Free Thinking: University of Chicago Magazine Article on Dan Sudran

January 26th, 2012 Comments Off

This article reprinted with permission from University of Chicago Magazine‘s January, 2012 issue.

Free Thinking

In San Francisco and Chicago, College alumni transform education through programs that are innovative, old-fashioned, and free.

by Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93 | Photography by Jay Watson and Jason Smith


“If you can talk you can sing”
“If you can walk you can dance”
“If you can wonder you can learn”
Handwritten sign at the Mission Science Workshop

There’s a four-foot ball python around somewhere.

The Mission Science Workshop is packed with kids and parents here for its Family Science Open House. But nobody seems particularly worried about the rogue python, which escapes with some regularity.

Once it was discovered underneath the human skeleton; another time, on top of the drill press. “If you find Monty, please let us know,” reads a message on the whiteboard, which also lists “Today’s Specials”: free T-shirts for kids, a hair weight contest on the milligram balance, and “take apart printers, fax machines, etc.”

The noise level is incredible. Children are banging on drums, running sticks over piano strings, turning an air compressor on and off, chattering to each other through tubes hanging from the ceiling. Excited calls of “Mom! Mom!” come from several directions at once.

The parents, mostly Spanish speaking, seem as excited as the kids. The monthly event at Mission Science Workshop—named for the Mission, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in San Francisco—is free and open to all, but advertised only in Spanish.

At one table, Keilani Diaz Moreno, 6, has dumped out a box of animal vertebrae. Dan Sudran, AB’66, the workshop’s founder, stops to explain to her in Spanish how a cow’s spine fits together. Bone by bone, Keilani clicks the spine into place. She gently pokes her mother in the stomach to get her attention, then slaps Sudran a high five.

At another table, kids are building vehicles out of scrap wood. Victor Pena, 5, enthusiastically shows Sudran his creation: “It’s a car with a sail!” As they finish, the kids take their cars outside and roll them down a wheelchair ramp.

Meanwhile Jeffery Soto, 9, walks over to the human skeleton, barely taller than he is, and shakes its hand. “You can’t get those anymore,” Sudran notes. “They’re expensive. I think maybe illegal.”

SUDRAN IS NOT a trained scientist. In school, he hated science: “I had a horrible high school physics class that turned me off for years.” He continued to hate science at UChicago, where he majored in history. He later went to law school but failed the bar exam twice. Realizing he didn’t want to be a lawyer, he took a job as an organizer with the United Farm Workers Union.

In 1981, Sudran became an electronics technician at City College of San Francisco. The job “stimulated my curiosity about how things work,” says Sudran, “which came to include nature in general, not just human technology and inventions.” Thus began an unexpected love affair with science: “All of a sudden it came to life for me.”

So, like a gentleman scientist from centuries ago, around 1990 he set up a workshop in his garage, where he began to tinker with electronics and collect rocks, bones, and fossils. “I had a coyote in my freezer,” he recalls, “and roadkill drying in my backyard.” The neighborhood kids would wander in to see what he was doing, and Sudran, who was raised bilingual, realized he enjoyed showing them.

Two decades later, the workshop is based in the former auto technology shop at Mission High School. More than 250 children a week visit on field trips. It offers after-school workshops and a six-week-long “summer scientists” program.

The delightfully disorganized room retains the feel of a garage workshop, with battered maps, salvaged equipment, and Sudran’s quirky hand-lettered signs everywhere. A sign on a sea horse display reads “male (with egg pouch!!)” Another explains tree rings: “These trees fell in 2009. Count back to the center to see when they were BORN!”

ANIMALS ARE WONDERFUL therapy,” says Sudran. “Holding a snake is a very effective meditation aid.”

The animal area is the one heavily regulated zone in the otherwise laissez-faire science playground. Kids are allowed to handle any of the animals—ball pythons (Monty and Tiny), corn snakes (Blanca and Cornelia), a leopard gecko (Mango), a blue-tongued skink (Maurice), a toad (Ihop), an iguana (Spike), two bearded dragons (Spazz and Harvey), and a tarantula (Aaron)— as long as they follow the posted “Rules for Animal Time.”

