Scientists Take To The Classroom To Inspire Youngsters

Distressed at the prevalence of science illiteracy among young people in the United States, some scientists are bringing their skills to where they can perhaps help the most - the classroom. All over the country, individual scientist-parents are leading grade-schoolers on walks in the woods or fossil digs, chemists are conducting "road shows"

By | May 28, 1990

Distressed at the prevalence of science illiteracy among young people in the United States, some scientists are bringing their skills to where they can perhaps help the most - the classroom. All over the country, individual scientist-parents are leading grade-schoolers on walks in the woods or fossil digs, chemists are conducting "road shows" in junior high school auditoriums, and high school groups are touring national labs.

As more and more scientists bring their work to the young, the media image of the scientist as an eccentric, bespectacled nerd is fading fast. The word is out - science isn't fearful, but fun! Following is a sampling of innovative programs.

Back in 1985, the idea of teaching schoolchildren to manipulate DNA seemed a bit far-fetched. Weren't frogs, rocks, and litmus paper enough for precollege science classrooms? David Micklos, of the public affairs department at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Long Island, N.Y., and Greg Freyer, then at the lab and now an assistant professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, didn't think so. They developed the DNA Literacy program, a series of lab protocols to train precollege teachers in molecular genetics.

The need was compelling. "Teachers have a lot of constraints in carrying out DNA experiments in school. They are concerned about funding for equipment and reagents, safety, and scheduling - lots of experiments don't fit into a 45-minute block of time," says Mark Bloom, educational director of the DNA Learning Center and a plant molecular biologist. "But no one was interested in adapting protocols to fit these constraints. Micklos and Feyer's idea was to introduce three experimental techniques, which, when put together, allow the teacher to do everything needed to make and analyze DNA," he adds.

For more information on the programs discussed in this article, contact:

DNA Learning Center
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
334 Main St.
Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. 11724
(516) 367-7240

Math/Science Network
2727 College Ave.
Berkeley, Calif. 94705
(415) 841-MATH
Lou Harnisch

Argonne National Laboratory
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Ill. 60439
(708) 972-6925
J. Gregory Marlins, Director

Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, Okla. 75078
(405) 744-5000

But the National Science Foundation, from which funding was sought, did not initially see the value of such a program. Among the agency's many criticisms was that the plan was "too esoteric and elitist," recalls Bloom. So they turned to the local community. "Eight school districts each kicked in $10,000, which went for equipment and supplies to get the program off the ground. Then Citicorp gave us a Ford van," says Bloom.

The van took to the roads of North America in the summer of 1986, conducting week-long teacher training workshops in 28 states and Canada. In 1988, the DNA Learning Center moved from a small office in the main lab to a nearby unused grade-school building. And here its programs have flourished. A museum exhibits DNA technology and how it impacts on society.

The center's main attraction is the "Bio 2000" laboratory. The encouraging news is that the facility is continually booked by schools, and has a waiting list 30 institutions long. But this is symptomatic of a major problem - teacher education that has stopped short of the revolution in molecular biology. "As much as we like to train teachers, it will take a long time for many teachers to do this on their own, and some never will, because they do not have enough motivation. It's easy for a school within driving distance to bring the students here and let us do all the work," says Bloom.

The facility is geared to junior and senior high schools, because this is the point when students tend to veer from the natural interest many have in science in grade school, according to the founders of the DNA Learning Center. But the lab's visitors have also included younger students, as well as senior citizens.

Experiments currently being conducted in Bio 2000 are a DNA restriction analysis and bacterial transformation. In the planning stage is human DNA fingerprinting. In this experiment, now being done by a limited number of classes, "the students amplify their own DNA from a mouthwash. They swish salt water around and spit it out, and obtain cheek cells. Set up a PCR mix and away you go! It's quick and dirty - but it works," says Bloom. "We amplify in an area where there is a polymorphism. It's only one area, but in a class of kids, one will have a band that's up here on the gel, another down there," he adds.

The DNA Learning Center staff sees the Human Genome Project, headquartered at the nearby lab under the aegis of James Watson, as an impetus to introduce a unit on DNA into the classroom. "We are trying to transfer technology quickly from the research environment to the educational sphere," says Bloom. And, as the center's brochure proclaims, "Now is the time to sweep clean the [outmoded methods] of biology education to make room for the excitement of modern biology - to replace recitation of facts with frequent laboratory investigation. It is time to let the awesome beauty of the DNA molecule integrate biological phenomena for young people as it has for the last two generations of scientists."

A student nurtured on typical precollege curricula usually thinks scientists fall into four distinct categories - biologists, geologists, chemists, and physicists. But a mind-boggling variety of disciplines is represented at "Expanding Your Horizons" (EYH) conferences, designed to introduce young women to female scientists. These conferences, held throughout the country, are sponsored by the Berkeley, Calif.-based Math/Science Network, a professional organization whose goal is to encourage young people to pursue technical careers. "Students' experiences with careers is so limited. They expect to see a chemist at a lab bench, or a biologist with warm, fuzzy creatures. They have very stereotyped preconceptions," says Elizabeth Wolpaw, assistant professor of chemistry at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., who organizes EYH programs on her campus every other year.

