Young sci­en­tists high­light grow­ing short­age for the nation

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

Clau­dia Cooper is the ex­cep­tion, not the rule.

The sev­enth-grader from West Hills Mid­dle School in West Bloomfield, Mich., said she’s only re­cently de­vel­oped a pas­sion for science. That in­ter­est helped her and her class­mates take a sec­ond-place prize in this year’s Toshiba/Na­tional Science Teach­ers As­so­ci­a­tion Ex­plo­raVi­sion Awards, the largest stu­dent science and tech­nol­ogy competition in the nation.

“I ac­tu­ally didn’t even like science be­fore this,” the 13-year-old said be­tween demon­stra­tions of her team’s pro­ject: the In­tra-Tra­chea Breath­ing Sys­tem, which is meant to fil­ter air and of­fer a less-bur­den­some al­ter­na­tive to oxy­gen tanks for those with breath­ing prob­lems.

But across the coun­try, teach­ers and sci­en­tists are fac­ing a test tougher than any in the lab­o­ra­tory. How do they keep young stu­dents in­ter­ested in science and en­gi­neer­ing, es­pe­cially at a time when many fear the nation is los­ing ground to China and other coun­tries in cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tion?

“The younger the kids, the ideas are far bet­ter. Around fifth grade, they start los­ing that [. . . ] creativ­ity,” said Karen Lozano, a Univer­sity of Texas pro­fes­sor and mother of Pablo Vi­dal, a third-grader at Dis­cov­ery Montes­sori School in McAllen, Texas, which took home a first­place award in the Ex­plo­raVi­sion con­test for its “in­tel­li­gent streets” in­ven­tion, which would use “smart, translu­cent film” in car wind­shields to re­ceive traf­fic up­dates and warn­ings from satel­lites.

First-and sec­ond-place Ex­plo­raVi­sion Awards were given in four cat­e­gories based on grade level.

Lawmakers fear stu­dents such as Clau­dia Cooper and Pablo Vi­dal are be­com­ing more and more rare.

At a House Science, Space and Tech­nol­ogy Com­mit­tee hear­ing on June 16, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Mary­land Repub­li­can, lamented so­ci­ety’s fix­a­tion on sports and en­ter­tain­ment, which, he ar­gued, drain stu­dents’ in­ter­est in science.

“I watch the White House and the peo­ple that they in­vite there and slob­ber all over. They’re not sci­en­tists, math­e­ma­ti­cians and en­gi­neers. They’re not aca­demic achiev­ers. They’re ath­letes and en­ter­tain­ers,” he said. “I have a huge concern that we’re not go­ing to be able to re­tain our po­si­tion as the premier eco­nomic and mil­i­tary power of the world if we’re turn­ing out one-sev­enth as many sci­en­tists [. . . ] as our com­peti­tors.”

When most stu­dents reach Clau­dia Cooper’s age, it’s usu­ally too late.

“Peo­ple get a life­long pas­sion for what they’re go­ing to do be- fore age 10,” said Bill Nye, who works with Ex­plo­raVi­sion and spoke at its June 17 show­case at the Na­tional Press Club in Wash­ing­ton, where win­ning in­ven­tions were on dis­play for the pub­lic.

Mr. Nye, a sci­en­tist, ed­u­ca­tor and me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer, is best known for his Emmy-win­ning Dis­ney tele­vi­sion se­ries “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” which ran from 1993 to 1998.

Fifty years ago, he said, stu- dents were in­spired by the Apollo mis­sions and cap­ti­vated by the idea that man could reach the moon. The rip­ple ef­fects of that event, he said, are still be­ing felt and serve as fuel to top sci­en­tists, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and oth­ers work­ing to­ward break­throughs.

“I just hope we can achieve the same level of mo­ti­va­tion” that the moon mis­sion pro­vided, Mr. Nye said.

“I watch the White House and the peo­ple that they in­vite there and slob­ber all over. They’re not sci­en­tists, math­e­ma­ti­cians and en­gi­neers. They’re not aca­demic achiev­ers. They’re ath­letes and en­ter­tain­ers,” said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Mary­land Repub­li­can. “I have a huge concern that we’re not go­ing to be able to re­tain our po­si­tion as the premier eco­nomic and mil­i­tary power of the world if we’re turn­ing out one-sev­enth as many sci­en­tists [. . . ] as our com­peti­tors.”

One way to get stu­dents in­ter­ested is to get them out of the class­room. What of­ten draws young­sters away from science and to­ward sports is the con­cept that science, with its end­less for­mu­las and com­plex chem­i­cal cock­tails, is a bore, said Arthur Eisenkraft, a pro­fes­sor of science ed­u­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts at Bos­ton and co-cre­ator of the Ex­plo­raVi­sion Awards, now in their 19th year.

“Too of­ten in the day-to-day learn­ing of science, the fun is miss­ing,” he said.

The yearly con­test, he added, is an im­por­tant way of fight­ing that con­cept.

Some in Congress, how­ever, worry that many stu­dents, par­tic­u­larly those in low-in­come, in­ner-city school dis­tricts, don’t have the parental and teacher sup­port sys­tem or the needed fund­ing to work on in­no­va­tive ideas.

One of Ex­plo­raVi­sion’s win­ning teams at­tends Vir­ginia Vir­tual Academy, an on­line learn­ing sys­tem re­quir­ing ex­ten­sive in­volve­ment from par­ents. An­other win­ning team came from New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, which ad­mits stu­dents only af­ter they have passed an en­trance exam.

“Schools like this sim­ply are not an op­tion for many low-in­come fam­i­lies,” Rep. Mar­cia L. Fudge, Ohio Demo­crat, said at the June 16 hear­ing, where four win­ning stu­dents and their teach­ers also ad­dressed lawmakers.

Rep. Ed­die Ber­nice John­son, Texas Demo­crat and her party’s rank­ing mem­ber on the com­mit­tee, said that while it’s im­por­tant to rec­og­nize and cel­e­brate stu­dent achieve­ment, no one should be fully sat­is­fied un­til all stu­dents are on an equal play­ing field.

“There are too many stu­dents across the coun­try who do not have the op­por­tu­nity to par­tic­i­pate,” she said. “No one en­tity can solve this prob­lem alone. There is a role for all of the [. . . ] stake­hold­ers.”

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