Today at Berkeley Lab

Cycling for Science: Lab Researcher Recounts her Cross-Country Trek

By Keri Troutman

science cycle

In one of the rainiest summers they had ever experienced, two scientists traversed the country by bicycle to share their love of science and renewable energy with middle-school students. Berkeley Lab research associate Rachel Woods-Robinson (left) and science journalist/Cornell PhD student Elizabeth Case, friends since they met in the physics department at UCLA, called their endeavor Cycle for Science. Though they taught lessons, they gained many of their own as well.

“This was a completely transformational experience for me,” says Woods-Robinson. “Both in terms of the actual physical and mental journey and in what I learned about science education in this country.”

As they pedaled east, the two women taught hands-on lessons at middle schools and summer programs across the nation using a solar-energy teaching tool they developed and funded through an Indiegogo campaign in the months prior to their trip. Their tool, a miniature, 3D-printable, solar-powered bicycle called the “Sol Cycle,” helped them teach kids about photovoltaics and simple circuits. They also interviewed teachers and counselors they met during their visits to get a sense of how science is taught in different communities.

Atlantic together bikesThe cyclists started their journey by climbing Mount Tamalpais in Marin (a friend’s idea that nearly destroyed them since they hadn’t actually trained with fully loaded bikes, says Woods-Robinson). After that, it was on to Sacramento for their first lesson. “I felt nervous and unprepared, and NBC was filming it,” says Woods-Robinson, “But it ended up coming together well – the kids had fun tinkering with the Sol Cycles and the teacher we met there was so inspiring. She even started her own robotics department!”

(See the NBC news segment about Cycle for Science here)

Their curriculum and teaching style evolved along the trip, becoming more hands-on and experiential. “I thought a lot about how to make our lessons more impactful while we were on the road,” recalls Woods-Robinson. “I remember we came up with a skit to teach solar energy while climbing a mountain pass in Oregon, and used it in every lesson thereafter; bicycling was part of the process in more ways than just as a mode of transport.”

Overall, the two women visited five classrooms and five summer camps in California, Idaho, Wyoming, Iowa, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New York. What they saw in the various classrooms and learning environments they visited varied widely. In Idaho, they visited two schools, which were both subject to the same state standards and testing but contrasted drastically: the smaller, more rural school had limited resources to work with and little if no parental involvement, while the environment of the larger urban school was the complete opposite.

“I was shocked to find out the teacher in rural Cambridge, Idaho, had a budget of only $200 per semester for all six of her science classes and could barely afford to buy staplers!” says Woods-Robinson about the teacher, Becca Rolon, whose interview can be found on their website. “And then just two bike-days away in Boise, the teacher at the public school we visited ran his own STEM Lab decked out with creative hands-on activities, a class drone, class butterflies, and a class GoPro. He told us funding was not particularly an issue; he had plenty of grant money and donations from parents and industry to cover the exciting lab demos.”

In some of the states, they encountered kids who knew almost nothing about climate change and renewable energy, or were potentially wary of it because of conservative viewpoints in their communities. In other states, they learned climate change was never discussed in the classroom, in part because of the strong ties between science education funding and the oil industry. A teacher they met in Casper, Wyoming, a big oil town, had worked on the committee to craft the Next Generation Science Standards, but because the standards included climate change and evolution she wasn’t even allowed to use them in her classroom.

Kids were often surprised to learn that science can be so exciting. At a community center in Philadelphia, a student initially told Woods-Robinson and Case that she hated science because it was boring. But after the Sol Cycle demonstration and a frank discussion about climate change, climate policy, and renewable energy, the student said she realized there was a role for science in her life and her future career plans in international development.

The rainy weather they encountered most days after they left California led to some interesting discussions with kids, who thought that they had discovered why solar energy was a bad idea. “When the Sol Cycles didn’t work, we ended up talking a lot about energy storage, and what you can do with solar energy when it rains,” says Woods-Robinson. “Not exactly the lesson we set out to give, but an important and relevant one.”

“Though we only met a tiny fraction of the teachers in this country, one thing they all expressed was that hands-on activities are key,” says Woods-Robinson. “Preparation for mandatory testing and a lack of resources can interfere with interactive learning, but the teachers make it happen anyway.”

“I have such incredible respect now for teachers who go out of their way to give kids the resources they need and deserve,” says Woods-Robinson. “That’s something I saw over and over.”

science cycle 2

All along the way, bicycling with loaded panniers constantly challenged the women. They carried everything they needed through the Sierras, across the Great Divide in the snow, through the Badlands during a 100ºF heat wave, and through the Allegheny mountains during thunderstorms, knowing that they had to keep moving forward. “We kept finding we could push ourselves to conquer things that seemed impossible before, like climbing the Rockies,” said Woods-Robinson.

Though they started off slow, riding around 40-50 miles a day, they ended the trip averaging 70-80. They camped a lot, but also stayed at the homes of people who they met on the road or through a cycling network called Warm Showers. And they splurged on a hotel once in a while. At the end of the trip, Woods-Robinson took the Amtrak train back home from New York, which she says was really interesting because she passed a few of the places they’d biked through, but spent just a week covering what they’d biked in twelve.

Woods-Robinson is back in Berkeley now, applying to graduate school and working at the Lab’s Materials Science Division again until January, when she’ll start at Heliotrope Technologies, a smart window company forged out of Berkeley Lab research. Case started her PhD at Cornell in Mechanical Engineering this fall, and both women are figuring out how to carry Cycle for Science on in the future.

Check out their website for more details about their voyage. Highlights from their interviews with teachers will be posted shortly.