Adapted from a Core magazine story by Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93

On a typical day at the Mission Science Workshop in San Francisco, children and their parents pack the place for a Family Science Open House.

Children are banging on drums, running sticks over piano strings, and calling “Mom! Mom!” from several directions at once. The parents seem just as excited. The event at the workshop—named for the Mission, a predominantly Latino neighborhood—is free and open to all, although this event last fall was advertised only in Spanish.

Dan Sudran, AB’66, the workshop’s founder, stops to explain to six-year-old Keilani Diaz Moreno how a cow’s spine fits together. Bone by bone, Moreno clicks the spine into place. She gently pokes her mother to get her attention, then slaps Sudran a high-five.

Their brief exchange illustrates Sudran’s enabling approach to educating ordinary families about science.

“The most important things in science are the questions. You can’t get to the answer without the question,” he says. “Explanations are very overrated.”

Sudran is one of many College alumni seeking broader audiences for the kind of empowering education they received at Chicago. Across the nation, graduates with a passion for bringing great ideas to new forums are transforming education opportunities through programs that are at once innovative, old-fashioned, and free.

In Hyde Park, Hamza Walker, AB’88, teaches an art history class for the Odyssey Project, which provides free courses in the humanities to low-income students. That project is part of a nationwide program, the Clemente Course in the Humanities, founded by author Earl Shorris, X’53.

Shorris based his efforts on lessons from UChicago about the power of informed inquiry to help people of all backgrounds. He once said the course grew out of former UChicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins’ idea that “the best education for the best is the best education for all.”

Sharing a love affair with science

Sudran is not a trained scientist. In school, he hated science: “I had a horrible high school physics class that turned me off for years.” That outlook continued at UChicago, where he majored in history. He later went to law school but failed the bar exam twice. Realizing he didn’t want to be a lawyer, he took a job as an organizer with the United Farm Workers Union.

In 1981, Sudran became an electronics technician at City College of San Francisco. The job “stimulated my curiosity about how things work,” says Sudran, “which came to include nature in general, not just human technology and inventions.” Thus began an unexpected love affair with science: “All of a sudden, it came to life for me.”

About 1990, he set up a workshop in his garage, where he began to tinker with electronics and collect rocks, bones, and fossils. “I had a coyote in my freezer,” he recalls, “and roadkill drying in my backyard.” The neighborhood kids would wander in to see what he was doing, and Sudran, who was raised bilingual, realized he enjoyed showing them.

Two decades later, Sudran, now 67, is busier than ever. The workshop, based in the former auto technology shop at Mission High School, welcomes more than 250 children a week visiting on field trips. It offers after-school workshops and a six-week “summer scientists” program. Last December, Sudran opened a new science workshop in the old City Hall in Greenfield, a poor Mexican-American community south of Salinas.

Behind all of Sudran’s projects is the idea that adults should cut out the “teacher talk” and let kids try to figure things out themselves—even if they come up with the wrong answer.

“Socrates is my new best friend”

In Chicago, inside a classroom at 62nd Street and Ingleside Avenue, all the lights are off except one, so that Hamza Walker can use his laptop to project images on the wall. His art history class on this fall evening centers on the origin of museums, as well as “the art-culture system,” in the term of anthropologist James Clifford.

Walker, associate curator and director of education at UChicago’s Renaissance Society, taught the class, which the Humanities Division’s Civic Knowledge Project and the Illinois Humanities Council run jointly as part of the Clemente Course in the Humanities.

The idea behind the Clemente Course is old-fashioned, yet deeply radical: that education in the humanities can provide a pathway out of poverty. The yearlong course, open to adults earning up to 150 percent of the poverty level, costs nothing. Books and transportation are paid for; child care is provided on-site.

As well as art history, students take classes in literature, philosophy, U.S. history, and critical thinking and writing — all taught by UChicago alumni. Students who complete the program earn six hours of college credit.

Student Philisha Carter works two part-time jobs: conducting telephone surveys for NORC and providing homework help for an after-school program. “I know a lot of people with college degrees, and they’re doing what I’m doing,” says Carter, who brings her three children to class with her. “I want a college degree for myself. It’s for my own self-worth, and to encourage my kids.”

Honni Harris’s view is similar. “I always loved learning,” she says, but in high school, divided into “the haves and the have-nots,” she felt like the teachers overlooked the have-nots. She dropped out of Kenwood Academy her junior year. “I’ve always been opinionated. This is the first time that’s been looked upon as something good,” says Harris. “If President Obama was sitting right there, I wouldn’t be intimidated to discuss Socrates with him. Socrates is my new best friend.”

“This is an incredible question”

Walker shows students photos of Shaker furniture, one of anthropologist James Clifford’s examples of a craft now categorized as high art. Shaker furniture, like modern furniture, is known for “elegance, simplicity, and excellent craftsmanship,” Walker explains. “But from their point of view, it comes from living a life without any frills.” The students nod. “It’s not a collector base for Shaker furniture—it’s a cult. Oprah was buying so much, she was single-handedly driving prices up.”

“Let me ask you a question,” says Harris. “Is it expensive because of the craftsmanship, or because it goes back to their tradition, or both? Why should I have to pay for their tradition?” The class laughs explosively. “What if I really don’t care about them or agree with them? Why is that added on?”

“This is a fabulous question. This is an incredible question,” says Walker.

“What you’re saying is actually implicit in Clifford’s argument. This chair is an expression of the Shakers. It is of them, it is them,” he says. “A similar modernist one—that’s just a good piece of furniture. It doesn’t express the collective religious aspirations and way of life of a people. For that, you gotta pay more.”

“Those quilts are lovely, but who says they’re art?” says Harris. “I think art is personal. No one should be allowed to say what’s art and what’s not.”

At 8 p.m., they begin putting away notebooks and pulling on coats. As the other students drift away, Harris lingers in the classroom to keep talking with Walker about museums.

She might end up waiting longer on the El platform, but she’s been waiting a long time—decades, in fact—to have discussions like this.

For a full version of this story, visit the Core.

Originally published on March 12, 2012.