Kids get science boost at Orville Wright school in Modesto

naustin@modbee.comJune 23, 2013 

    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin

— Hit-the-books schooling took a summer break for squeezing slime, growing seeds and making rainbows. On Friday, National Summer Learning Day, Orville Wright Elementary students showed off the science they learned along the way.

Teachers said they used the four-week Jump Start Science Academy to give about 185 kids a leg up for next year at the airport neighborhood elementary school, where 59 percent of students are learning English and 100 percent are poor.

"It's that jump-start to get them into the next grade, giving them that boost," said third-grade teacher Michele Wolfe as she manned a solar oven made from a pizza box and tin foil.

Students recorded internal temperatures of up to 150 degrees on an 81-degree day in the oven for a lesson on the greenhouse effect. But Friday, the makeshift mini-oven also taught kids how good melted marshmallows taste on graham crackers.

Between tastings, Wolfe showed student workbooks of vocabulary, each page filled with a target word, its definition, synonyms, antonyms and a hand-drawn picture showing its meaning. Every Wright third-grade teacher uses the so-called word squares, so wherever Wolfe's summer students land, they'll be ready.

Parents at the event were being led around by excited kids pointing out exhibits, explaining prisms — "Try the glasses!" — and showing off their science-themed artwork. Pock-marked gray rounds simulated the lunar surface. Open Oreos with progressively more creme filling showed the moon's shift from sliver to beaming circle.

"It's funner (than regular school) and you get to learn about science," said Gabriel Martinez, 8, while trying to explain a poster about refracted light.

Cirenia Castro, 10, showed off her homemade lava lamp, explaining that the oil and colored water separate because of their relative densities. Her favorite things, however, were the volcanoes they made with a hydrogen peroxide and yeast concoction.

Tabetha Sconce, 6, said the pastel-blue slippery slime squishing between her fingers was "the funnest thing" in the class. Not so much for mom Daphne Smith, however. Tabetha took the slime home and it somehow landed in her brother's hair. "I tried oil, peanut butter, mayonnaise — nothing would take it out," Smith said, so she shaved his head.

That minor disaster aside, Smith said, "I think she learned a lot. She was really excited. When she came home she'd talk and talk about it."

Students conducting tours

For first-year teacher Gabriela Peña, watching students learn over the weeks was the best. "They came into the class not knowing much about science. Now they're so excited. They're taking people on tours," she said.

"During the school year, I see it as a substitute, there's not many hands-on activities. They learn so much with their investigations and experiments," Peña said.

Wright Principal Heather Sherburn said that's why she raises money and seeks out corporate donations to make it happen. This year, a celebrity chef dinner and silent auction, matched by donations, raised $42,000. Wright parents pitched in funds raised with a carnival and Modesto City Schools contributed money for separate classes of English learners.

"One, they're excited about learning — that's an immeasurable thing right there. Two, they're reading. So they're taking the skills we practice and applying them in science because they're so excited. They're excited to do a report. They're excited to read it out," Sherburn said.

"So they're getting that additional practice. But probably more importantly, they're not losing ground over the summer," she said.

Research shows low-

income children on average fall roughly two more months behind every summer. Sherburn said she has not run the numbers, but believes the program makes a difference.

"We all believe it matters," she said. "The teachers that stay say it's so much fun, because it's a change from the intensity and lock-step that is required (during the school year)."

But teachers still have to sandwich in the book learning — language development, writing, reading, science standards. "Even with all those demands, they're having a blast," Sherburn said.

See the Jump Start Academy video created by the school at

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339, on Twitter @NanAustin and online at

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