Smithsonian 'Pizza Geography Unit' offers a tasty approach to science

On the walls of the Smithsonian's Chesapeake Bay Center for Environmental Studies here are snapshots of families with homemade pizza. But look closely, and you can make out a vague outline of the US in the tomato sauce, with green pepper mountain ranges and cheese-marked hometowns.

''These are the results of our Pizza Geography Unit,'' explains Laurie Greenberg, head of the Smithsonian's Family Learning Program (''or SFLP - I practiced in front of a mirror every day for six weeks before I could say it fast,'' she teases).

The pizzas are the result of one of 50 different lessons SFLP has developed to help families learn about science, while the families, in turn, help SFLP learn about ''how learning takes place in informal settings,'' says Ms. Greenberg.

What SFLP has learned so far is that ''families are really, really unique. When we sent out instructions on making the pizza, for example, we suggested that they use toppings to mark mountain ranges, rivers, their home state and capital, where Grandma lives, and so on.

''When they sent back their evaluation sheets,'' she says with a grin, ''we saw that they included towns where they had lived, lots of relatives, and nuclear power plants. One family even marked places where peace marches had taken place!''

The program fits into present educational trends, as Ms. Greenberg points out: ''Historically, somewhere around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution , we started to transfer a great deal of educational responsibilty from the families to the schools.''

But she denies that the Smithsonian is trying to teach families how to reclaim their educational role. ''Learning already takes place in the family,'' she says firmly. ''We are just helping it along by giving families content and methods.''

The content they picked - science - is an area where ''most parents, and teachers, feel less confident,'' says Ms. Greenberg, ''and need a little hand-holding.'' But experiments are designed to be strictly relevant to daily living and use ''the kind of things most people have at home.''

Aimed at ''the conceptual levels of children from six to 12,'' the experiments include a list of materials needed and step-by-step directions, with variations. ''On the pizza geography, for example, we suggested that parents of younger children might want to draw a map of something easier for them to understand - a child's bedroom, or the neighborhood,'' says Ms. Greenberg.

SFLP took their materials out to the neighborhood for testing, setting up experiments in libraries, schools, and at the museum headquarters in Washington, D.C. Their best results, they say, came from the ''Gee Whiz moments - when a child or a parent or somebody would say, 'Gee, I didn't think that would happen!' If we could develop a formula for Gee Whiz moments, we'd be all set.''

The program needs further testing, says Ms. Greenberg, and sought are families across the country who are willing to participate. ''Unfortunately, we can only spare two people for this project at the moment, so we have to start charging for the materials. But we are learning a great deal about them.''

One thing learned about informal learning in general, she says, is the ''tremendous amount of incidental learning that goes on. Some people wrote after the pizza experiment and said they learned that Mom isn't the only one who can cook dinner - that it's more fun when you cooperate.''

The families that sign up receive a packet each month. They are asked to conduct the experiment and report back on an evaluation sheet. Ms. Greenberg's favorite comment came from the family who said this was the first time they had been able to work together and accomplish something without getting into an argument.

Getting the family together seems to be a problem to many families, she says: ''Some of them have told us that the only real way to get together is for them to leave home and go somewhere. So we'd like to develop materials they can take to parks, or the beach or freshwater lakes. There's lots of potential here.''

But first, the program directors will have to find funds. In keeping with the new guidelines, ''we are looking for grants from private foundations,'' says Ms. Greenberg. Meanwhile, they continue to evaluate their materials with the hope of ''publishing them in some form so families everywhere can try them.''

If you have children between the ages of six and 12 and would like to sign on , send $11 for 12 experiments to:

Smithsonian Family Learning Project

PO Box 28

Edgewater, Md. 21037

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