Community Science Workshops for Rural California

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Community Science Workshops for Rural California: Bringing exploration, discovery, and wonder to new communities across the state

Central Valley and Salinas Valley, United StatesWatsonville, United States
Year Founded:
Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
Project Stage:
$250,000 - $500,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

The Community Science Workshop Network supports unique learning environments where youth and their families are free to tinker, make, and explore their world through science. We seek to establish more of these free, drop-in, hands on education centers in rural California communities.

WHAT IF - Inspiration: Write one sentence that describes a way that your project dares to ask, "WHAT IF?"

Kids everywhere had access to dedicated space for them to hang out, mess around, and geek out about science on their own terms...regardless of t
About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

California is a state with dramatic and increasing disparities in the geographic distribution of resources - with an especially big gap in education. Many communities give youth few opportunities to explore their own interests and learn about the world around them. Science instruction has been gutted from schools during the past decade, and traditional educational models do little to engage youth from historically marginalized backgrounds.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

We address the root problem of geographic concentrations of resources by deliberately establishing our programs in towns geographically and culturally distant from the centers of opportunity – ie., in the rural agricultural regions of the Central and Salinas Valleys. Our Community Science Workshops are on walking routes used by youth, and are staffed by alumni and parents from the community. We build a learning environment where youth are producers, not consumers, of their own education. Kids can weld a car out of a trash can, design an aquaponics tank, cut up a dead snake, or sew a purse out of recycled fabric. At the Science Workshop, youth develop problem solving skills, grit, resilience, and self-identities as lifelong learners.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

What does it take for a child of farm workers to realize his dream of becoming a mechanical engineer? Martin’s story shows what the CSW program can do: Martin began attending after school drop-in when he was 9, volunteered to help younger kids at 13, became a paid intern at 14, and at 16, he was hired to teach in the middle-school robotics program. At 17, Martin graduated from high school with a year of calculus under his belt. Now he’s a community college student and working as a lead teacher in the CSW elementary after school program while preparing to transfer to a university. The CSW gave Martin the support he needed: entry-level work; increasingly complex open-ended activities; and a community of learners and mentors to identify with.

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Community Science Workshops in California have been in continuous operation for over 20 years: long enough to see former students bringing in their own children. CSW sites have saturated whole communities with science, and the program is seen as a public resource. Parents borrow tools for projects at home, and children bring their mom’s radio to re-solder the antenna. This level of ownership and agency significantly impacts community members’ attitudes about science, learning, and tool use. CSW sites together receive over 120,000 visits per year, and operate 57 individual programs. In an evaluation examining CSW impact on young people’s engagement, self-identity, skills, and choices in science, eighty percent of CSW participants report that they enjoy making things and doing experiments, and over 75% report “I can do things in the Science Workshop I didn’t think I could do before.”

Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling impact?

This program model can scale up to impact thousands of youth in rural California who are ready for their chance to be the next generation of scientists, engineers, and critical thinkers. The CSW Network works closely with school districts, cities, and nonprofits to identify a local fiscal sponsor to adopt the program, provide dedicated space, and hire talented staff. By matching seed grants with local funding, as well as providing on-the-ground advocacy and ongoing support, the CSW Network ensures that these programs become permanent hubs for science education in their communities.

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

CSW programs are funded by a combination of municipal support (parks and recreation, environmental education, violence prevention), fee-for-service contracts (school districts, PTA's, Migrant Education, low-income housing projects), and grants (local donors, community foundations, local businesses). The CSW Network has a track record of seeding programs that successfully sustain themselves with local funds after initial intensive support.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

The CSW programs are unmatched in their commitment to access, equity, and community in hands-on science education. Other groups with similarly innovative educational models are often tied to museum or university locations, and can't serve the youth we reach. While FabLabs are similar in their focus on student design and education through hands-on creation, the CSW programs uniquely incorporate everyday tools and materials as well as existing funds of STEM knowledge in the community to break down the barrier between participants' lives and science – and we’ve been doing it for over 20 years.

