Op-Eds

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Support Cutting-edge Science

Every state in the country, from California to Connecticut, wants to attract high-tech industries that can swell employment rolls and expand the tax base. Pennsylvania is no exception, but the legislature has realized that you can't have high-tech industries without a high-tech work force.

It doesn't take a scientist to realize that technology businesses need employees well-versed in computer science, chemistry, physics, biology and other sciences to compete in the global economy. Students now sitting through junior high and high school science classes are Pennsylvania's best hope to compete on the international marketplace, and what better strategy for the future than to grow our own scientists right here at home?

Last year, a consortium of nine colleges and universities received $2 million to set up a science outreach program called Science in Motion, based on a program I developed at Juniata College in the late 1980s. The member schools for the consortium are Clarion University, Drexel University, Gannon University, Gettysburg College, Juniata College, University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, Ursinus College, Westminster College and Wilkes University.

Science in Motion works on a relatively simple principle: If a secondary school or school district does not have the budget or support system to teach cutting-edge science, let's bring top-notch science to them.

Science in Motion works on a relatively simple principle: If a secondary school or school district does not have the budget or support system to teach cutting-edge science, let's bring top-notch science to them.

Our schools are not set up to provide the three elements necessary for good science education: up-to-date equipment, consistent professional development and education for science teachers and the opportunity to continuously develop a top science curriculum. Schools often have just one or two teachers for a particular science discipline, making it difficult for them to find time to organize new lessons and demonstrations.

It's also unfair to ask school districts to provide up-to-date professional development in science areas and neglect other teachers. Teachers should not be expected to develop, test, and implement new curriculum materials while often teaching five to six classes per day.

The solution, as we chemists like to say, is right in front of us. Use a support system that has the equipment, the experience and funding to support science in our schools. Form a partnership with a college or university science department. Juniata College has been doing this for more than a decade and we know it's an experiment that works.

Juniata is working with science teachers in about 25 schools. We use a biology van and a chemistry van, each outfitted with scientific equipment worth about $100,000. We take gas chromatographs, infrared spectrophotometers, nuclear scalers, pH meters and many more tools into chemistry classes. In biology, we teach RNA and DNA sequencing, perform water quality tests and perform EKG tests right in the classroom. Each van is driven by a certified science teacher who can team-teach a lesson with the teacher, or drop the equipment off to a teacher who has experience in our program.

The experiments arrive at each school prepped and ready to run. Juniata hires undergraduate science students to prepare the experiments before delivery.

In the summer teachers attend two-week seminars at Juniata where they can practice using the equipment and work with Juniata faculty to develop experiments appropriate for secondary school students. Many of the teachers in our program attend these seminars year after year. Many tell me these workshops are the only opportunity they have to work on curriculum design with other science teachers.

The new Science in Motion consortium is our chance to create pilot programs across the state to nurture science education. The colleges and universities involved are committed, and every partner school served by one of these institutions receives access to the full complement of modern instruments and laboratory curriculum, regardless of school size or budget limitations.

These partnerships are cost effective because one college or university can use its resources to serve many school districts or many schools within an urban school district. Because these partnerships are not contained within a single school district it makes sense to continue to have Pennsylvania continue to fund a program that delivers top-grade education to schools across the state. Other states, such as Alabama, already have state-funded science outreach programs modeled on Juniata's Science in Motion. Let's not be left behind in science. Pennsylvania cannot afford it.

Don Mitchell is a professor of chemistry, emeritus at Juniata College.