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This 'science bus' is visiting Alachua County schools

Dozens of students lined up outside Shell Elementary School in Hawthorne Monday afternoon, waiting for their turn to climb aboard what looks like an ordinary school bus. 

But on the inside, it’s a science wonderland filled with lasers, a water cyclone and a levitating Ping-Pong ball . . .

Every activity disguises science education with irresistible, hands-on fun.

The science bus is a project by the Cultural Arts Coalition, a Gainesville-based nonprofit run by NKwanda Jah. Its mission: to make science less intimidating.

“We want physics to be ‘Oh so what? I can do physics. Chemistry? Oh, I did chemistry in elementary school. That’s what we want them to leave with,” Jah said. 

Jah says the bus has been critical to bringing the coalition to rural schools. While the pandemic has affected test scores everywhere, most rural schools, like Shell, were hit much harder than their urban counterparts.

According to the Florida Department of Education, only 15% of Shell fifth graders met grade expectations for science last year.

Assistant Principal Isabel Carter said that’s due in large part to the lack of internet access in the rural areas the school serves.

“Really, there aren’t satellites. So even if we were to provide them with laptops and things like that, they still couldn’t access it.”

During the pandemic, it’s also been much harder to do hands-on activities, like the ones the bus provides. These activities help kids fall in love with science, which may be the first step to turning those scores around.

“I haven’t done science,” one student said. “But I learned today that science is actually really, really, really fun.”

Katie Hyson was a Report for America Corps Member at WUFT News from 2021 to 2023. She now works for KPBS in San Diego.