Founding Story

The first CSW was founded in 1991 in the Mission District of San Francisco, in a garage filled with fossils, rocks, power tools, wood, animal bones, oscilliscopes, and homemade science exhibits. In the founder’s words, the program: “began as my private space to...invent new experiments and exhibits, but became a place to try out teaching with the [kids] on my block, [with] the wonder of learning and discovery...well that was the beginning of the beginning for me, as I saw how the kids just couldn’t get enough of my garage, and would even look out for me as I came around the corner.” The program eventually moved to a former high school auto shop, and began serving kids from low-income schools and neighborhoods all over the city.


The CSW Network team is lead by our Executive Director, Emilyn Green: a former CSW Site Director who still tinkers with kids periodically. All team members have taught in the CSWs, with other experience ranging from statewide farmworker advocacy to community fundraising. 60% of the seats on our Board of Directors are held by current CSW Site Directors, and the rest by university-level science educators and champions of equity in STEM education.
About You
Community Science Workshop Network
About You
First Name


Last Name


About Your Project
Organization Name

Community Science Workshop Network

How long has your organization been operating?

Please select

Organization Country

, CA, Watsonville

Country where this project is creating social impact

, CA, Central Valley and Salinas Valley

What awards or honors has the project received?
Funding: How is your project financial supported?

Foundations, Businesses, Regional government.


Educator's Choice at San Mateo Maker Faire 2012, 2013, and 2014
Editor's Choice at San Mateo Maker Faire 2014

Primary Target Age Group

6 - 12.

Your role in Education


Please specify which of the following best applies:

I am applying on behalf of a particular program or initiative.

The type of school(s) your solution is affiliated with (if applicable)

Public (tuition-free).

Intervention Focus


Does your project utilize any of the innovative design principles below?

Putting Children in Charge: Giving children a voice and cultivating agency via experiential learning, project-based learning, and civic engagement.

Is your project targeted at solving any of the following key barriers?

One size fits all fits none: Students are disengaged and not being prepared for "real life."

What key learning outcomes does your work seek to improve?

We evaluate our Community Science Workshop programs on their impact on engagement, self-identity, skills, and choices in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics for historically marginalized youth. We seek to inspire and engage youth by connecting their own interests to STEM, we seek to build resilience, grit, and problem-solving skills; we seek to develop young people's self-identity as scientists, builders, engineers, and lifelong learners; and we seek to support youth in choosing STEM studies and careers.

Secondary Form
PROGRAM DESIGN CLARITY: We are hungry to know more about what exactly your model consists of. Please succinctly list a) what main activities are you doing with your beneficiaries, b) where you carry out the activities? c) how often? d) for how many hours? e) who delivers the services? and f) any other brief details

A) After-school drop-in and school-day field trips at workshop; after-school programs at schools; mobile science at housing projects/migrant camps/ rural schools; family nights; weekend and summer programs; field trips and camping trips.

B) CSWs reach over 150 locations in California every year, from central workshop “hubs” within low-income and historically underserved neighborhoods to schools, migrant camps, community centers, housing projects and parks.
C) Open weekdays year-round + occasional weekends
D) Approx. 60-150 program hrs/week
E) Community members who reflect participants

INSPIRATION: What do you consider the most important trends or evidence that inspire you to believe the world is ready to Re-imagine Learning? Please elaborate.

This is an exciting moment for inquiry and play-based approaches to science education: the Maker movement, the Next Generation Science Standards, and the overwhelming weight of recent education research findings all point to the importance of educational methods such as the CSW model for engaging under-represented students in STEM. At the same time as this upwelling of interest in open-ended, skills-oriented learning, the need for broadening participation in STEM is ever more apparent. CSWs connect the dots between skills built through play and the crucial competencies of STEM learning.

LEARNING THROUGH PLAY: What does “learning through play” mean to you and why it is a must-have, instead of a nice to have?

CSWs are founded on the principle that a playful disposition is a learning disposition. We give students the tools, materials, and space to explore their own interests, at their own pace: poking at mummified gophers, building a faster electric toy car, making a 6 foot tall paper mache cartoon character, or holding a real live snake. Far from being “fringe” or “enrichment” activities, research shows these kinds of experiences can make or break a kid’s relationship to learning – and students in low-income and rural communities are disproportionately less likely to have such opportunities.

SUSTAINABILITY: Please list a quick breakdown of your funding, indicating the percentage that comes from each source.

