At age 6 it came down to this for Bobbi Coleman: "No dolls, please," she told her parents. "I want a chemistry set."
Several decades later this love of science, now fused with a desire to share it with children, is why Ms. Coleman finds herself behind the wheel of a dusty van loaded with science and chemistry projects.
For the past two years, she has driven 24,000 miles back and forth across the Southwestern desert visiting Indian pueblos. Her assumptions have proved correct. Native American children are hungry to learn about the fun and wonder of science.
Coleman is the founder, arranger, manager, director and driver of the NASA-funded Mobile Science Project based at the College of Santa Fe in New Mexico. At each pueblo school, she and assistant Christine Suina hold week-long science camps.
Native American kids from kindergarten through sixth grade get a hands-on introduction to such topics as microbiology, electric circuits, chemistry, and magnetism, and on the last day they launch homemade rockets.
"They are so bright," says Coleman, "and ready to swallow up this knowledge."
A handful of the 2,000 children Coleman has taught over the past two years have won state and national science-fair competitions, a feat almost unheard of for Indian children so young. Schools on reservations and pueblos, just as at non-Indian schools, are often weak in teaching science.
But pueblo teachers and tribal leaders, cautious at first about a program offered by an outsider, now clamor for Coleman's return visits to their pueblos.
"I am so glad Bobbi decided to do this," says Rebecca Ortega, mother of Alicia Ortega, a sixth-grader at the Santa Clara Pueblo who won a national competition by building a model explaining the causes of El Nio. "It gives the kids, especially girls, so many opportunities and keeps them away from negative things like drugs and alcohol."
It was a winding path that led Coleman, an African-American born in Louisiana, to the Southwest. Her goal to spread science among Indian children springs from individual determination nurtured by her mother and father, a few mentors, and experiences at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Coleman was in a group of 50 black students who were recruited by Northwestern during the civil rights days. She was an honor student in high school, but struggled in college because she lacked a strong foundation in the basics of chemistry, math, and science.
"One professor told his students that if blacks stayed in his class," says Coleman, "they would get F's. This is the kind of stuff we had to go through. But I told the deans that nothing would stop me from graduating. I complained about the treatment all the time."
At college she was also involved in Project Upward Bound, a program that helps young blacks adjust to college life and rigorous academics. "By the time I graduated with a degree in chemistry, most of the kids I was helping in Upward Bound were in their second year and not making it," she says.
Coleman also graduated with the seeds of an idea. Someday, somehow, she wanted to launch a hands-on program that focused on the basics of science for science-starved youngsters.
But first Coleman worked in private industry for several years, and then spent five years at NASA working on various rocket launchings as a chemist and engineer. When she wrote her doctoral dissertation much later, she titled it, "All Children Have the Potential to Be Gifted." It was virtually the handbook for her Mobile Science Project.
During a stint at Los Angeles Community College, serving as a role model for minority students, she forged a cadre of formerly failing science students into academic achievers in less than two years. "I'm the type of person who sees that something is not working right," says Coleman, "and I want to fix it."
Drawn to the Southwest for its beauty and what she says are "spiritual qualities," Coleman came to Santa Fe with her two sons to live.
She approached NASA and the College of Santa Fe with the idea of science camps for Indian children.
"When Bobbi came to us," says Jeff Hale, director of corporate and foundation relations for the college, "we knew this was a winner because it would be informal, not lectures, but hands-on so that at the end the kids say, 'I can't believe I'm doing advanced science,' and then they realize they can do these things."
NASA's support for the project was $178,000 for each of the first two years. But funding from the agency may be $100,000 a year for several more years. "We are sort of in the nuances now of a campaign to raise more private money," says Mr. Hale. "I don't think NASA is going to let this end. We are the tribal program. And businesses say these kinds of programs are important because they want students with science and math skills."
In July, Coleman brought 25 pueblo children, and some parents, to the College of Santa Fe for a special week-long science camp. More than a dozen community businesses offered support ranging from pizzas to batteries to chopsticks. On the last night, the Hotel Santa Fe hosted a banquet honoring the students.
"We are pretending the kids are in college for a week," says Coleman, as she settles the children in their dorm rooms. "It's a way of introducing them to college, just to hang out here and feel comfortable. So many native American students go away to college," she says, "and drop out because it's such a culture shock."
Hands-on approach earns big dividends
In addition to prize-winning projects at science fairs, Coleman measures the impact of the program on children in other ways. "Teachers at the pueblo schools call me after a science week and say that the kids ask more questions," she says.
Coleman also cites Alicia Ortega's project about how El Nio works as a remarkable success as a first-time project. "We got her into the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) national competition past the deadline," she says, "She drew a model and then had her father help build it."
The model was built out of Plexiglas with a compartment for dry ice and regular ice, and a hot plate underneath that was boiling water. Rain was created and fell into a little reservoir. From information Alicia collected on the Internet and from newspapers, she then plotted El Nio and predicted where it would hit next.
"Her project was better than some of the high school projects," says Coleman, "and she won first place. But she couldn't go to the international competition because she was too young." Nonetheless, Coleman says with a nod to the future, "the seeds of science are planted for Alicia, and I hope for dozens of other kids."