Students who sign up for a Sally Ride Science workshop taught by Dr. Sasha Carter can expect things to get messy.
One of his most popular workshops is actually called Messy Science. And in all the classes he teaches, Carter cultivates a hands-on approach with an emphasis on putting students in the driver’s seat, taking chances (within the constraints of safety) – and having fun.
“I want people to take these classes seriously, but not too seriously,” he said. “It’s meant to be mostly fun. I believe we don’t have enough playtime these days. I want my classes to be structured but to be a time when people can play and try out ideas they’ve always wondered about in a safe, supportive environment.”
Since becoming a Sally Ride Science instructor in 2016, Carter has developed a variety of intriguing hands-on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) workshops, including Slime and Non-Newtonian Fluids, Physics of Fidget Spinners, Rube Goldberg Engineering, Wind Power and Walking Beasts.
He aims to create the kinds of classes he wished he could have taken as a child.
“I went to science camps growing up, and a lot of it felt like we spent more time singing songs about Mars than actually studying Mars,” he said. “I would rather get my hands on actual science stuff. I want a class where, within the first 15 minutes, people are starting to do experiments.”
Carter’s classes have become a mainstay of Sally Ride Science programs, said Megan Lancaster, who manages programs for UC San Diego Extension. “Through the years, Sasha has shown himself to be an exceptional instructor, whether he’s using slime to teach about Earth processes or standing side-by-side with students as they launch rockets into the sky,” she said.
Inspiring the next generation
Sally Ride Science was cofounded by America’s first woman in space 20 years ago to inspire girls and boys of all backgrounds in science. After Sally Ride’s death from pancreatic cancer, Sally Ride Science became part of UC San Diego under the direction of UCSD Extension.
In 2016, UCSD Extension launched the Sally Ride Science Junior Academy, a four-week summer program offering hands-on workshops on a wide variety of STEAM topics. Extension also joined with San Diego Public Library to create Library NExT, a program providing free Sally Ride Science workshops at local library branches. Both programs offer classes for elementary, middle school and high school students.
Carter, who has a Ph.D. in geological sciences, was finishing up his post-doctoral research on Antarctic water systems at Scripps Institution of Oceanography when colleagues told him about the Junior Academy. In his time at Scripps, he had enjoyed teaching and doing public outreach. So becoming an instructor for Sally Ride Science “felt like a natural fit,” he said.
He teaches several Junior Academy classes each summer as well as Library NExT workshops year-round. He also serves as an adjunct instructor at several community colleges, including Miramar, Southwestern, Mira Costa and City College.
Making good trouble
In Carter’s first Junior Academy class, Messy Science, students explore glaciers, volcanoes, mudslides and other natural phenomena through a series of noisy, messy experiments.
“The idea was to take science and take it sideways – using science to create a little bit of good trouble,” he explained.
“Too often, people in educational settings are like, ‘No, don’t touch this!’ And you definitely don’t want to touch live wires or strong acids...but there are a lot of things in science that are perfectly safe to handle, and sometimes experiments that blow up are actually more fun. Our goal is to create interesting accidents – but not dangerous ones.”
He also wants to help students learn how to handle the failures that are an essential part of the scientific process. “Science often goes wrong – you get experiments that are complete and total duds,” he said. “We want to enjoy that, to embrace making mistakes.”
For instance, in his class where students design and build a Rube Goldberg chain-reaction device, “It’s going to fall apart about ten times .… To me, that’s almost part of the fun – to find constructive ways to deal with frustration and to keep moving forward.”
Taking science online
When Junior Academy and Library NExT workshops went online because of the pandemic, Carter, like teachers everywhere, had to make adjustments. He got a special camera so students could see closeups of his experiments, and he tried to make sure students working at home had the necessary materials.
Some experiments had to be adapted for distance learning. For workshops where students make slime, for instance, Carter used a recipe that includes laundry detergent. “If we’re all in the same room, I can stop a kid from eating laundry detergent,” he noted. But for Zoom workshops, Carter had to find a nontoxic recipe. “We had to switch to marshmallows, cornstarch and oil,” he said. “It works pretty well, and it tastes great with graham crackers.”
Over time Carter has also learned how to adapt his teaching style for different age groups. Elementary students benefit from more structure, he notes. For older students, “I try to give them more agency to take leadership roles. I treat them more as colleagues, less as children…I realize that many of them have the training and experiences to think of ideas that no one else in the class has thought of.”
He makes a point of respecting each students’ autonomy. “Every student is going to interpret what they want to do a little differently,” he noted. “I want to give space for people to find their way and take ownership of their discovery process – while also providing guidance and structure, of course.”
In fact, the range of perspectives that students bring to his classes is one of the things Carter enjoys most about teaching. “It feels like you’re creating something new every day with a different group of people,” he said. “It’s planting an idea, like a seed, in the minds of students and watching how that seed takes different shapes, different forms, in every one of those folks.”
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