New director of science museum foresees expanded educational role

The Museum of Science in Boston straddles the Charles River; its new director , Dr. Roger Nichols, has a beautiful view of the Hub skyline from his office.

But it's clear that his vision arches right over that view to educational needs that the museum might address now that its physical plant is complete and paid for.

He sees three possible new directions for the museum:

* In-service training for math and science teachers in grade and high schools.

* Science-education opportunities for gifted or highly motivated children.

* Evaluation of computer software for science teaching.

''We should be training teachers near where they work; we could be coordinating a science-education program throughout Massachusetts and neighboring states to diminish the impact of teacher 'brain drain' to industry, '' Dr. Nichols says. ''We should be finding tuition and grants to encourage prospective science and math teachers.''

He pointed out the possibilities within the museum of demonstrating scientific phenomena. ''These demonstrations turn children on, not off,'' he said. ''The same demonstrations can turn prospective teachers on to science.''

''We are supplying teachers who take our elementary teachers' course with kits to make science real to their pupils,'' he added.

''But an institution like ours can't ignore the fact that the science textbooks in use in the schools today are two grades lower than they were l5 years ago.

''Recruiting and training math and science teachers is a primary need. Our institution has to respond to this need.''

Asked whether good teachers in other subjects could be assigned to teach science, Dr. Nichols responded that this might be possible in junior high school , but is more difficult at the high school level.

Can computers help fill the gap of science and math teachers?

''Computer technology is a tool in education and nothing more,'' Dr. Nichols said, smiling wryly as he noted that at the museum many visitors won't read the brief, carefully written descriptive labels, but will read everything, regardless of length, that appears on a computer screen.

''But apart from their obvious attraction to people, computers do play an important part in helping us think in quantitative and logical terms,'' Dr. Nichols said.

He said he has not yet visited EPCOT, the Disney complex in Florida that features computers as learning tools. ''Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley has 70 terminals; last year 40,000 people rented time on them,'' Dr. Nichols said.

''The hardware problems have been largely solved now,'' he said. ''The real remaining problem is with software. It's being produced commercially with enormous profits at stake, but nobody is really evaluating it. I'd like to see the museum assemble hardware, software, teachers, students, and evaluators for assessing the software. You can't expect the producers to do this. A specific program can be very creative, but not relate to the rest of the education a student is getting.''

A third prospect for the museum is providing special programs for gifted or highly motivated students. ''The Maryland Science Center is coordinating programs for 3,000 highly motivated or gifted children from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware,'' Dr. Nichols said. ''I feel that we have many such children in our catchment area who deserve the best education we can provide for them. And this is one role appropriate for the Museum of Science.''

Dr. Nichols said the museum staff is constantly considering how its exhibits can best serve the people who visit or should visit the museum. ''We have about 80 percent of the people in the greater Boston area as visitors,'' he said, ''so we want to make sure that we are planning our displays in a way that gives them something valuable each time they come. Every year the Museum has 800,000 to 900 ,000 visitors.''

He referred with great appreciation to Bradford and Barbara Washburn, whose vision of and energy in behalf of the Museum of Science brought it to its present stage of development.

''Our physical plant is complete now,'' he said. ''But,'' he added happily, ''we may within our existing walls install an Omnimax or Imax theater (a curved wide-angle screen). We are investigating right now whether we can put it in the Museum of Science.''

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