Sleeping bags in halls of science: saving US schools

THIS is a story about a hero. Not someone who had his 15 minutes of fame. He didn't. Not even someone who hit the cover of any major magazine. He didn't do that either. There'll be no bidding for the movie rights. But there ought to be. For Roger Nichols, director of the Boston Museum of Science who passed on last month, may have done more for his country and the world than many combat generals or political stars.

At a time when Americans need to re-inspire their education system and send a new generation into the curiosity-provoking, mind-inspiring realm of science if their nation is to remain a world leader, Dr. Nichols showed millions of average people how that job could be done.

He pioneered a system by which the private sector could help improve public education in science and mathematics. His approach was the opposite of the proposal for privatizing education that is currently stirring debate in Washington - a proposal that could replace one kind of educational decline with a far more dangerous societal decline in the future.

The heroism of Roger Nichols is probably best seen through the eyes of tens of thousands of young boys and girls. Particularly the girls. Few people this side of Madame Curie have done so much to inspire young women to realize that the fun of math and science is not a masculine preserve.

Most weekend evenings found the Museum of Science halls crowded with Girl Scouts and Campfire Girls bedding down in sleeping bags beside life-sized dinosaurs and hands-on exhibits that showed how machines or computers operate or biologic processes work.

On those weekends young girls lived with the secrets of how the universe works as intimately as they normally live with the knowledge of how their tape decks, stoves, or bicycles work at home.

So did the boys. Dr. Nichols treasured a note from a mother, which, characteristically, was in praise of someone else at the museum. She detailed how the commentator at the planetarium had often taken time after his lectures to answer questions from her young son. The staff member was, she said, ``like an old-fashioned movie of a man with a heart. He took the child into the [projection] booth; treated him as an equal, answered the questions very seriously.''

As a result, ``Something happened to one little boy; his wonderful mind got caught up enthusiastically upon the stars, space. ... You can pick your personnel, pay them, and get the most learned, but you can't expect that EXTRA [such as she found in this planetarium staff member]. I had to write because I want you to know what you have. ...''

What that mother did not know was that the indefatigable Nichols inspired scores of other such staffer-teachers at the Museum of Science. And beyond them, hundreds of teachers from the larger community who were able to learn more about the excitement of science by taking refresher courses at the museum - or by welcoming mobile exhibits and museum teams to their schools. And still further beyond that, the high-tech companies he enlisted in the job of improving science/math education. Or the science museums across North America and overseas that benefited from his drive to end static, dusty exhibiting and replace it with lively, interactive displays and touring up-to-the-minute supershows and audience-immersing Omnimax supermovies.

Like Winston Churchill, Nichols came late to his crowning achievement. He had already completed three careers - as a public health researcher; an entertaining, widely popular professor at Harvard; and as a pioneer in helping improve living standards in nations of Africa and the Mideast. He was in his late 50s when he was recruited to revolutionize the science museum. Also like Churchill, he did his climactic inspiring for just half a decade.

During those five years he made his museum a living, changing environment, a place that was different each time you came to it; that just as often came out to you if you were involved in science education in the larger community; but above all was lively, state of the art, and fun.

America needs something like 300,000 superior math and science teachers by 1995 if it is to regain its leadership as a producer of quality thinkers and quality goods. Those teachers cannot be created out of whole cloth. Programs are needed that extend the resources of technology firms and science museums to help galvanize and instruct that new generation of teachers.

The Nichols creed was: teach by doing. Do it today. Do more tomorrow. Teach others to teach still others.

He didn't believe in writing off inner-city public schools or any other schools that were slipping. The proposal from President Reagan's Commission on Privatization for vouchers to allow parents to desert public schools in favor of private schools would, I believe, have struck him as defeatist.

Rather than let declining schools become a mere decaying safety net for the underclass that cannot afford to migrate to private or parochial schools, Nichols would doubtless have gone to work to improve teaching in those public schools. To do otherwise would have been to waste the potential of those children left behind. It would also allow the creation of a class system of the kind that has undermined progress in many a civilization throughout history. Privatization makes sense in many areas; not this one.

The lesson of those enthusiastic girls with the sleeping bags and the boy in the planetarium projection booth is that good teaching can make a difference. It can turn a society around in a generation. Just as the never-flagging Roger Nichols galvanized a museum in five years.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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