Science museums to the rescue: ingenious plans to bridge the science teaching gap

There may be an owl hooting somewhere in the distance. But Boston's Museum of Science still might seem an odd place for 250 Campfire Girls to roll out sleeping bags each weekend this winter.

It isn't. By deserting tents and trails for Spooky the Owl and computer chips , for fiber optics and mineral specimens, some 3,500 young Campfire Girls will be taking part in one of 10 major programs through which the Boston museum - like many of its sister science museums across the nation - seeks to repair the generally grievous state of American science education.

The science campout for young girls is perhaps the simplest of the 10 programs. But its aim is important: to arrest the dropout of females from the world of science. Unless girls are exposed to the fascination of science in a non-intimidating way at an early age, by eighth grade that subject becomes a white male preserve. To reinforce the point, women instructors from the museum will guide the weekend sessions.

The other nine programs include: a boarding school for gifted science and math students; an intensive program for students and teachers in nearby city schools; science kits to aid schools with specimens and experiments; videodisk films made with Public Television's NOVA crew; a nationwide collaborative of eight museums to produce traveling exhibits on such up-to-date subjects as robotics and science in sports; seminars for gifted students coupled with summer mentorships with scientists at nearby technical industries; a computer center available to students, teachers, and families; teacher training programs; and a dramatic Omnimax film theater.

Altogether, these science education plans represent a remarkable shift for the 154-year-old museum. Until two years ago, it had been primarily a very good hands-on museum, to which parents and kids could troop on a rainy Saturday, or to which an Earth Sciences teacher could plan a field trip. In 1982, Harvard Professor Roger Nichols signed on as director, and began an intensive drive to broaden the reach of the museum in the science education field.

There should be no doubt about the need. Mid-'80s concern over lagging science and math education is well-founded. A September report by the Second International Mathematics Study showed US junior and senior high school students were only average or worse in comparison with students in 22 countries. A late- 1983 study comparing US sixth-graders to those of Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Japan, Sweden, and Switzerland found US students ranked last in math, sixth in science.

Since 1957, reformers have tried many formulas to overcome the teaching gap: New Math and PSSC physics, a mobile corps of master teachers, local school-industry ties, TV science teaching, videodisk instruction, and classroom computer use.

Dr. Nichols and the Museum of Science have, in essence, tied together the best of such programs, and added some powerful new stimuli to woo children. The museum's 10-program package provides the delight of the unusual - a break in classroom routine. It works with and helps to improve existing teachers. It permits the widespread use of up-to-date equipment that is often too expensive for individual schools. It inspires both awe and intimacy with the sciences. Some of its programs provide individual pacing for slow or fast learners. And, as noted above, it helps girls and minority students, as well as the gifted, to become addicted at an early age.

Foundations and government agencies seeking to end America's science-education slump could hardly find a more cost-effective approach than funding such museum plans across the country.

To grasp the impact of programs under way or planned, it's useful to look at thumbnail sketches of several:

For the gifted. A residential statewide high school for gifted and talented students, modeled on the dramatically successful North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics at Durham. The free public school enrolls approximately equal numbers of boys and girls, and a proportionate number of minority students. This year, its third, the Durham school topped the country in numbers of National Merit Scholarship semifinalists, ahead of both New York's seven-times-more-populous Stuyvesant High School and the noted Bronx High School of Science.

Total immersion theater. A new wing is planned with classrooms and an Omnimax theater to show all-enveloping science films. Already, extraordinary movies of marine life in the Great Barrier Reef, continental drift, evolution, and the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Dr. Nichols hopes to see the producers of the TV science series, ''NOVA,'' make future Omnimax movies. Omnimax seats its audience within a huge hemispheric dome screen. Since the first Omnimax theater was built in San Diego in 1973, 13 more have been erected in the US, Mexico, Hong Kong, and Japan. At least nine more are planned worldwide.

Eight can live more cheaply than one. When an art museum buys a Rembrandt, it gains lasting - even increasing - value. When a science museum buys a new exhibit, it gains a depreciating asset. Eight major science museums have now banded together to produce up-to-date exhibits to travel the circuit. Their immediate goal: $4 million for new displays. Many science museums, Dr. Nichols says, ''should be planning to replace everything but the moose diorama.''

Computer-ease instead of computerese. The museum's new Computer Place provides a full array of hardware and software for children and adults to try. A typical scene: four-year-old Megan doing Sticky Bears (alphabet instruction) at one terminal while her father sits at an IBM PC learnng Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets. Computer Place provides free instruction for teachers, inexpensive courses for children and adults.

One night last week, I watched a young boy named Derek doing his homework at lightning speed on a Macintosh. Instructor Robin Lindbeck looked on with pride. Derek had, she said, taught himself the Mac with no help from her or an instruction manual. The future of American science may ride with Derek, Megan, and some of those 3,000 Campfire Girls.

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