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Quick Fixes Seen Bane Of Corporate Efforts To Improve Teaching

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Whitehouse Station, N.J.

Corporate programs to improve mathematics and science education too often focus on "quick-fix solutions," executives of some of the nation's largest research firms were warned at a conference here.

Corporations instead should design their outreach efforts as they would a strategic business plan--with measurable goals and close attention to the complexity of the educational system.

Successful outreach programs emphasize long-range goals--linked to national curriculum standards--that will enhance the return on investment for students, schools, and business, said Carlo Parravano, the director of the Merck Institute for Science Education.

Mr. Parravano was one of several corporate education specialists who spoke to executives of such businesses as Texaco Inc., National Semiconductor, Corning Inc., and the Boeing Company here earlier this month at a meeting on "Corporate America's Impact on Elementary Science Education."

The one-day meeting was held at the headquarters of Merck & Co. Inc., one of the nation's largest pharmaceutical companies. The company has won praise for its outreach through the Merck Institute.

The National Science Resources Center, a joint venture of the National Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution, sponsored the meeting to inform reform-minded companies about effective teaching practices and reform strategies for the early childhood years.

Mr. Parravano, for example, explained in detail the eight points that form his company's strategic vision for the Merck Institute.

They include:

  • Assessing the needs and strengths of the existing educational system.
  • Targeting actions that reflect and reinforce corporate interests.
  • Adopting ambitious goals and challenging academic standards for the program.
  • Developing an internal strategic plan to guide the corporation's reform efforts.
  • Becoming informed about research and resources.

'Floater or Sinker'

Participants were also allowed to experience the types of curricula that national reformers consider effective.

In one room, Jack Pini, a vice president of the Boston-based Educational Publishing Group, weighed a small blue marble in his hand, looking at a clear plastic tank full of water in front of him.

"What do you think?" he asked his tablemates. "Floater or sinker?"

"Sinker," answered Dennis R. Mangino, a vice president at the Weirton Steel Corporation in West Virginia.

"I'm a glass scientist," Mr. Mangino added. "I know this one."

Sure enough, the blue ball plunged to the bottom of the tank.

But some objects, such as a nylon bolt, fooled even the professionals, providing insight into the difficulty children have differentiating between such properties as mass and density.

The 45-minute mini-lesson on "floating and sinking" was not designed to challenge the reasoning powers of the executives, officials of the science resources center noted.

Instead, it was designed to demonstrate the latest hands-on, cooperative learning practices. The lesson also illustrated the difference between traditional practice, which focuses on the search for a single answer, and newer pedagogy, which stresses the development of critical-thinking skills.

Although reactions to the conference were mixed, several participants said they gained insights into the types of successful partnerships research corporations are forming with school districts.

Knowledge Into Practice

Mr. Mangino said he hoped to apply lessons from the meeting to interstate efforts to revitalize the economically depressed Ohio River Valley area.

"We recognize that for us to be successful long-term as a steel-maker, we need to rely on the educational system to prepare people to come to work for us," he said.

But several presenters representing companies with successful outreach programs also noted that such efforts often must struggle in the face of corporate reluctance to tackle social problems.

"My company kind of backed into science education," noted Nancy Thomas, the national contributions manager for Hewlett-Packard Company.

"It's kind of scary," he said, "to be on the edge of something like 'systemic education reform.'"

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