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Colleges Cautious in Linking With Schools To Boost Science

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CHEVY CHASE, MD.--Despite repeated calls by education reformers for stronger ties between public schools and colleges and universities as one tactic to help improve science education, many college educators still are working in isolation and with little guidance to accomplish that goal, according to participants at a conference here last week.

Steven Zottoli, a professor of biology at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., for example, said that the college was on the verge of launching an outreach program to help improve the science literacy of local elementary school science teachers.

But, after hearing the pitfalls and successes of similar programs around the nation during the two-day meeting here, he was ready to rethink much of his original plan.

"My approach would have been a disaster without this meeting,'' he said during a closing plenary session.

The meeting was sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, one of the nation's largest private funders of biomedical research.

Mr. Zottoli and the other program directors at the meeting represented 197 universities and liberal-arts colleges that have received Hughes Institute grants to improve access to undergraduate science-education programs for female and minority students.

The program, which began in 1988, has disbursed more than $204 million in grants to boost the participation of these groups in the biological sciences.

And many participating institutions have used a portion of their funds to develop outreach initiatives to local school districts.

The conference allowed participants to exchange ideas about their programs and to disabuse one another of some myths about the workings of the public schools.

Building an Awareness

Jerome Pine, a biophysics professor at the California Institute of Technology, for example, stressed that, for all their good intentions and technical expertise, researchers should be aware of their limitations when approaching school administrators with offers of assistance.

"We were acutely aware of our ignorance of [precollegiate] education'' when Caltech undertook a pilot program to enhance elementary science in the Pasadena (Calif.) Unified School district, he said.

But a cooperative arrangement with district administrators has helped turn a one-school pilot program into a districtwide one emphasizing inquiry-based science in the primary grades over the last seven years, he said.

Caltech also used Hughes Institute funds to establish an intensive, six-week summer initiative for minority high school students called the Young Engineer and Science Scholars, or YESS, program to expose students to high-quality science education.

The students enrolled in the 1992 YESS program, Mr. Pine said, were predominantly blacks and Hispanics whose previous science education had rarely stimulated them to think about careers in the field.

He added that students were almost "wide-eyed'' over the program's laboratory-based approach, which was far more sophisticated than the standard high school fare.

In exchange, he said, "we learned an enormous amount about how to do inquiry-based high school teaching.''

But participants also noted that college-level scientists and researchers seldom have a genuine understanding of the difficulties K-12 teachers face in developing meaningful science programs.

Jann Primus, a biology professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, said that while the college spent enormous amounts of time preparing laboratory exercises for a series of well-received teacher workshops, teachers were often unable to reproduce the experiments for their students because they lacked basic materials.

While she hopes to rectify the problem by supplying teachers with kits of materials, Ms. Primus urged colleagues to think realistically about what can be achieved in the average classroom.

"We too often decide what would be good for the high school teachers to have and that's what we do,'' she said. "We tend to be out of contact with what's really going on in the high schools in terms of teaching.''

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