Science in a Garage
By Molly Michelson
Mission Science is part Exploratorium, part California Academy of Sciences, part Maker Faire and part super-cool science class. Founded by Dan Sudran in his San Francisco Mission district garage over 20 years ago, Mission Science now has two locations in the city and a handful of other locations around the state.
Sudran didn’t start out as an informal science educator. He began his career as an organizer for the United Farm Workers (UFW) in Idaho. Through his work with the UFW, he eventually found his way (via California’s Central Valley) to San Francisco. When he left the organization in the mid-1970s, many of his friends were at Hewlett-Packard, “working with their hands and fixing things,” he says. It sounded exciting, so he began studying electronics at City College. He received an associate's degree and continued to work at the local junior college as a technician.
His curiosity about how things work spilled over into his home, the aforementioned garage, and expanded out into the neighborhood, attracting mostly Spanish-speaking kids. “They were very curious,” Sudran says. They would bring him rocks to look at under a microscope, check out the animal carcasses in his freezer, and take apart electronics.
In 1991, he convinced his superiors at City College to move his “workshop” there, setting up activities for the kids of adult ESL students two afternoons per week. Then he moved to his current location in the old auto shop of Mission High School, continuing to reach out to kids in the neighborhood. He also partnered with schools in San Francisco Unified School District to fill in gaps in their science programs.
In 1995, Mission Science Workshop (MSW) received a National Science Foundation grant to expand to other underserved communities in the state. Currently there are additional MSWs in Sanger (near Fresno), Watsonville and Greenfield (near Salinas), where Sudran ran into one of the farmworkers from his organizing days—now the grandfather of an MSW student. Last year, MSW opened a second location in San Francisco, in a church in the Excelsior district.
Sudran has never stopped learning or exploring life, and his curiosity continues to infect those around him. Questions from kids that he can’t answer become a quest for him to learn more.
And unlike some of those other endeavors that started in a garage, Sudran did not start MSW for fame and fortune. “Since UFW, my goal has been to improve the world and address social injustices, and that really hasn’t changed,” Sudran says. “I want these kids to have an understanding of the world so they won’t be alienated by it.”
Today, MSW locations provide electronics, live animals, interactive exhibits, bones, do-it-yourself stations, a mobile whale, and a team of talented educators to help make them all meaningful. The afternoon I visited the Mission High location, a 12-year-old girl wielded a saw as she worked on a project, and Sudran gave me sea lion and cow vertebrae to put together like a puzzle—just an average day at MSW.
It’s awesome—but don’t take my word, get yourself there! The Mission location is open every second Saturday, September through May, and the Excelsior location is open every third Saturday.
Recently, MSW has seen its share of grants and funding shrink. They have an IndieGogo fundraiser underway, and are holding a Fund-a-bration this Friday, May 16 at the Mission High auto shop with food, music, guest scientists, and a human hamster wheel (you know you want to try it). Come check out the ultimate science garage party.
Image: Mission Science