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Computer Network To Connect Biology Teachers to Data, Each Other

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WASHINGTON--One of the nation's leading biotechnology firms has launched a national computer network that will allow high-school-biology teachers to correspond with their colleagues and keep up with developments in the life sciences by interacting with working scientists.

Genentech Inc., a San Francisco-based pioneer in the field of recombinant DNA, announced here last week that it was launching the three-year, $10 million initiative, which it has dubbed "Access Excellence.''

As part of the project, the company will maintain a clearinghouse of scientific information for network users, staffed partly by volunteer Genentech scientists.

The network's goal is to help biology teachers stay current with the exponential growth of knowledge in their discipline.

"Genentech, and what we now like to call the 'biotechnology industry,' did not exist, and indeed could not have existed, 20 to 25 years ago,'' noted Richard Nicholson, the executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the Access Excellence advisory board.

"It is based on knowledge that did not exist at that time,'' he said.

To bolster the argument that teachers crave interaction with their fellows, Genentech officials presented data gathered last month by the Roper organization, which found that 95 percent of 503 biology teachers who were polled felt isolated, except from their counterparts in neighboring classrooms.

Most respondents also said that the rapid changes that characterize the biological sciences make it hard to develop meaningful lessons about such cutting-edge topics as transplant surgery, artificial insemination, and the Human Genome Project.

"Daily, hourly, there are new discoveries. There are important, breathtaking things that are happening,'' said VivianLee Ward, California's "outstanding biology teacher'' of 1992 and a consultant on the project.

"We have to break down the barriers between people doing science and people teaching science,'' she added.

Technological Limitations

To develop a cadre of network advocates, Genentech is seeking 100 "core'' teachers. Applicants must be biology teachers in grades 9-12.

This group, which will be chosen by the National Science Teachers Association, will attend an annual biology-education "summit meeting'' and will receive laptop computers with which to access the network.

Every applicant for the core group will receive a free six-month subscription to America Online, an information and entertainment service for computer users.

G. Kirk Raab, Genentech's president and chief executive officer, noted that the Roper data showed 95 percent of the teachers polled have access to computers in their schools.

He conceded, however, that it is likely that significantly fewer teachers have access in their schools to the modems and telephone lines needed to use the network.

Despite such limitations, the new initiative drew praise from Linda G. Roberts, who recently was named the U.S. Education Department's first educational-technology adviser.

"The real strength of [the initiative] is the connection to the teachers,'' she said in an interview. "This really gives us the chance to create 'virtual-learning communities.'''

'Galaxy' Expansion

In another technology-related development in science education, officials of the Galaxy Institute for Education, a nonprofit distance-learning service sponsored by the Hughes Aircraft Company, earlier this month launched a new elementary-school-science curriculum on its 21-state satellite network.

The curriculum--aimed at grades 3-5--incorporates materials developed by the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley and allows students to share data and experimental results over the satellite network.

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