UC San Diego’s CREATE: Hands on Lab – Expanding knowledge Expanding Knowledge Through Active Inquiry, Collaborative Learning


In a Hands On Lab session, students used their bodies to represent lipid molecules and arranged themselves to illustrate the structure of a micelle.
By Nan Renner, Ph.D., CREATE; Leader, Hands On Lab, UC San Diego


Why does water “stick” together? How does soap work? What do bubbles and cells have in common? Can we make artificial cells?

A group of local high school students had the opportunity to find answers to these types of questions and explore fascinating scientific phenomena at the Hands On Lab, a one-of-a-kind inquiry-based experiential science course at UC San Diego.

Hosted by the Department of Education Studies and coordinated through the CREATE STEM Success Initiative, the Hands On Lab (HOL) is a teaching and learning seminar connecting campus faculty, staff, and students with local high school students and their science teachers. UC San Diego undergraduate students lead the HOL and provide rich, “hands on” science experiences to visiting high school students. UC San Diego undergraduates: enroll now for spring quarter 2016 HOL (EDS 132).

Last spring, 50 high school students participated through UC San Diego’s TRiO Upward Bound Math Science program at Clairemont, Hoover, Lincoln, Mission Bay and San Diego High Schools. Graduate students working in UC San Diego’s Devaraj Lab created lesson prototypes that seven dedicated undergraduate instructors developed further as the class progressed. UC San Diego School of Medicine provided the lab space and equipment. Additionally, the San Diego Science Project in CREATE recruited high school science teachers to attend the lab and field test HOL lessons, creating an exchange through which the teachers and undergraduate students learned from each other.

HOL 2015We Began the First Lab with Bubble Play


To invite high school students into our learning community and engage them with the concept of molecular self-assembly, students created bubbles and explored their forms in the first Hands On Lab. They also made miniature boats move with no more than dish soap. Later, they tested various boat designs and observed the effects of the modifications. During another lab, they looked through microscopes at cells of fruits and vegetables, noticing the similarities and differences among exterior skin cells and the interior flesh.

HOL 2015
HOL students compared and contrasted the structures of different plant cells, made visible with microscopes, and inferred their functions.


Using special preparations from the Devaraj Lab, students produced vesicles, spherical microstructures with an enclosing membrane, like that of cells. Throughout the seminar, they recorded and shared their observations and interpretations in words, diagrams, three-dimensional models, and by enacting skits of dynamic processes. Through these activities, the students explored relationships between structure and function at different scales. They learned about properties of molecules (e.g. polarity and non-polarity) and how molecules relate to the visible properties of objects such as water, bubbles, and cells.

HOL 2015
Students manipulated variables in the form of their Styrofoam boats, preparing for a soap-driven boat race with another team.


HOL 2015
Under the guidance of researchers from the Devaraj Lab, students followed a step-by-step procedure to create vesicles with a lipid bilayer membrane.
Goals, Challenges and Opportunities

With a spirit of experimentation and collaborative learning, the Hands On Lab works toward multiple, complementary goals:

• UC San Diego undergrads teach inquiry-based science and explore careers in education;
• UC San Diego labs share their research with broader audiences;
• Students from traditionally underserved communities participate in enriching science learning activities;
• K-12 teachers engage in professional development.

Additionally, the Hands On Lab exemplifies the kind of STEM education outreach goals supported by the CREATE STEM Success Initiative: to marshal university resources to develop strategies and opportunities for meaningful K-20 student engagement in STEM, while increasing the number and quality of STEM learning experiences for regional students and their teachers.

With these goals come challenges and opportunities. The gap between the HOL undergraduate students’ basic scientific understanding and the highly specialized, advanced knowledge of university researchers requires careful and creative translation of science content into activities in a logical sequence. This translational process takes time—to develop, test, and improve lessons—and requires an understanding of how people learn through interaction with materials and other people.

The Learning Sciences have demonstrated that learning involves much more than transmission of information. When we give undergraduate students the opportunity to facilitate learning experiences, supported by relevant literature, they grasp the complexity of the challenge. They think deeply about how culture, talk, and use of materials can shape activity that facilitates or impedes engagement and learning. They discover and practice strategies to promote inquiry, and they appreciate that the process can be uncomfortable at times, yet fulfilling. To achieve our goals within inevitable schedule constraints, we put theory into practice almost immediately. Drawing on this experience, some HOL students pursue careers in education (formal and informal), helping to address the STEM pipeline leak in inquiry-driven science learning.

Enhancing the Hands On Lab Experience

As we continue to implement the Hands On Lab, we aim to connect opportunistic and strategic approaches for next year’s work. We will:

• Build on and improve the lessons co-created by the undergrads and grad students, and share with others. (sharemylesson.com)

o For documents: http://www.sharemylesson.com/teaching-resource/invisible-attractions-50039841/ (Downloading documents requires setting up an account.)

o You can also link directly to the video produced by the students: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rS8eQTGVrc0(also available at sharemylesson.com).

• Evaluate the effectiveness of the lessons and articulate relationships between design choices in lessons and consequences for engagement and learning.

• Document what we produce (lesson plans) and what we learn. We may target grade levels based on specific needs or challenges in our local educational system.

• Align our lessons with the Next Generation Science Standards and focus on content areas that currently lack curricular resources. We will continue to draw on research, which questions the effectiveness of standard lecture classrooms and examines the consequences of inquiry through manipulation of materials.

• Use the learning sciences to inform teaching strategies that aim to engage all students in hands-on science, especially those currently underrepresented in most scientific disciplines.

HOL 2015
Students put water drops on a penny, which formed a dome shape, a visible manifestation of hydrogen bonding and the invisible forces of attraction among polar water molecules.
Join Us

We invite your involvement in our effort—to promote collaborative learning, exchange knowledge across the university and community, and strive toward greater equity in education by creating science lessons that are relevant, accessible, interesting, and fun.

• For UCSD researchers, Hands On Lab provides a vehicle for public outreach and education. Principal investigators, research scientists, and graduate student researchers can share their knowledge and practical skills, advising the development of high quality science lessons.

• For undergraduates, Hands On Lab offers opportunities to put learning theory into action, teaching younger students who may be the first in their families to aspire to a university education.

• For educators, Hands On Lab may inspire new ways of teaching, through exposure to leading-edge research at UCSD and creative undergraduates with fresh perspectives and ideas.

• For funders interested in educational equity, Hands On Lab supports research and development of innovative teaching strategies and student-centered learning outcomes.

HOL 2015
Students used clay and pipe cleaners to illustrate interactions between water and soap molecules.
Special Thanks

• Neal Devaraj, and his NSF Early Career Research Grant for funding the Hands On Lab;
• Christian Cole and Ahanjit Bhattacharya, graduate student researchers in the Devaraj Lab, for providing science content, prototype lessons, materials, and guidance;
• Fnann Keflezighi, manager of Upward Bound Math and Science, for coordinating high school student participation from Mission Bay, Clairemont, San Diego, Lincoln, and Hoover High Schools;
• Gabriele Wienhausen, Stanley Lo, Hermila Torres, Mica Pollock, Makeba Jones, Thanh Maxwell for recruiting undergraduate students;
• Kathryn Schulz, director of the San Diego Science Project, for working with high school teachers and consulting on inquiry-based learning;
• Daphne Summers-Torres for hosting the Hands On Lab at the UCSD Medical School and Thomas Pryor for helping with set-up and logistics;
• UCSD students, Heather Arnold, Kristy Figueroa, Manny Flores, Amy Heins, Mika Kamimura, Mareike Lamaack, Isabelle “Waz” Pinard, for their intelligent and generous collaborative work.