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Ashley Rydberg didn’t have much interest in science until she started attending Piner High School three years ago. But after getting inspired by a hands-on chemistry teacher, she became passionate about it and now plans to pursue the discipline in college and beyond.

That’s why Rydberg was excited this year when Piner announced a new partnership with Sonoma State University that will recognize her and other students who commit to an intensive science education program by guaranteeing them early consideration for admission to SSU’s science and engineering department. They’ll also earn a certificate at graduation that reflects their specialty in an area of learning known as STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

The partnership is the latest in Piner High School’s effort to become a STEM-focused school, according to Principal Sally Bimrose. For a decade or more, Bimrose said, a dedicated science faculty has helped move the school in that direction. Last year, their efforts culminated in the official opening of a $3.6 million science center, called SPARQ, that includes a planetarium, observatory and computer-filled classrooms.

As that center came together and students gravitated toward the school because of its added science offerings, teachers began dreaming up the STEM certificate program and the partnership with SSU.

“With the science building getting all sorts of attention, we asked, ‘How can we recognize students for all this science?’” STEM Coordinator Judy Barcelon said. The program they devised, she said, “is a little something extra. Nobody else in Sonoma County will have this.”

The deal has been in the works for more than a year and was approved this fall by the Santa Rosa City Schools board.

“I think it’s one of most exciting programs we have to offer students at this particular point in time,” said board member Donna Jeye. “It’s really relevant. It’s great to encourage students to pursue science and math.”

Lynn Stauffer, SSU’s dean of science and technology, said she hopes students will sense a commitment from SSU that will make college seem more feasible, especially to those who might be the first in their families to go to college.

“It could be an important factor in their success to have a university within reach of their home and family that says, ‘Hey, we want you to come here,’” she said. “It makes it a more accessible, realistic game plan for them.”

She and a handful of SSU students and professors came to Piner’s SPARQ Center on Thursday to talk to about 150 interested students. After demonstrations from the biology and nursing departments, Stauffer handed out letters of commitment from the university to students planning to pursue the highest level of the STEM certificate. To achieve that, students must check off a lengthy list of requirements, including: complete six, year-long STEM courses; attend science-themed lectures or clubs; spend some time shadowing a professional researcher or doing science-related community service; and complete a research project in collaboration with a local industry or SSU faculty member.

Students can also opt to do less and still be recognized with a lower-level certificate.

Kids on Thursday got a taste for what a science major at SSU might be like. A master’s biology student, Hannah Peck, gave a presentation on her work researching elephant seals, prompting questions from students such as, “What was the yellow stuff in the first slide?”

“That was poop,” Peck said, eliciting some laughs. She acknowledged, “the work can get messy.”

Another student asked how Peck used the blood and muscle samples she drew from the seals, prompting a more academic response.

Deborah Roberts, chair of SSU’s nursing department, demonstrated some basic nursing skills on volunteer students. She used a tympanic thermometer to check the temperature of a teen in a blue hoodie. He squirmed slightly as she prepared to put the device in his ear, but she assured him it wouldn’t hurt.

“98.4!” she announced.

The demonstration was good to see, Rydberg said afterward. She wants to go into the medical field and has already attended a nursing camp.

She and another senior, Kaitlyn Kruger, are planning to do a science project in collaboration with the Children’s Museum to earn the highest STEM certificate and hopefully go on to SSU next year. They are among about 20 students who have committed to completing that top level, Barcelon said. About 300 students have said they’re interested in participating in the program.

It is an exciting time to teach science at Piner, she said. “It’s so re-energizing. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for.”

Staff Writer Jamie Hansen blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.press democrat.com. You can reach her at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@press democrat.com. On Twitter @jamiehansen.