MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now to science education for kids. Children growing up in big cities can go to zoos or museums for hands-on ways to learn about science. But in less populated areas, those opportunities can be few and far between. Here in California, public school science programs have faced deep budget cuts.
From member station KQED in San Francisco, Amy Standen has the story of one man who's trying to ensure that kids in smaller or poorer areas don't lose out.
AMY STANDEN, BYLINE: Dan Sudran grew up a good, studious kid in Kansas City, Missouri. He followed the rules, went to college, law school. But he says there was always a sinking feeling that he wasn't really cut out for the world he'd been born into.
DAN SUDRAN: I couldn't really figure out what I was or what I was supposed to be. I didn't go to college 'cause I wanted to, it's 'cause that's what you were supposed to do.
STANDEN: In fact, it wasn't till his late 30s that Sudran finally had his revelation. It happened in a garage. He started taking apart electronics, collecting bones from the beach. In school, science had held no interest for him at all. But out in the real world, it turned out to be the thing he'd been missing all along.
SUDRAN: My life is immeasurably better since I got into science.
STANDEN: And this gave Sudran an idea. What if he could give kids the same experience that he had waited 30 years to discover? So, he got a local college to donate some space and equipment. Pretty soon, a small nonprofit called the Community Science Workshop was born.
(SOUNDBITE OF WORKSHOP ACTIVITY)
STANDEN: Today there are six workshops, almost all of them in low-income neighborhoods around the state. The idea is to be almost nothing like a big science museum.
SUDRAN: It's your own dream garage, in the sense that it's just a bunch of stuff that you can play around with, without being nervous that the curator is going to have a nervous breakdown. There are no curators.
STANDEN: One of the workshops is in Greenfield, about 140 miles southeast of San Francisco. It's a flat, dusty farm town - lettuce, broccoli, apricots - and mostly Spanish speaking.
STANDEN: The workshop occupies exactly one room in the back of the former Greenfield City Hall. Every inch is crammed with stuff: bones, microscopes, power tools, a turtle.
Fifth -grader Eduardo Gomez gives the tour.
EDUARDO GOMEZ: And right here, we've got one snake.
STANDEN: There's no curriculum, nothing to memorize, just tools to play and experiment with, and noise - lots of noise. Jose Vega, an eighth-grader is building a submersible robot.
JOSE VEGA: It like runs on like little engines things that would spin.
STANDEN: And six-year-old Esteban Espinoza is scooping tadpoles out of a tank of pond water...
ESTEBAN ESPINOZA: (unintelligible)
STANDEN: ...so he and his friends can look at them under a microscope.
ESPINOZA: You have to take it out of the water.
STANDEN: And then there's the ever-appealing - though not terribly scientific - Casio keyboard.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
STANDEN: Running this workshop costs about $50,000 a year, paid for by foundation grants. But Sudran says grants can sort of a mixed blessing. For instance, not long ago, he came across a decaying gray whale carcass on a beach near his house.
SUDRAN: It was lifted up by the tide high on the beach. And it was completely recoverable. I mean, there was no loss.
STANDEN: Sudran has a permit to collect specimens, and he thought the whale bones would make a good teaching tool. It would have been nice to get some funding for something like that, but there was no time.
SUDRAN: I'm not going to waste time writing a grant. You know what I mean? 'Cause that takes weeks and months. You have to do it.
STANDEN: So he rallied some volunteers to collect the bones, then spent several stinky months cleaning them off. Now he brings the entire the skeleton to schools. The dream, he says, is to take this model of quick-and-dirty hands-on science all over the state.
SUDRAN: So many places, I could just reel them off: Oxnard, Bakersfield, El Centro.
STANDEN: All places where public school science has taken a hit and could use, Sudran says, a little bit of fun.
SUDRAN: We don't want to make our place any bigger. We want more of them.
STANDEN: Next up, he hopes, the small Southern California desert town of Coachella.
For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen.