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Innovator Juan Padilla: Science Lessons à la ‘Cart’

Juan Padilla’s big idea brings opportunity to all kids
Photos by Kim Sanford

Students put crackers and bread pieces inside plastic baggies, add water, squish, and watch how the mixture clumps. When food is chewed in the mouth and goes down the esophagus, it looks like that, explains Juan Padilla, a sixth grade teacher at Jefferson Academy in Hanford and a member of the Hanford Elementary Teachers Association. Next, to simulate stomach acid breaking down food on its way to the small intestine, students add coffee to the concoction. Some of the mixture is poured into containers of fake blood, demonstrating how nutrients enter the bloodstream and become absorbed.

The youngsters work in groups, pouring and mixing, clustered around four portable science labs that contain sinks. Eventually students are told to cut the bottom corner of the baggie and squeeze out the concoction, to show how the large intestine helps food depart from the body.

“Oh my god, it’s poop,” the students cry delightedly.

Juan Padilla works with students at a portable science lab.

This type of hands-on experiment to implement the Next Generation Science Standards was impossible until last year, due to the configuration of desks and no counter space. Then Padilla thought of creating portable science labs on wheels, equipped with microscopes, petri dishes, slides, cylinder sets, gram scales, test tubes, pipettes and even fire extinguishers. CTA’s Institute for Teaching funded the project with a grant of nearly $20,000.

“Students are definitely much more enthusiastic about science,” says Padilla. “Before, science was hypothetical. Now students do experiments in real time. It’s more exciting. Students are not just studying science — they see themselves as scientists.”

For students, science has never been so enjoyable.

“Mr. Padilla always has interesting experiments and makes learning fun,” says Gianna Garcia. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

There was fanfare and excitement when the portable labs were rolled out last year, recalls Padilla. “Kids came in and said, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to do real experiments now!’ The principal and learning director walked in and said, ‘Wow, this looks like a real science classroom with all the bells and whistles.’ Other teachers on-site were thrilled because, of course, it’s all about sharing.” The labs easily roll into other classrooms.

“Parents came and saw students looking at their own cells under a microscope, and there was definitely a wow factor.”

In Hanford, an agricultural town near Fresno, half the residents are Latino, and many are struggling financially. So it’s crucial that students have the same opportunities as those in more affluent communities, to prepare them for jobs of the future, says Padilla.

“So many jobs in the future will be science-­focused. This gets students thinking about those types of careers,” says Padilla. “Many of them will want to pursue science as a career. I sense that in them. And I think the labs will definitely help.”


Our 2019-2020 Innovation Issue

Juan Padilla is one of the innovative educators we highlight this year. Meet the rest:


Padilla, who has been teaching at Jefferson Academy since 2007, identifies with his students. He moved to Hanford in third grade and never left, except for attending Fresno Pacific University.

“I was an English learner, and there was not a lot of inclusion during that time,” he recalls. “I was put in a separate class and felt targeted. In college, a professor made it a point to always check in with me and kept tabs on me. That was rare at the university level. I try to replicate that with the little guys and be that kind of a teacher. It’s my motivation.”

Padilla created a sports science elective that incorporates the portable labs. Athletes love it because they learn about sports; science nerds love the data. It has brought all types of students together, and it’s so popular there’s a waiting list.

“You come to a point in your teaching career when it’s time to make things more interesting, branch out and find a way to reach every student,” says Padilla. “Innovation is exciting. It’s fun. It can be scary. For me, it’s all about getting out of my comfort zone.”

See cta.org/JuanPadillaIFT to view our video.

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