Oakland Students Have 'Dinner with a Scientist' Tonight



From the department of good news in public education: Tonight, the Oakland Unified School District will be hosting its third annual “Dinner with a Scientist,” a huge semi-formal gala that brings together teachers, students, and working scientists from the local community.

Caleb Cheung, the district’s Science Manager, calls the event a kind of cross between “prom, Career Day, and speed dating.” He came up with the idea for the dinner after hearing about a smaller-scale version that was put together by the Office of Education in San Joaquin County.

The gist of how the thing works is that participating teachers each get to select two or three students to accompany them to the event — they might be science fair winners or just kids who have shown an interest in science. Everyone gets dressed up, and when they arrive at the event, each table will seat several students, a couple of teachers, and a scientist. In the past, they’ve had everyone from doctors at Kaiser to engineers who worked on the Bay Bridge to forensic scientists for the Oakland Police Department.

Each of the scientists delivers a short spiel on what they do and how they first became interested in science, and they also lead the table in some kind of activity that’s related to their job. The kids, for their part, are instructed to come prepared to ask lots of questions.

“A lot of the scientists are actually blown away by the type of questions that the kids come up with,” Cheung said.

The scientists switch tables every thirty minutes, so that by the end of the evening students will have gotten to experience a wide spectrum of different career possibilities in the sciences.

For the second year in a row, the event will be held at a facility in the Oakland Zoo, which means that participants will have a chance to check out the animals (for free!) before dinner. And, to jazz things up a bit, the menu for the dinner itself will feature scientific names for all the different dishes — for instance, “Dihydrogen Monoxide in Two States, with Citrus Accents” instead of plain old iced water with lemon slices.

  • Howard Ruffner

Cheung’s work with the “Dinner with a Scientist” program was honored last month when he was selected as one of five winners for the first annual STEMposium, a video contest and symposium that recognizes innovative ideas for teaching Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

For Cheung, the main benefit of winning the competition is that it will bring more attention to the importance of science education in Oakland.

“Science, especially in the elementary schools, is an area that has been de-emphasized in the last ten years,” he said.“A lot of elementary schools no longer teach science because of the overemphasis on testing.”

Cheung’s hope is that the “Dinner with a Scientist” event — along with a host of other, less-glitzy projects — will show that science education in Oakland is alive and well and that it needs to be supported.

Tonight’s festivities kick off at 5:00 p.m., but the event is only open to participating middle school and high school students and their teachers — don’t show up at the zoo asking to be served dinner. The district will host a similar “Dinner with a Scientist” event for upper elementary school students, also at the Oakland Zoo, on June 1.