CSW Network ($550,000/year): >90% grants, <10% fee-for-service & indv. donors.
CSW programs ($350,000/site/year): 30% municipal; 30% fee-for-service contracts (schools), 40% grants.
New CSW site ($150,000/year 1): 16% CSW Network seed funding, 84% local municipal, fee-for-service and grants.

MODEL: How does your mission relate to your business model (i.e. Non-profit, for-profit or hybrid)?

The CSW Network is a powerful advocate and resource for CSWs, providing opportunities for youth to tinker, make, and explore their world through science in under-served communities across California. Our 501c3 nonprofit status is allows us to provide resources to “gaps in the map”, while keeping overhead low. We leverage philanthropy with local support to provide high-quality programs that otherwise wouldn’t be available in our communities.

FUNDING PRIORITIES: If your organization were given $20K in unrestricted funding today, how would you use it? Why?

Our priority: CSW programs outside of the metropolitan zones favored by big philanthropy. Drop-in hours are the heart of the CSW model of open-ended, playful learning, yet most funders favor our structured school-based programs. 90% of funding covers staff time, 10% low-cost recycled materials.

PARTNERSHIPS: Tell us about your partnerships that enhance your approach.

Research and professional development partners: Exploratorium, Techbridge, Orange County Discovery Cube, San Jose Tech Museum
Science field trip destination partners: Monterey Bay Aquarium + Research Institute, the San Joaquin River Conservancy, Big Sur Land Trust, Ventana Youth Wilderness Alliance, USGS
Youth program partners: Boys and Girls Clubs in SF and the Central Valley, 10+ school districts, low-income housing authorities in 5 cities

COLLABORATIONS: Have you considered or initiated partnerships with any of the other Challenge Pacesetters? If so, please share.

Parts and Crafts, DIY Girls, Ravenswood Maker Space, Tinker Camp, and the Adventure Playgrounds have similar goals and methods, and we’d be pleased to collaborate within the context of our strict commitment to establishing permanent brick-and-mortar spaces in low-income and underserved communities.

VISION: If you had unlimited funding, and you could fast forward 15 years to when your program has been able to achieve wild success - what will it have achieved?

In our ideal near future, CSWs would be as indispensable to civic pride as public libraries, and playful science learning would be a part of the daily fabric of life in of thousands of marginalized communities across the country. The ultimate result – an engaged, culturally and ethnically diverse population of STEM-literate engineers, makers, experimenters and problem-solvers – benefits us all in contexts far beyond science and technology.

IMPACT - KEY METRICS: Please list the key data points that you would cite as evidence that you are able to achieve lasting learning outcomes. Please also share one data point for which you most hope to see better results over time

CSW program evaluations have looked at Engagement, Skills, Self-identity, and Choices among participants. We have strong data showing that CSW participants choose science by returning to drop-in programs; self-identify as learners, makers, and experimenters; and develop skills with tools, collaboration, and dealing with frustration. One data point we would like to track better is our alumni’s long-term engagement with STEM studies and careers.

IMPACT - REPORTING SAMPLE: Please attach any examples of your impact reporting. [optional]:
RESEARCH AND EVIDENCE: Please link or attach any research or evidence resource you are open to sharing more widely [optional]. Building research and evidence is a key aim of this initiative, and the resources you share may be chosen for listing in the Center for Education Innovations library:
SOURCE: If applicable - who created the research or evidence you are choosing to share? :
IMPACT - REACH: How many people did your project directly engage in programmatic activities in the last year?

100,001 to 500,000

STUDY: Has an external evaluation or study been conducted of your organization?


Other (please specify)

Inverness Research and SRI evaluated us in the past. We are currently engaged in collaborative research with the Exploratorium.

Number of Employees:


Number of Volunteers:


APPROACHES: Given the complexity of play, it is not surprising that there have been numerous research attempts to categorize the different types and approaches! Please indicate which of the following your project focuses on.

Play with Objects, Creating a Supportive Socio-Emotional Environment, Providing a Range of Opportunities (providing the equipment and materials needed for various types of play), Educational Structuring (developing playful projects within educational contexts), Adults Participating (Ensuring adults are able to play alongside children), Challenging Play (play that disrupts - where rules are disregarded and levels of imagination are high), Other (please specify).

Other (please specify)

Play with Science! Experimentation and Making as key playful activities.

AFFILIATION: Please specify if your organization has any existing affiliations with the LEGO Group.