A seventh grade student participating in the Be a Scientist program at King Middle School. Photo: Diane Dew

Several years ago, UC Berkeley plant biologist Mary Wildermuth was volunteering at Oxford Elementary, her child’s school. How, she wondered, could she infuse more of the excitement and reality of science into the curriculum?

With a grant from the Berkeley Public Schools Fund, Wildermuth’s ideas were turned into the Berkeley schools’ Be A Scientist program, which is now active in all the district’s seventh grades. Over the last three years, more than 300 research scientists from UC Berkeley have gone into middle school classrooms to mentor students in science. With funding from the Public Schools Fund, the university’s Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund, and from Berkeley Unified, the program is a model for teaching the new Next Generation Science Standards.

“Be A Scientist is an example of the Fund starting something and then the district picking it up,” said Erin Rhoades, executive director, Berkeley Public Schools Fund. “We’re trying to focus and direct ourselves to things that have a district-wide impact.”

The fund has spent $520,000 this year on grants and programs for Berkeley schools. About one-third of its annual budget will be raised this Friday at the annual Spring Luncheon, where Be A Scientist provides this year’s theme. Wildermuth and Matt Hinckley, a science teacher at Longfellow Middle School, will be honored at Friday’s luncheon.

Longfellow is the site for the other major STEM project with BPSF funding, the district’s first “makerspace,” with additional support from Oakland-based Maker Ed. A makerspace, sometimes called a hackerspace, is a collaborative studio space for the kind of creative endeavors popularized by the technology-driven “maker culture.”

Strategic impact grants like the Be A Scientist program and Longfellow’s Makerspace are becoming increasingly important to the fund. But the bulk of its funding still goes to project grants, which now go to over half the teachers in the district each year.

“The luncheon is the way we communicate to our stakeholders and supporters the value we bring to the district,” said Rhoades. “And we communicate how we’re expanding our impact.”

Tickets for the Berkeley Public Schools Fund spring luncheon are available through Wednesday. Berkeleyside is a sponsor of the luncheon.

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...