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An after-school science class south of the border

Veterinarian Jose Garcia and the students from Saturday Science class in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, show off their microscope. (Photo: Alicia Marroquin)

Mexico figures well below average in international rankings for science education, according to a 2009 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Veterinarians Alicia Marroquin, a member of AAAS, and her husband Jose Garcia saw the problem firsthand and decided to help make a change.

When the pair returned to Mexico from Texas, after earning advanced degrees in veterinary medicine, they were concerned about the lack of science education available to children. But they knew that just having a science class wasn't enough. It was an experience in Texas that underscored the need for age-appropriate, child-centered learning. Garcia served as a judge in a local elementary school science fair, and it was the criticism of another judge that proved the point.

"A girl was presenting her research project involving some chemical calculations. Jose and another judge were listening. The other judge asked the girl about the purpose of her project, since the chemical calculations were always fixed and no changes are expected in the results if you follow them precisely," Marroquin says. "Jose saw the frustration in the girl trying to come out with a good explanation, but after a little while she gave up and the girl looked devastated, like her project was trash."

Marroquin and Garcia believe adults too often discourage children's interest in science. They wanted to do more than just pass on information — they wanted to guide and inspire, according to Marroquin. She came from a rural community where her mother finished first grade and her father didn't attend school. She didn't have a role model at home, but teachers in school helped her develop an interest in education and the aspiration to attend college.

"If you don't have someone who guides you, and your parents aren't able to do that, you need someone," Marroquin says. "Jose and I are trying to do that, to be that person."

Starting in May 2012, a group of 20 fifth and sixth graders from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico began to meet every Saturday, 10 — 11 a.m. for a science class. The kids attend 20 de Noviembre (November 20, the date celebrating the Mexican Revolution against the Mexican President Porfirio Diaz). They take science classes at the Veterinary School at the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon, where Marroquin and Garcia work, just two blocks away from their school. Jorge de los Santos Lara, a teacher at the elementary school, helped make the class possible because he shares "the ideals of providing science education to the kids," according to Marroquin.

She describes 20 de Noviembre as "the best in the city" but there is no laboratory in the school, and nobody knew how to use the one donated microscope it had and there is "little space for sciences" in the curriculum.

"We don't have a specific program. We just started with the idea of having topics related to science. We started with biology because we are vets. We talk about how some cells have a nuclei and how others don't have a nuclei. We try to discuss, what are the reasons for (these) phenomena?

"Soon they introduced other topics — recycling, taking care of the environment. We ask them what they think about it and they are pretty critical. Some of them say, 'If you're going to spend more resources, then it might not be good. It might be better just to use less.' They are learning and they are using that critical thinking."

Openness to new ideas, critical thinking, improved self-confidence and a growing curiosity about the world are just a few of the improvements Marroquin and Garcia see in their students. They didn't have a set of planned outcomes or even a formal approach to teaching when they started, but both are pleased with the improvements they see. Francisco Arreola, a parent who enrolled his child in the class, is also happy with the impact the science classes are having.

"I enrolled my daughter in the science class because I wanted her to spend time in extra-curriculum activities," says Arreola (Marroquin translating). "After each class I asked her about it and she explains it to me. The fact that the class is offered for both boys and girls is especially good because the kids need the diversity and to hear different points of view.

"In elementary school there is a class about natural sciences but it is only covered superficially. In the science class, the kids have a chance to go more into detail about different aspects of nature, for example about the structure and function of DNA. The class has also helped her to get in touch with different perspectives about nature. For example, she heard in the science class about recycling paper, metal and glass, as well as organic matter."

The original idea of doing individual assessments of and programs of study for each child proved to be too much work for just two teachers. So the class has evolved organically and allows Marroquin and Garcia to incorporate the interests of the students in the curriculum. Students are allowed to participate as they can, leaving and rejoining the class as their life circumstances allow, without penalty for days absent.

All of the classes are offered free of charge because many of the families don't have the income to support extracurricular activities. But the group size is limited because there are only two teachers, both of whom have demanding work schedules and a family of their own. They would like to see more scientists involved, so the husband-and-wife team is beginning to formalize a series of classes that will allow them to schedule visiting teachers.

This might get closer to the original idea of having a specific timeline followed by a "graduation" before the next groups of kids started. The first six-month mark did include a graduation of sorts, a "diploma" marking the number of hours the students invested in the classes. But the kids and parents were so interested in continuing that the same group will finish out a year of classes in the spring of 2013. Those who are in the sixth grade will go on to secondary school in the fall, but Marroquin is not sure if the current fifth graders will be permitted to continue the Saturday classes for another year.

When diplomas were handed out in 2012 many of the parents praised the science classes. Some were so enthusiastic that they asked if their children would be able to continue once they entered secondary school but Marroquin and Garcia decided to keep the program focused on the earlier grades for the time being. The couple has big dreams for involving more schools and scientists involved in the effort, not just in their region but across the country.

As much as the volunteer-driven science classes help the children, Jose Garcia believes scientists benefit, too.

"In my field of study, I get too focused on what I do," he says. "You see science in another perspective. You see science as being something that can help (make) things better instead of just publishing papers.

Both would like to see more scientists get involved in the education of children.

"If you want to make a big change in society it (begins) with the kids," Marroquin says. "We need to start with them at an early age. Then we will have even better people taking care of science and the planet as a whole."

For her students, she has great hope.

"In all of them I see potential. You can see that they have the ability to get a higher education."

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Veterinarian Jose Garcia and the students from Saturday Science class in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, show off their microscope. (Photo: Alicia Marroquin)
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