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Offbeat Science Gets a Chance

Nontraditional courses, such as meteorology and native plants studies, now count toward graduation requirements at Saddleback Valley Unified. The classes stress application over straight theory.


As high school students scramble to meet increasingly rigorous science requirements, one South County school will throw out a lifeline next year with three proposed courses that offer traditional science credit for surprisingly nontraditional classes.

The courses at Trabuco Hills High School will train students to track weather conditions through computer-linked satellites, identify plants in Trabuco Canyon and teach basic science to elementary school children.

Although these classes are already offered as electives, the Saddleback Valley school board agreed earlier this month that the courses may now be taken for full science credit, a plus for high school pupils needing to meet the district's science requirement, but looking for more diverse offerings.

"There are other ways to meet the science requirement and teach a lot of good science without the traditional earth science, physical science and life science [approach]," said Jon Johnson, science chairman at the Mission Viejo school.

In Saddleback Valley Unified, high school students must take three years of science, one more than the state's requirement. Other districts, such as Capistrano Unified, are considering similar increases to give students more science background before graduation.

With these standards rising, school administrators are trying to find more ways for students to meet the requirements. Innovative classes may be the answer, Johnson said.

"I'm not a strong proponent of the traditional way of doing things," he said.

In the science and technology exploration lab, hands-on experiments fuel the curriculum, and textbooks take a back seat.

Using the cutting-edge equipment in the school's year-old, $1.5-million technology wing, students learn about meteorology while tracking cold fronts, temperature drops and storm movements through computer-linked weather satellites. They manipulate lasers and build robots as they study biomechanics and electronics. Wind tunnels demonstrate dynamic forces to complement an aerodynamics lesson.

"It's something to expand the opportunities for students to do hands-on with real technology," Johnson said.

The two other courses send high school students into the community to teach young children about science and nature.

The district's docent program trains teens to lead basic science lessons for elementary school children. Through simple lab experiments--such as blowing air on a pinwheel to show wind flow--the students teach concepts that are in keeping with state science standards.

In science field studies, students learn about the local environment and then guide primary-grade children on tours through Trabuco Canyon, where they point out native plants and explain the area's geologic and environmental history.

Alternatives Are Found to Be Appealing

For many students, these types of science alternatives are more appealing than traditional, book-based courses.

Trabuco Hills senior Joanne Kresser said she found the regular chemistry class difficult, and that led her to avoid more rigorous science courses, like physics, in her senior year.

Instead, she took the docent program as an elective and now feels more sure about her science skills. Although she did not get science credit for the course, she said that more students might opt for the nontraditional class if the district lets it count toward graduation.

"A lot of people get discouraged from science," she said.

Jordan Million, a senior at Mission Viejo High School, chose the alternate path for science and took marine biology and anatomy, which have long been offered for science credit in place of the typical earth studies-biology-physics route. The decision cemented his interest in anatomy and inspired him to major in science in college.

"I wanted to get out of the ordinary," he said. "I was just interested more in anatomy and learning about the body rather than the mathematical sciences. I wanted to try that out."

Some people, however, fear that students who take such courses in high school may be ill-prepared for the demands of college-level science.

"If you're planning on going into science in college, then you still have to pay attention to the academic," said Marsha Steinfield, a parent of a sophomore at El Toro High School in Lake Forest, which also is considering giving science credit for unusual courses. "You can't forsake that, because you don't want to be behind the eight ball."

Still, suggestions for out-of-the-ordinary classes--such as astronomy, biological anthropology and archeology--are hot topics in science departments throughout the district, as teachers struggle to stimulate students bored with the usual science offerings.

"Sometimes having to learn science for science's sake just doesn't speak to them," said Katie Fliegler, head of the docent program. These courses "give the students the opportunity to get to see some applications of science, rather than seeing straight theory."

By offering a menu of options, teachers hope that more students will view science as a fun, innovative subject, rather than merely a class to scratch off on the graduation checklist.

"Everyone is different, and if we can find a more diverse program for students to find their niche, it would be beneficial," Johnson said.

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