At the May 1989 EYH conference at Siena, students spoke with 76 women scientists - including a forensic specialist, a veterinarian who saves injured wildlife, a science librarian, a hydrologist, a polymer chemist, a statistician, a pharmacologist, a public health specialist, and an epidemiologist. The students' questions ranged from the practical ("What courses do I need now to do what you do later?") to the disarmingly personal ("How did you find time to have children?"). At meetings such as this, a scientist participant may find herself describing graduate school one moment, and advising a youngster on how she can study physics without losing her boyfriend the next.

At a typical EYH meeting, panel discussions are followed by hands-on workshops. At Siena's conference, young women in one room filled cavities in real teeth, brought in by a participating dentist. Next door, young chemists performed "Kool-Aid chromatography," separating the pigments in a packet of the powdered beverage. Other conferees blew and measured bubbles, held snakes, made a cloud, used nondestructive testing to locate cracks in metal, and froze bananas with liquid nitrogen.

But it wasn't the professional stories and flashy displays that mean the most to students, according to their own written evaluations. It's the people. "These kids really need a lot of encouragement. When they see women who tell them that they can really do something, it makes a difference. What they appreciate the most is that these people actually talk to them," says Wolpaw.

Catalyzing technology transfer from the research lab to the classroom is also the goal of Lou Harnisch, a Chicago-area high school teacher spending a sabbatical year at Argonne National Lab (National Lab Briefs, The Scientist, April 30, 1990, page 4). Along with lab scientists Frank Vivio and Harold Myron, he has founded the "Argonne Community of Teachers" program. The idea is to educate and excite visiting high school teachers, so they will do the same with their students.

The Argonne project, like many other science education efforts, is "hands-on," involving what Harnisch calls "make and take" items - made by teachers, who take them into the classroom. "In the environmental area, teachers do a soil analysis using a leach pump. They make it and see how to apply it. Using an 18-inch soil profile, they pump water through and let it go out, and see to which layers nutrients and pollutants percolate. Then they take it home. In biology they build an electrophoresis chamber," says Harnisch. Next on the agenda may be an Argonne project to manufacture a biodegradable plastic from leftover fast-food french-fried potato parts.

Kids love space. Perhaps no other area of science sparks a child's imagination the way that the idea of living beyond the earth can. And, as the Russian satellite Sputnik proved a generation ago, the thrill of space exploration can propel a youngster into a scientific career. So when I heard about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's SEEDS program - "Space Exposed Experiment Developed for Students" - I immediately signed up, the geneticist/parent/child in me tremendously excited. When other parents brought chocolate Easter bunnies to their offsprings' classrooms, I trucked in pots, soil, and seeds.

Six years ago, 12.5 million tomato seeds began their incubation aboard the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) satellite, along with a garden of other experiments. After the seeds came down to earth aboard the space shuttle Columbia this past January, gold foil packets of "space seed" and "earth seed" controls were distributed to 40,000 educators, who in turn will distribute them - if the plantings go well - to some 4 million students. An accompanying booklet suggests experiments for fourth grade through college, but because the projects are relatively simple, I decided to try them with budding scientists in kindergarten and second grade.

Our experiment was deceptively simple. Students planted seeds with animal names ("hippo," "moose," "tuna," or "unicorn"), a blind code signifying whether the seed was from earth or beyond, and, if the latter, where among the 12.5 million seeds it sat aboard LDEF. My five- and seven-year-olds now know what an experimental control is, and what the term "double-blind" means.

Although some early news reports initially expressed concern over the possibility that seeds will mutate to produce a toxin, NASA promptly issued releases stating that toxicity was highly unlikely. After all, mutations have given us pink grapefruit and other wonders of the vegetable garden.

My class already has its first suspected mutant, a seedling that popped its head up days before its brethren and is continuing to rocket past them. I will help its thrilled owner, a second-grader, nurture it to maturity, so we can test its seed and peek at its chromosomes by the time third grade rolls around.

But the most excitement for me, so far, has come from Adam, a seven-year-old learning-disabled child. He has difficulty reading and paying attention. Yet when the class recorded its observations in makeshift lab notebooks, his entry outshone the others - he had meticulously drawn eight sequential scenes illustrating the life cycle of the tomato plant, all anatomically perfect.

I suppose leading kids in planting space seeds won't earn me a Lasker or a MacArthur, nor writing about it a Pulitzer. But Adam was my reward. For in such small triumphs of conveying the joy of discovery lies our scientific future.

Ricki Lewis teaches biology at the State University of New York, Albany - and, occasionally, at Pashley Elementary School in Scotia, N.Y.

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