These include “No scaring people with animals” and “Keep away from face aka—No snakes around neck.” A maximum of four kids are allowed; each kid must sit in a chair and hold the animal with both hands. There’s a simple reason for the sitting and two-hands rules. “We’ve had animals die before, when people got scared and threw it,” says teacher Aaron Martin.

“Want to hold one?” Martin asks Danna Ruiz, 7. She smiles and shakes her head no; her brother, Jonathan, 15, says yes to a python. “I’m surprised,” says their father, Adan Ruiz.

Danna is clearly fascinated. As Martin talks to her in Spanish, she works up the courage to stroke the snake’s skin gently. Danna’s mother, Claudia Enriques, agrees to hold the skink; when she hands it back, she shivers all over.

The family tries out a few other activities, but not much later, Danna is back at the animal station. This time, she’s ready. Martin places the coiled python into her hands; it stretches out its neck and slithers gracefully around her wrist. Danna smiles.

I’M 67 YEARS OLD,” says Sudran. “I tell the kids, if it wasn’t for you, I’d be retired and bored as hell.”

In fact he’s busier than ever. When a whale carcass washed up on Pescadero State Beach last year, Sudran claimed part of its skeleton for a nearby elementary school. In December, he opened a new science workshop in the old City Hall in Greenfield, a poor Mexican-American community south of Salinas. And he’s developing a take-home science kit that will allow kids to learn about “the thermodynamics of water,” he says. The components of the kit: a thermometer, a clear ruler, and two plastic cups.

Sudran still considers himself an organizer as much as a teacher: “probably 60 percent organizer, 40 percent science educator,” he says. During his four years at the Farmworkers Union, he developed the patience and stamina to motivate people “who may not at first get the point of what we are doing,” he says. Without that, “the most exciting science curriculum may not go anywhere.”

Behind all of Sudran’s projects is the idea that adults should cut out the “teacher talk” and let kids try to figure things out themselves—even if they come up with the wrong answer. “The most important things in science are the questions. You can’t get to the answer without the question,” he says. “Explanations are very overrated.”

Bonus Interview: Dan Sudran, AB’66, founder of the Mission Science Workshop, explains why he tries not to explain.

as told to Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93.

In science, in order to teach, you have to be learning—rather than being the person who’s already learned and transferring that to others. I find that you can learn things in the most surprising places. You could learn something from a five-year-old.

For example, I asked a group of first graders to take two cups. Put hot water in one and cold water in the other, then take their temperatures. You find that one’s pretty hot and one’s pretty cold.

But what if you wait a day and retake the temperatures—what’s going to happen?

Some kids said the hot would get hotter, the cold would get colder. Some thought they would both get hotter, some thought they would both get colder. I thought that was really interesting.

We put both hands in front of us, one hand higher than the other, and we moved our hands to represent the temperature. We said, our hands could come together, and they would both be the same temperature. Or the top hand could go higher and the bottom hand could go lower. There was almost a certain visual, kinetic aspect: they might move further away from each other, they might move together, or they might converge. On a certain level, I thought, this might not have anything to do with concepts about heat, which they haven’t developed much at that age. It might have to do with concepts about how things move.

So I said, do you want me to tell you what I think, or should we do the experiment? Of course they wanted to do the experiment.

Then one girl said, I think they’re both going to be the same temperature. I asked her what temperature, and she said, the temperature of the air in the room. [This is what would actually happen.—Ed.]

I said, oh. Let’s call that “Tedy’s theory.” So then we were testing Tedy’s theory. We know Tedy’s pretty smart, but does that mean she’s right and that’s the end of it?

It doesn’t matter how smart the person is, or even if they’ve done the experiment before. I say, well we weren’t there. I tell kids, I’m from Missouri, which is the “show me state.” You’re always supposed to say, “Show me. I don’t believe it until you show me.” In science, everybody’s from Missouri.

Sometimes kids really want to know what I think. I say, okay, I’ll tell you, on one condition: you don’t believe me.

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