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Hands-on Science: For Big Kids and Small

This article appeared in the July 29, 2011 edition of the Davis Enterprise.

By Edward Thomas
Special to the Enterprise

Since 1982 Explorit has become well known for its emphasis on hands-on education.  This approach immerses participants in the scientific process, so they can learn by actually doing the science, instead of reading or listening to someone talk about it.  In recent years this approach to teaching has become more popular and is now used by educators at every level, from Pre-K through college and graduate school.

Dr. Edward J. DePeters is a professor in the Department of Animal Science at the UC Davis.  Joining the faculty in the 1979 he currently teaches and researches.  DePeters is a nutritionist that works primarily with dairy cattle, studying modifications to the composition of milk.  

His work has made him an international reference for dairy nutrition.  However, he is called for a variety of animals.  He informed, “I work with milk from various animals including goats, sheep, mice, polar bears, humans, alpacas, and a few other animals.”

According to him “the teaching aspect of my position is what keeps me enthused even when things are rough.”  His devotion to teaching has not been unaccredited. 

He won the UC Davis Distinguished Teaching Award in 1998 and the UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement in 2009.  The $40,000 prize of the latter was donated in full to the Department of Animal Science forming the “Ed DePeters Family Fund.”

Hands-on education is critical in DePeters’s classes.  When he devises lesson plans he said he puts himself in the students’ “situation to come up with something that I think will excite and inspire.”  To him it’s all about taking science to application by having activities that mimic what is done in the real world.  

Captivating students is key.  To DePeters, “when the students get excited about learning something new, it gets me excited and enthused.”  To reinforce Biological concepts taught, he does not know of any methods besides providing hands on experiences.  

In class, DePeters use of hands on education integrates science into real life applications.  Outside of class he interacts with members of the agriculture community such as dairy producers, nutrition consultants, and regulators.  Here he must explain the science behind what’s done in the industry.  A tough task, but hands on experiences aide him.

Hands on education works for all ages.  With one of his classes they visited a retirement community to do a program on dairy products explaining butter, ice cream and cheese production.  “The students made the products and folks ate the products…the students did a great job, and the folks who attended had a great time”

DePeters, was asked for his opinions on hands on science centers.  He said, “Just introducing young kids to the wonders of science and how it applies to the world around them is important… Science centers should inspire young adults (and even old dinosaurs like me) to learn more about the world around them.” 

This entices individuals to investigate science in their own time to better understand information they might come across.  “Not everything on the web is correct so if a student reads more on the topic then the Science Center has done its job” explained DePeters. 

Whether it's being used in an Explorit program or in a university classroom, hands-on science education is clearly changing the way we learn about science.  

Explorit Science Center’s 3141 5th St. site is the location for field trips, programs for groups, astronomy club meetings, and Summer Science Camp.  It is also the hub for Explorit’s traveling programs that reach an 18-county region.  The site is open to the public for special events and to groups by reservation. For more information call (530) 756-0191 or visit

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