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Engaging SFUSD Students in Science

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fourth grade students raise hands
San Francisco Unified School District fourth-graders put their scientific minds to work.
Photos: Noah Berger

By Marci Rosenberg, MS1

The science lessons I remember the best from my childhood focused on applying scientific principles to something tangible. That lengthy chalkboard lesson about ecosystems? Sadly, the details are long forgotten. That time I helped make an enrichment activity for an endangered animal species at the San Diego Zoo? Well, that left me with a visceral understanding for why protecting diverse ecosystems matter. MedTeach, a science education collaboration between UCSF School of Medicine students and SFUSD schools, brings the same ethos to learning about health and the human body.

Founded in 1989, MedTeach is run by the Science and Health Education Partnership (SEP). The program partners UCSF medical students with SF public school teachers to plan and co-teach a series of hands-on human body and health lessons in kindergarten through fifth grade classrooms.

SEP coordinates numerous other science outreach efforts, including the High School Intern Program and HealthTeach, MedTeach’s sister program. HealthTeach expands the pool of UCSF volunteers to dental, pharmacy, nursing, and physical therapy students.

Jean MacCormack, an SEP academic coordinator, explains, “I think all of us at SEP do this kind of work because we have an overarching belief in, and respect for, bringing people together in collaboration, to learn from each other and to utilize their talents to bring authentic science experiences to young students.”

fourth-grade student hi-fives a medical student
A leap for science: MS1 Celia Haering with a student.

I jumped at the opportunity to be a scientist volunteer with MedTeach, and was lucky to have my friend and classmate, Celia Haering, join me. Celia and I were paired with three enthusiastic fourth-grade teachers Kathy Angus, Trish Juri, and Jen Partika. The five of us spent one of our first lesson-planning meetings at SEP’s Daly Ralston Resource Center at Parnassus, a comprehensive lending library filled with an incredible array of science education goodies, from a classroom batch of stethoscopes, to a set of human and animal organ specimens.

Celia and I have since given two lessons to each of the three fourth-grade classrooms. Our first lesson was on the heart and the second on the lungs (our last one will be on the brain). In the lung lesson, the class split into three groups and rotated through three stations: a “fundamentals of respiration” station with models and worksheets; an organ station with lung specimens from a cadaver; and a more physics-oriented station that employed a balloon-in-a-bottle model to explain the air pressure gradients that underpin lung inflation and deflation. At every lesson, my favorite part is seeing the students’ ‘wow!’ faces, and fielding their subsequent frenzy of questions.

Celia concurred, sharing, “We dedicate most of our hours to studying, and can become so buried in the details of the material that we’re learning that it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Designing MedTeach lessons forces us to reflect on the most fascinating things we’ve learned, and figure out how to develop lessons which are tangible to fourth graders.”

fourth grade students touch a brain
Team brainwork: MS1 Marci Rosenberg with students.

Of course, none of this would be possible without buy-in and support from teachers. Celia and I have been privileged to work with teachers equally eager to share advice as they are to let us take the lead. More than anything, I’ve been surprised by how grateful the teachers are to collaborate with us. In describing her affection for the program, Ms. Juri explained, “[MedTeach] provided a new opportunity for my students to see scientists that were young and cool and didn’t fit the stereotypical ‘scientist’ stereotype that they had in their minds...even the most squeamish student always wants to make sure that they get to glove up and touch a cadaver heart or lung.”

The quantitative and qualitative effect of these programs is impressive. Over the past six years, nearly 300 UCSF professional students have partnered with teachers in 32 SFUSD elementary schools, reaching approximately 4,300 students! The sheer number of elementary schoolers who are impacted by these real-world science lessons is marvelous, but zooming in to see the long-term impact of these early interactions on particular individuals is just as rewarding. Here’s one story: recently, Ms. MacCormack was busy conducting interviews for SEP’s High School Intern Program, a summer internship that pairs high schoolers from backgrounds underrepresented in the sciences with scientists in UCSF labs. Two of her interviewees, she reported, “mentioned first becoming excited about science in elementary school when the ‘UCSF scientists’ came to their classroom with organs and models and activities about the human body.” Those scientists? You guessed it - part of MedTeach teams!

To learn more about MedTeach and other SEP programs, visit

student hands on brain