Baffled by Big Bangs And Brachiosaurs?

Science museums are on red alert to help out

On any given day, adults and children are visiting science museums and practicing their "scientific process": asking questions, hypothesizing, experimenting, evaluating, and drawing conclusions.

Egged on by hands-on and "minds-on" activity stations, they might find out how a fish's shape determines its speed, or what archaeologists do.

It's all part of an effort by science museums around the country to reach out more actively to inquirers of all ages - especially those who think, for example, that paleontology has something to do with buckets.

According to a 1994 survey conducted by Louis Harris and Associates and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, 68 percent of the American public believes that science will solve many of the world's problems, but the majority of adults lack basic scientific knowledge. For example:

* 65 percent don't know how many planets are in the solar system. (There are nine.)

* 35 percent believe that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. (Only in the movies.)

* 87 percent were unable to identify the causes of the hole in the ozone layer. (Chlorofluorocarbons are the main cluprit.)

These brow-raising responses lit a fire under the AMNH. Bolstered by an $8 million grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the museum in December launched the National Center for Science Literacy, Education, and Technology. The grant is the largest NASA has given to any US museum.

"There is such a tremendous urgency for us to be involved in education," says museum president Ellen Futter, adding that technology can help reach a much broader group of people.

Through the center, the museum's collection of 33 million species and artifacts and team of 200 scientists will be more accessible to classes, libraries, community centers, and even homes.

AMNH's Center for Science Literacy, for example, helped coordinate a live telecast, "Live From Mars," with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., last July.

The museum will soon team up with the Discovery Channel Online and offer daily dispatches from a correspondent and photographer who accompany scientists on a fossil-collecting expedition to the Gobi Desert.

Through the center's "Biodiversity Counts" curriculum, middle school students take inventory in their own backyards, observe species behavior, collect data, make analyses, then share their findings on the World Wide Web (see story below).

"Nationally, education is the hottest issue," says Bonnie VanDorn, executive director of the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC), a nonprofit organization of science museums. Some 1,500 institutions in the United States have a mission to promote informal science learning, according to ASTC.

Dennis Bartels, head of outreach at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, says the last 10 years have been pivotal. "Interactive science centers have grown up," he says.

Outreach by the Exploratorium includes the Teacher Institute, which provides workshops for in-service science teachers, and the Children's Education Outreach Program, which takes exhibit-based activities to underserved children and teens in their own neighborhoods. The program brings Exploratorium booths to street fairs and after-school programs.

Teacher training is also an important component at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. "What we do for educators - and for parents and people who work in community education - is help them build basic skills they can use every day," says Phil Hanson, head of outreach, education department.

At the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, Carol Parssinen, vice president of the Innovation Center, talks of a three-pronged approach: technology education, school reform, and student leadership.

"Girls at the Center" is a program, funded by the National Science Foundation, that joins the Franklin Institute and Girl Scouts USA. Family-discovery days help kids and parents understand science together. On Feb. 12, 10,000 students from 23 schools in the Philadelphia area will participate in "A Scientist in the City." They will post their investigations of science and urban life on the Web.

"Technology has opened up possibilities of connection we couldn't have dreamed about three years ago," Ms. Parssinen says, adding, "We all need science in our lives."

Science Museum Web Sites

American Museum of Natural History:

Franklin Institute Science Museum, Philadelphia:

The Exploratorium, San Francisco:

Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago:

Museum of Science, Boston:

St. Louis Science Center:

Oregon Museum of Science and Industry:

National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution:

Science Museum of Minnesota:

Orlando Science Center:

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