SCIENCE IN MOTION Pupils are up to the challenge
The statewide science outreach program was started by a New Castle native.
By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU
NEW WILMINGTON, Pa. -- For Wilmington High School biology teacher Connie White, it's a challenge teaching science in a rural school district.
A limited budget can't pay for the sophisticated equipment that most professional and college science laboratories use today.
But a state-funded program is giving White's students and others in Lawrence, Mercer and Butler counties some hands-on experience with equipment they would otherwise never see in high school.
Science in Motion is taking computers, spectrometers and other high tech material to area schools as part of a science outreach program administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
The $2.5 million legislative initiative provides funding to 11 colleges and universities in Pennsylvania who each serve about 25 to 30 schools with the program, said Jeff McCloud, a Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman.
Westminster College got $200,000 this year to run the program for high school and middle school students in Lawrence, Mercer and Butler counties.
What this does: "No matter the size, tax base or location of the school, students in a Science in Motion class have equal access to technologically cutting-edge equipment," said Dr. Timothy T. Wooster, director of Science in Motion at Westminster College.
"Few teachers in our state have the resources to run an effective laboratory program, but this program gives them that equipment."
Bernard Durkin, the mobile educator for the Westminster program, prepares the laboratory equipment, mixes any needed solutions and takes everything to the schools.
"This is a more meaningful laboratory experience," he said. "The equipment at most high schools is very, very basic. Not the type you would be using in industry today where everything is electronic and computerized. There is very little wet chemistry like the cooking and boiling that they do in most high schools."
Durkin and Kathy Shaffer, curriculum and workshop coordinator for the program and adjunct professor at Westminster, go to schools and assist the teachers.
The program also offers teachers workshops each semester that they can use toward their state-mandated continuing education requirements.
Background: Science Outreach started in the mid-1980s by Professor Donald Mitchell at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa.
Mitchell, a New Castle native and Westminster College graduate, said he noticed that Juniata had many more students graduating from its chemistry program than came into the school as chemistry majors. He started contacting and visiting local high schools to determine why.
"I was absolutely shocked by what I saw. I could have been in the same classroom I was in New Castle High School when I graduated in 1956," he said.
"Nothing had changed. Even at a school like Juniata we think nothing of spending $200,000 on a piece of equipment, but the high schools had nothing."
He also learned that teachers were often overworked, likely having only one chemistry teacher per school, and were not given any professional development through the schools in the sciences.
The science outreach program was created out of visits to nearby high schools and talks with teachers about their needs, he said.
The National Science Foundation agreed to underwrite the program for five years and eventually gave enough funding to keep it going through 1997, he said.
Growth: A story about the program on the ABC Nightly News gave it a boost and educators from other states were calling Mitchell for information. It has been replicated in Alabama and Delaware and by some colleges, including Purdue University in Indiana and Occidental College in Los Angeles, Mitchell said.
Pennsylvania legislators eventually agreed to pick up the funding when the NSF grant expired, he said.
Mitchell said students who had science outreach courses scored higher on tests than those who didn't in two independent studies conducted to evaluate the program.
State officials are pleased with the program, McCloud said.
It costs about $50 per student to administer each year and it helps schools meet state science standards, he said.
"Science is an ever-changing field and it's really important that teachers and students can keep up to speed with what's going on. It's a great opportunity for them, especially in rural school districts where they may not be able to afford the high-tech equipment," McCloud said.