Birch AquariumOn a beautiful spring day last month, 100 middle and high school students from Imperial Unified School District in Imperial County headed to two of the country’s most acclaimed science learning centers: the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla and the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. Their mission? Discover what makes a great science exhibit.

Students are participating in the National Science Foundation’s Using STEM America Project, which provides opportunities for students to research renewable energy resources and then design and build exhibits to explain these concepts to the public, specifically to their families and the Imperial Valley community at large.

The San Diego Science Project at UC San Diego’s Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence (CREATE) is working closely with Imperial Unified teachers, who in turn provide enhanced science learning experiences and creative inspiration to their students. It’s all a part of the CREATE STEM Success Initiative, which works with local school and district initiatives to engage students in STEM and to explore learning opportunities for K-12 students.

The student-built science exhibits will be on display at the Imperial Valley Discovery Zone, a new community science center where teens have the opportunity to become experts in explaining science to the public, one of the many dynamic ways the Imperial Unified School District and other partners hope to generate excitement and public engagement in STEM in Imperial Valley.  For this project, students explore the engineering design cycle of renewable energy – a growing industry in the Imperial Valley – then learn how to communicate what they know by designing, revising and proto-typing hands-on science exhibits to share with their community.

Birch Aquarium The Birch Aquarium was an especially important part of the field trip. One of its primary functions is to communicate current scientific research and development for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in accessible ways to the community at large. Students worked in groups to learn about the science behind renewable energy at the aquarium’s “Boundless Energy” display, an interactive, outdoor exhibit and at the “Feeling the Heat: The Climate Challenge” exhibit presentation.  The visit to the Birch gave students new ideas for designing their own exhibits on alternative forms of energy via harvesting wind energy and solar.

RHFThe next stop was the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, where students had another close look at how hands-on, interactive science exhibits communicate complex ideas to the public.

“The students realized that to be engaging, their exhibits have to be more interactive than just pushing a button,” said one middle school teacher. “Interactivity is more important than a lot of text.” Students finalize their exhibits and prototype them with their community in El Centro and Imperial this May.

The student exhibit project, part of the new Imperial Valley Discovery Zone, is a partnership between the Imperial Valley Regional Occupational Programs Office, Imperial Unified School District, the science museums of Balboa Park, UC San Diego’s CREATE STEM Success Initiative, and Dr. Carlos Coimbra, associate professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering. Coimbra is the co-director of the Center for Excellence in Renewable Resource Integration (CERRI) at UC San Diego. He is committed to connecting teachers and students to current research in solar energy.