Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Avis Carpenter, 14, says he likes looking into things, as does 13-year-old William Budd. Tynisha Owens, 12, gives her sense of curiosity its rightful name, telling it like it is.

“I like messing with stuff,” she says.

The three D.C. students were among six Hine Junior High School pupils sitting solemn-faced in lime green T-shirts marked “Extreme” in the front row at a press conference in the National Press Club building Tuesday morning.

They were there as part of an education experiment — as well as to take part in some basic science experiments conducted by physicist Leon Lederman, a 1988 Nobel Prize winner who is a former director of Chicago’s Fermi Laboratory, where he helped build the world’s fastest energy accelerator. The accelerator, in a manner of speaking, messes up atomic particles to study the very heart of matter.

So there is no question that Mr. Lederman, long an enthusiastic promoter of science education in schools, would approve of Tynisha’s methods.

“When kids are young enough, they are all scientists and ask the tomfool questions, such as ‘Why is the sky blue?’” he said in an interview. “What we need [around them] is patience, when too often they are being told to shut up.”

The occasion was the announcement of a nine-month project, called NEC Extreme Science, sponsored by the NEC Foundation of America in collaboration with the nonprofit science education organization Science Service. It is intended to showcase a need to get American youngsters excited about science careers and get more teachers better prepared to help them. The NEC Foundation provides the cash, Science Service the networking capability.

One phase of the project, called Give a Day, Make a Difference, involves sending 200 leading scientists and engineers into middle schools around the country to work with students in the classroom. The idea is to motivate young people by giving them exposure to some of the best minds of a generation.

Anecdotal experience tells Mr. Lederman that out of a group of about 20 children, perhaps three or four will become interested. “If you keep doing this and get a few hundred of these kids,” he said, “one of those may cure a dread disease when he grows up, and you will have done a lot.”

To date, 88 scientists — 23 of them Nobel laureates — have volunteered for schools in their local communities. They include William D. Phillips of Maryland’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, a Nobelist in 1997.

The second phase, called Perfect Classroom Competition, is for science teachers in grades five through eight. The contest rewards those who can most capably describe their vision of what a good classroom should be. Three winners — recipients of $5,000, $3,000 and $2,000 awards — will be announced in May. Sponsors say they were inspired by the fact that creative-minded teachers spend an average $400 of their own money a year on class supplies to supplement school budgets.

(The project and related activities can be found at under the NEC Extreme Science link.)

“Students know all about extreme sports and games, so why not science?” NEC Foundation President Hisashi Kineko said in introductory remarks Tuesday.

Getting teachers interested is one of Mr. Lederman’s strongest convictions, too. Thirteen years ago, he formed the nonprofit Teachers Academy for Math and Science to work with Chicago primary teachers on school time.

“Too often, they are generalists who mostly have studied literature and history,” he said. “When they [teach math and science], they approach it with fear and loathing. Kids are good at detecting that, which is bad because it shapes attitudes. The primary teachers are like the kids. If you excite them with new ways of learning, they respond.

“It takes three years to train teachers properly,” he noted, praising news that District schools will begin teaching physics in ninth grade. “If we do it right, every [American] kid will take three years of math and three years of science.”

Honor C. Roble, a teacher of biology and environmental science at Hine Junior High School in Southeast, says she plans to enter the contest. A 2002 winner of a presidential award for excellence in teaching, she has found ways to stimulate students’ interest by partnering with groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and holding science classes along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.

Mr. Lederman’s pep talk to the students went beyond a brief description of the work being done today in cosmology — the relation of particle physics and astronomy and how achievements in the field can tell us about the nature of the universe. He wanted to show the value of scientific training in everyday life.

“If you have a notion of how science works, you have a notion of how to live your life in the right way,” he told them. “To be an intelligent voter, you have to be skeptical and ask questions about what is going on around you.”

He then went on to conduct some basic engineering, chemistry and physics experiments with all six youngsters seated at a round table in front of him. The students held hands and watched as electricity flowed from one to the other.

“We’re all joined electrically, but it didn’t hurt because the currents are weak,” he said.

He poured some rubbing alcohol into a thick plastic jug and threw in a match to show how alcohol and oxygen make water. He passed around small balls of clay and asked the students to probe the balls eight times in different directions with a paper clip.

“Put it in until it stops. If we can find what is inside the clay, maybe we can find out what is inside the quark,” he said. It was a way of illustrating how a similar activity goes on in a more complicated fashion at the Fermi Lab. Quarks are what physicists have found by studying the invisible particles that make up the nucleus of the atom.

“I believe that children as early as the third and fourth grades should be introduced to atoms,” Mr. Lederman said. “Everything is atoms — which lead to molecules and complex molecules of DNA. … People say it’s too complex, but we grew up with ‘Star Trek.’ We are used to exotic things.”

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