Making it Work

Everyone agrees that America’s students must improve their performance in science and math if they are to succeed in today’s world and if the United States is to stay competitive in an integrated global economy. A report called Before It’s Too Late, published by the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century, stated that the most direct route to improving mathematics and science achievement for all students is, surprise, better mathematics and science teaching.

"Science is the dominant part of today’s culture. You enjoy life more if you understand why things happen and how things work," says Ben Selinger, author of Why the Watermelon Won’t Ripen in Your Armpit. He believes that today’s students are interested in learning about science, but that they need to be shown, rather than lectured to or taught from a textbook. "As the Queen of Hearts said to the Jack of Tarts in Alice in Wonderland: Verdict first, trial afterwards. Students insist that something is shown relevant to their lives, before they are prepared to invest effort in learning about it," he says.

Many schools around the country are taking the experts’ advice and are beginning to create science curricula designed to make students want to sit up and take notice–and come back for more. Cathy Colwell, a high school physics teacher at Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, Fla., has done some amazing things to enhance science education for students, mainly with technology. Two consecutive teams of Colwell's students have won a National Internet Science Fair, co-sponsored by the University of Central Florida and the U.S. Department of Commerce.

In 1999 a Mainland High School team won for a project called "TurtleLights," which involved research on the adaptation of light meters to help resolve the problem of light pollution on the ecosystems of endangered sea turtles. Last year’s project, titled "BioMass," explored sewage treatment facilities and proposed a vertical distribution system that would use less land and harness methane as an alternative fuel source."

"My teams worked hard to win their first place honors," says Colwell. "It is nice to be recognized."


Learning In Zero Gravity
Kathleen Holley’s North Crowley High School science class has had its ups and downs. In fact, it is the "ups and downs" that have left some students in the Fort Worth school still dizzy from their experiment. Holley took a group of science students to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for a week.

"We were selected as one of 14 teams from the western half of Texas to participate in the Texas Fly-High Class of 2000," she says. The program, sponsored by the Texas Space Grant Consortium, allows high school students to conduct experiments under the auspices of the Reduced Gravity Research Program. "Our assigned project was investigating motion sickness in a reduced gravity environment. We studied the effect of slow rotation around a vertical axis on the induction of motion sickness symptoms, including dizziness, nausea, sweating, salivation, drowsiness and other symptoms," she says.

The students boarded the KC-135 research aircraft at the space center for the experiment. The aircraft, a modified Boeing 707 known as the Weightless Wonder, but nicknamed the "Vomit Comet," is flown in parabolic arcs. It climbs at a 45 degree angle, then the engines slow down, and the plane and its passengers free fall over the top of the arc. The zero gravity environment lasts up to 25 seconds, and each flight included 30 of these zero-gravity maneuvers.

Sam Sipes, 17, was one of the students who participated in the experiment. "The opportunity to field-test some new math and science instruments in a situation as unique and exhilarating as the zero gravity environment of the vomit comet was without parallel. The experiences I had were truly remarkable," he says. The experiment gave students a new perspective into scientific research. "It was an immense amount of hard work, but we would not have missed it for anything," Holley says.


Rubbing Elbows With Astronauts
At the Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, students are taking their science education seriously. Last fall, noted physicist and theorist Brian Greene, author of the best seller The Elegant Universe, lectured at the school. Some students there are conducting an atomic oxygen erosion experiment with NASA, and later this year the space shuttle will carry that experiment to the International Space Station Alpha for a 12-month stay in space. And a senior at the school, Ann Lai, has been inducted into the Inventors’ Hall of Fame. Lai was featured in a Warner Brothers television special called 20 Teens Who Will Change the World that aired in February. She is one of three Hathaway Brown students to hold a U.S. patent for an invention she created.


Help From Higher Education
Four small, relatively poor and isolated schools in western New York are calling upon nearby Alfred University for help in developing new curricula that makes use of Geographic Information Systems technology and Global Positioning Systems. The schools, all located in Hornell, are Jasper-Troupsburg Central School, Addison Central School, Greenwood Central School and St. Ann’s School. Glenn Niles, assistant professor of education at Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y., once worked as a public schoolteacher and administrator and he knows first-hand the challenges K-12 science teachers face. "Students and teachers are often distracted by such tasks as memorizing distances, yet those tasks are meaningless if students are not provided with additional geographic context and background information," he says.

Combining satellite imagery, Global Positioning Systems and Geographic Information Systems, the students will develop multimedia presentations where they will explore the basic scientific explanations of natural phenomena and changes in their region.

"This gives students a chance to compare their own region with the regions around them, and to explore the similarities and differences among the regions," Niles says.

The University of Mississippi Medical Center is also active in helping to foster interest in science education for students. In a program called Base Pair, high school students and teachers do cutting-edge biomedical research. Each year, eight to 10 high school juniors and seniors are paired with scientists from the University of Mississippi School of Medicine for a semester. The students participate in basic or clinical research for at least two class periods a day. Before joining the scientists in the laboratories, students prepare by taking a semester class in their high schools, taught by a teacher who has also been through Base Pair.

The University of Nebraska State Museum has created a series of outreach kits on the research of women and minority scientists. The kits provide an inquiry-based multimedia learning tool to introduce upper elementary students to effective science role models. Each of the five classroom kits, for grades 4-6, contains a 10-minute video about the scientist and her work, and includes five, 50-minute classroom activities. The activities require minimal teacher preparation, and allow students to proceed at their own pace.

A team of curriculum experts and elementary teachers, who have more than 15 years elementary science curriculum experience, develops the activities. Students and teachers are also benefiting from the work being done by the Scotia-Glenville Children’s Museum, an all-traveling museum that provides hands-on science and related programs for children in the Capital Region of New York State. According to Executive Director Claudia McLaughlin, the museum enriches the lives of more than 75,000 children and adults."

About 80 percent of the programs are delivered in elementary schools in the area, with more than half focusing on science. "We offer 20 programs in science and math, each of which travels with a museum teacher," she says. Students learn about simple machines, whales, the solar system, pond life, birds, spiders, sound, weather, bats and other science topics. McLaughlin says the programs are always well received. "Students from preschool through middle school have age-appropriate activities which they remember long after our traveling teacher has left their classroom," McLaughlin says. "It is important to us that the students, including non-traditional learners, have a positive science experience, which sets them up for success and interest in science for the future."


Business Boost
Businesses, too, are realizing the need for improved science education and have begun to work with schools. Texas Instruments created the Infinity Project to help students learn and understand science. "If the United States wants to continue to be a world leader, we need to produce the creators of technology, not just the users of technology," says Torrence Robinson, a university program manager at Texas Instruments. "TI’s Infinity Project is designed to introduce real world relevance to students before they make career decisions. The concepts of algebra take on a whole new meaning when learned via an MP3 player instead of a notebook," he says. "Math and science come alive for students when we provide relevant examples from everyday life."

One school that has embraced the Infinity Project is the Booker T. Washington School in Houston. "I think the Infinity Project is great," says Sylvia San Pedro, who has taught at the school since 1993. "To describe the project, I tell people it is the basics of how a computer works. We cover how things are stored and transmitted by computers, and recently we worked on how a computer can imitate sounds. The students love the labs, and spend as much time as they can there," she says. There is still much work to be done in science education curriculum, but each day more and more schools are taking the challenge and creating an environment that will keep their students interested in science.

John Riddle,, is a freelance writer based in Delaware.