Education

Science gets a pop culture twist in Modesto thanks to doctoral student

February 27, 2015 by Cindy O'Dell

Watch “The Walking Dead” and you’re likely to find yourself thinking about villains, zombies and plot twists.

Dave Menshew thinks about viruses and new ways to connect high school students to science.

A student in Brandman’s education doctoral program, Menshew is also a high school science teacher in Modesto, California, who sees the practical, and sometimes fictional, uses of science as a way to help his students overcome their fears of or disdain for scientific inquiry.

Ed.D. student and biotech science teacher Dave Mensew

Dave Menshew

He uses everything from CSI style forensics to zombies to teach students the basic science needed to meet California and national educational standards.

“What can I do to teach these kids?” isn’t just a rhetorical question for Menshew. Working in a city better known for car thefts and high unemployment that is within 100 miles of hundreds of biotech companies in Northern California, Menshew sees forging a partnership with that industry as way to reach his students.

The results have been paying off since 2007 with multiple awards for the program and for Menshew. But the biggest reward for Menshew is seeing his students being offered scholarships to attend college and continue their studies.

With biotech, a nontraditional approach

Just as Menshew has taken a less traditional approach to teaching science, he’s taken a less traditional approach to his own education.

At a time in life when many teachers are retiring or at least thinking about it, Menshew is determined to learn more and teach more. After a couple of decades of working in a business where teens were seen as a problem, a guard at Modesto juvenile justice center challenged him to help change the lives of incarcerated students.

It wasn’t long before he switched careers and began work as an alternative education teacher. Eight years later he decided to go for his single-subject credential in science and began teaching eighth-grade science. A few years after that he moved to the Modesto City School District teaching grades 9-12, earning his master’s in education from Chapman University College in Modesto (now Brandman University) as well.

Then came the challenge from Dr. Doug Kain, a biotechnology professor at Edward Teller Education Center at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (LLNL) and the lead teacher for a community college biotechnology program at Merced College. Menshew and other members of the school district’s science staff had been attending development workshops at LLNL. Kain challenged them to take the community college courses. Menshew did, earning an Associate of Science in biotechnology in 2005.

But why stop there? When Brandman added the Ed.D. program to its list of degrees, Menshew saw another opportunity.

“The Ed.D. program gives me additional skills. I literally come back and teach my students what I’m learning,” said Menshew after a three-day immersion in Irvine. “And I can say, ‘I don’t ask you to work any harder than I do.’”

The value of science

In addition to seeing the value of being a lifelong learner, Menshew is passionate about the need for the public to better understand science.

“You need science to survive,” said Menshew. That’s why he tries to “connect the dots” from fictional television characters and world events such as tsunamis and earthquakes to his students.

“We have to up our scores. The nation needs to wake up about science,” he said.  But he also thinks people are afraid to be science teachers, noting that he’s one of the few in Brandman’s Ed.D. program.

Teachers can suffer from burnout and general unhappiness, he said, especially with changing standards and increased demands. Introducing new programs, such as the integrated one stressing biotechnology, can be stressful.  Resources can be limited so Menshew tries to forge partnerships with biotech companies.

And he attends every workshop and conference he can get to, both to present information about the biotech science program and to learn from others. The Journal of Commercial Biotechnology recently published his peer-reviewed article detailing the history, successes and challenges of the program at James C. Enochs High School, “Using biotechnology, CSI, and zombies to promote science education in one of America’s most challenging regions.”

Menshew doesn’t wait for students to arrive at his high school. He uses his current students to reach out to younger student in a series of public science outreach events, most recently having students explain and demonstrate the Foldscope origami microscope developed at PrakashLab at Stanford University.

Eight years ago when the program began, Menshew thought it would be an interesting way to teach a little science. Now he sees it as a gateway for students to college and careers that didn’t even exist when he first headed off to school.

“It’s a little bit like fishing,” he said of teaching. “I throw ideas out and see who steps up.”

Here are some other ways the doctoral program is transforming the way educators and others view leadership.

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