Oppenheimer, brother of atomic bomb developer J. Robert Oppenheimer, and its goal was to inspire and excite young people about science, to supplement school science courses, and amuse as well as educate. It was one of the very early science and technology centers in the nation, and it has been influential in hundreds of cities that have tried to emulate the formula. It became the place to go for visitors to the Bay Area, as well as for local children and their parents and teachers with their classes. It grew in attendance and exhibits, and finally exceeded the capacity at its home in the Palace of Fine Arts.

In building the new Exploratorium, the non-profit executives pulled out all the stops. They launched a $300 million capital fund. They designed a flashy, ultra-modern building on the pier, with solar panels and all manner of eye-catching and practical exhibits in the new space. They wooed donors and visitors, news crews and politicians, corporate executives and civic leaders. The Exploratorium is a formidable organization with a $50 million annual budget and a top-notch reputation. In these days of need for more and better American scientists, the institution has a major role to play.

But across town, in the heart of the working-class Mission District, the Exploratorium has a cousin. It’s a down and dirty garage, actually a former high school auto shop, where school kids are invited to take in the science.

Dan Sudran, a former labor organizer for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers and a former attorney, has set up what he calls the Mission Science Workshop. He’s got all manner of science on display: road-kill animals in a freezer; bones he harvested from a whale on the beach; skeletons of birds found in the woods; rocks from volcano country, scientific games from India and a thousand other items that can’t help but appeal to fourth graders and above from nearby schools.

Sudran appreciates the Exploratorium, which actually helps support him. But his approach is much less corporate, much more disorganized, at least at first glance. Still, it’s effective and it’s appealing. I talked with him in the course of preparing a story about the Exploratorium and the Mission Science Workshop for the PBS NewsHour and for KQED Television in San Francisco. You can see the interview in the video above.

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