- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 27, 2000

Two of my favorite pastimes, food and science, have found a child-friendly cyber-home courtesy of the Agriculture Research Service's Information Staff.
Its Sci4Kids site helps explain what the 1,700 ARS scientists do at more than 100 locations in the United States and abroad. Students learn that these researchers, who specialize in numerous disciplines such as microbiology, chemistry, engineering and plant pathology, work together to make sure the world has high-quality, safe foods while protecting and improving soil, water and other natural resources.

Sci4Kids

Site address: www.ars.usda.gov/is/kids/

Creator:

Nearly two years old, Sci4Kids is written, designed, primarily illustrated and run by members of the ARS Information Staff, the chief research arm for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Members of the Information Staff, comprising writers, editors, designers, photographers and their supervisors, work from Beltsville.

Creator quotable:

"We created Sci4Kids to show and tell curious kids about what ARS scientists do, both in and out of the lab. Why? Because agriculture is as much about science, and scientific discovery, as it is that venerable image of cows, pigs, plows and faded overalls," says Jan Suszkiw, Sci4Kids coordinator. "Kids might not always realize it, but examples of science and agriculture can be found daily in their lives, from frozen orange juice concentrate, to wrinkle-free cotton shirts, to this Monday's story on tractors and a bus that runs on soybeans."

Word from the Webwise:

Sci4Kids successfully sheds light on the exciting world of high-tech agriculture.
This nonprofit, educational Web site offers 8- to 13-year-olds a chance to view some of the latest reports in ARS' monthly magazine "Agricultural Research" and other news reports through colorful and engaging presentations using easy-to-understand terminology.
Visitors will find two ways to get to the mini-reports. Computer users can satisfy their curiosity by clicking on areas of a large illustration featuring Dr. Watts (a strange gentlemen in lab coat with a light bulb for a head), or simply using the "Contents" link found at the bottom of the page.
For example, a click on the smiling water drop behind Dr. Watts takes children to an area devoted to the environment with four stories from which to choose: "Hold the Chemicals and Pass the Mold Please," "Rhizobium to the Rescue (Tint Root Bacteria May Help Clean Toxic Soils)," "Scientists See Snowflakes Like Never Before with New Microscope," and "In the Desert, A Date With the Sun."
Overall, 17 topics ranging from "Animals" to "Weird Science," with a total of 50 stories, are presented.
Each loads on a self-contained page and features a mix of photography, animated images, hot spots and the name and e-mail address of the staff member who created the report.
I took a peek at "Lights, Camera, Action!" under "High Tech." Mr. Suszkiw reports on the work of microbiologist Dan Roberts, who has altered the genes of friendly bacteria that attach to the roots of plants to make studying them easier. This could lead to discovering ways to stop certain strains of underground fungi from destroying crops.
The page design offers spots that can be clicked on to define difficult words, such as bioluminescence; color photographs; and an opening splash page with two lights flashing across the screen.
Stories often come with interactive quizzes and research links.
In another section, "Email Bag," ARS staff members answer some of the more popular science questions.
Of course, who doesn't want to know why a cow has four stomachs or learn about the strongest bug on the planet?

Ease of use:

The inventive page designs combined with animated illustrations and lots of interesting information really worked for this closet scientist. Some of the pages are a bit slow loading due to the amount of graphics, but overall, the site offers a very enjoyable Web experience.
As a note of interest, the ARS staff is working to make Sci4Kids more accessible to visitors with sight or hearing disabilities and plans to add audio and video clips.

Family activity:

Do different varieties of the same fruit have the same level of vitamin C?
This fun experiment can be found under the fantastic section "Agriculture Is a Science," which also contains an incredible amount of information on developing science projects.
The vitamin C test may sound complicated, but with some starch, 2 percent iodine solution, fruit and some glass containers, junior scientists will spend days testing mom's apples, pears and kiwi. Parents should be around to help.

Don't miss:

Teachers will love the "Whizkid Activity Packets" containing lots of printable crosswords, pages to color, quizzes and areas that can be used with Web activities while in the classroom or as homework assignments. The activities come in Adobe Acrobat files, are easily downloaded to a printer and explore everything from soybeans to wheat to an on-line nutrition database.

Cyber-sitter synopsis:

Sci4Kids features a spectacularly diverse set of stories, and teachers should point out its possibilities to students.
Family fun factor: 80 percent

Overall grade: A+

Remember: The information on the Internet is constantly changing. Please verify the advice on the sites before you act to be sure it's accurate and updated. Health sites, for example, should be discussed with your own physician. Have a cool site for the family? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send an e-mail message (joseph@twtmail.com).

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