WATSONVILLE — When the California Community Science Workshop in San Francisco received a national grant in 1997, one of its instructors came to Watsonville to seek permission to expand the program in the city.
Curt Gabrielson’s pitch to city officials paid off, and now, 20 years later, the Watsonville Environmental Science Workshop reaches more than 600 kids a week as well as 4,250 free after-school science lessons a year.
At first glance, the main workshop in Marinovich Community Center appears to be cluttered and disorganized.
The space includes sections in which young people can study and design electronics, and others where they can create costumes and make things out of wood.
It is a space where artists, scientists, carpenters and curious alike can find a workspace, and possibly meet like minds with whom to work.
In selecting materials, participants can choose from rolls of paper, scraps of cloth and buckets of bolts, among other things.
There are minerals and fossils to study, and a place where aspiring musicians can focus on that art.
It is free and open for any young person who wants to nurture his or her creative side, and numerous projects in various stages of completion are scattered throughout the shop.
But through the clutter, organizers see the potential to mold young minds into those of scientists through unbridled exploration.
“That’s the beauty,” said Coordinator Darren Gertler. “Kids can make whatever they want. Our goal is making science accessible.”
The workshops are open to children of any age, although those 6 and younger must be accompanied by “someone older,” Gertler said.
Luis Granados, 16, taught himself to weld, an endeavor that culminated when he built a large metal go-cart, a process he described as “fun.”
The organization will celebrate its 20th anniversary with an event on Oct. 13 from 5-7 p.m. at its headquarters on 120 Second St. in Watsonville, featuring a student fashion show and an open house.
The free program, now supported by sponsors and the city’s Public Works Department, allows students to tinker with a variety of materials considered surplus, giving those materials a new life while also teaching students science concepts.
But what makes the program so unique is that there are no guidelines, and students can build and create whatever they want, however they please, according to Gertler.
“Half the time the kids are having so much fun they barely realize they are learning science,” he said. “That means it’s working.”
The Watsonville Environmental Workshop has four locations: Marinovich Community Center, Davis Avenue Center, Nuevo Amanacer, and its newest spot, River Park.
It also has a mobile program, bringing the tools and materials to the community at locations such as Ramsay and Pajaro parks.
The workshop also organizes 13 after-school sessions a week at local elementary and middle schools, according to Gertler, for a total of 4,250 science lessons a year. High school-aged students also join adult staff in providing the lessons, serving as a role model for the younger students, he said.
“I’ve seen the impact the science workshop has on the students all across town,” he said. “We are really proud and happy to be here.”