Volunteers needed to bring hands-on science to Tracy classrooms
by Glenn Moore
Apr 12, 2014 | 6155 views | 2 2 comments | 26 26 recommendations | email to a friend | print
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to teach science to children. You could be an engineer, a physicist or even a doctor.

The San Joaquin County Office of Education wants volunteers to join Teaching Opportunities for Partners in Science, a program that brings hands-on science instruction to Tracy schools.

Nancy Stenzler, the T.O.P.S. program coordinator, hopes to find retired or part-time scientists, physicians, engineers and other professionals in science-related fields to teach occasional lessons in kindergarten through eighth-grade classrooms starting in the fall.

“I have schools waiting and I don’t have the volunteers,” Stenzler said. “Doesn’t mean you have to be a rocket scientist, but you have to be passionate about science.”

Stenzler said that a renewed emphasis on critical thinking over memorization — part of the transition to Common Core curriculum in California schools — has revitalized T.O.P.S., which starts children doing hands-on science as early as possible.

“There is a shift in education,” Stenzler said. “Kids are going to college without critical-thinking skills.”

T.O.P.S. was introduced in San Joaquin and Stanislaus county schools in the 1980s, but fewer volunteers has slowed the program’s reach into classrooms.

These days, schools that participate in T.O.P.S. share the cost with the San Joaquin County Office of Education. Each school comes up with $1,400, and the county office supplies kits for lessons.

Stenzler explained that after a teacher introduces a new science topic, a T.O.P.S. volunteer leads the class in a related activity, and the teacher follows up and reviews the project with the students. Topics include magnetism, geology and solar energy.

The emphasis, she said, is having students do actual experiments in the classroom.

“The idea would be, for an engineering project, you would design the plans, build it and then see if it works,” Stenzler said.

Central, North, Banta and Jefferson schools have T.O.P.S. volunteers visiting their classrooms, and five more local schools are on a waiting list. Stenzler said some schools have been waiting for a year already because of a lack of volunteers.

North School, where Frederick Medina is principal, has been involved in T.O.P.S. off and on for five years.

“It’s a fabulous program,” Medina said. “The students have to pull the information together — it drives the kids to think.”

He said that teachers often have to focus on teaching math and vocabulary skills, and he saw T.O.P.S. as a way to fill a gap in the curriculum.

“It keeps the kids interested in science,” Medina said.

Volunteers teach at least eight hours a month, either during school hours or at after-school programs. They are trained in how to present the projects to students and receive a $300 stipend for the year.

Stenzler looks at each person’s qualifications and tries to match him or her with an appropriate school. The fee each school pays covers the costs for screening, background checks, fingerprinting training and materials for the volunteers.

In addition to the four Tracy schools that are involved in T.O.P.S., the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tracy unit at Central School participated this year.

Robert Pane, director of operations, said the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tracy had looked into the volunteer program as a way to offer more science enrichment for club members.

“The program is awesome,” Pane said. “We really want that program, because science is so beneficial to the kids.”

He said the club set aside money to bring T.O.P.S. to the five other sites across Tracy, too, but there weren’t enough volunteers. He hopes that changes for the next school year.

“It’s all about giving kids opportunities,” Pane said.

To find out how to volunteer for Teaching Opportunities for Partners in Science, call Nancy Stenzler, the program coordinator, at 468-4881. 

• Contact Glenn Moore at gmoore@tracypress.com or 830-4252.

Comments-icon Post a Comment
April 16, 2014
Boy, the first sentence in this article is original. Maybe some original thinking might assist our children?

April 16, 2014
I'm all for volunteering. Perform it regularly but...is this a way for the school district to extract more out of the public than pay for the qualified teaching staff the taxpayers are paying for? Who knows. Maybe the volunteers will be better teachers than some of the paid fodder at the public schools.

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