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At NSTA, New Science Guy Is Renaissance Man

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Arlington, Va.

Gerald Wheeler has his eyes on every school in the nation.

The new executive director of the National Science Teachers Association says the United States is entering a pivotal decade for math and science. And he plans to lead the charge, making the NSTA a presence in every American school.

A physicist and artist, professor and teacher, photographer and radio-show producer, Mr. Wheeler is a bona fide Renaissance man in the eyes of many. He has taught in K-12 and higher education and has an easygoing demeanor and expertise in an array of media. That may be just what the field needs, said Scott Roberts, the director of the Annenberg/CPB Math and Science Project, which awards grants to groups seeking to improve K-12 math and science education.

James F. Rutherford, the director of Project 2061, a national science-education reform initiative at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, agreed: "I think he is an excellent choice. He brings an enormous amount of experience to the job."

From 1981 until this year, Mr. Wheeler taught physics at Montana State University and served as the director of the science-mathematics resource center there.

More recently, Mr. Wheeler had taken up an unusual commute, spending two weeks each month in Montana and two weeks in Washington, where he oversaw the AAAS's division of public understanding of science and technology. While there, he developed a radio science drama aimed at 8- to 10-year-olds called "Kinetic City Super Crew."

Following Footsteps

Mr. Wheeler, who began work last month, replaces Bill G. Aldridge, the NSTA's executive director since 1980.

Mr. Aldridge took a two-year leave in September 1994 to work on the group's Scope, Sequence, and Coordination of Secondary School Science project, which was revived last year after a potentially devastating loss of federal funding. Mr. Aldridge's name is almost synonymous with the scope-and-sequence approach--an effort to ensure that students study each branch of the natural sciences every year. Some in the NSTA said he had become too closely identified with the effort. (See Education Week, March 23, 1994.)

Before taking leave, Mr. Aldridge had notified the group that he intended to retire as director in December 1996, and the NSTA's board at the time had agreed not to name a successor until Aug. 31 of this year. Mr. Aldridge is now the group's director of special projects. (See Education Week, Sept. 7, 1994.)

From his Nevada home, Mr. Aldridge praised Mr. Wheeler's selection. "They couldn't have picked anyone that I would have been happier with," he said. "It's very satisfying to know the organization is in such good hands."

Facing Challenges

In a recent interview at the NSTA's headquarters here, Mr. Wheeler seemed excited and optimistic about the challenges ahead. "I think the next 10 years in mathematics and science are going to be truly pivotal," he said. Mr. Wheeler wants the association to establish a presence in each one of the nation's 85,000 public schools, either through its member teachers, publications, or World Wide Web site on the Internet computer network.

The NSTA now has about 52,000 members, up from 31,000 when Mr. Aldridge became the head of the group 15 years ago. Mr. Wheeler estimates that membership could easily quadruple over the next five years, and he said the NSTA will put more emphasis on professional development.

Mr. Wheeler said there is a need to provide more of what he calls just-in-time help to teachers. "The teacher out there needs to worry about 'What am I teaching next Monday?' or 'What guidelines do I have for safety in school labs?"'

Recently, he was involved in crafting a blueprint for a network-television series that he hopes will do for science what the wildly popular NBC series "ER" has done for medicine.

His job doesn't leave him enough time for that project, but he's bringing his own brand of drama to the group's World Wide Web site. With the AAAS, Mr. Wheeler is planning an episodic, interactive "cyber club" series in which students will be able to interrogate suspects and interview witnesses by electronic mail to solve science-based mysteries.

Mr. Wheeler lives in Washington near the campus of George Washington University. He is an avid photographer, and one wall of his office is covered with portraits of children he met in India, Brazil, Fiji, and China.

Spirit of Cooperation

Rodger Bybee, the executive director of the center for science, mathematics, and engineering education at the National Research Council, called Mr. Wheeler's appointment "very positive." He said Mr. Wheeler would "bring a new spirit of cooperation" to the NSTA and other science groups representing the university and research community. Efforts to devise national K-12 science standards have left the professional science associations at times fiercely divided. (See Education Week, Dec. 7, 1994.)

"This is a time when a number of the science associations are trying to find their niche, with regard to the science standards and science education generally," Mr. Roberts of the Annenberg/CPB project said. "It makes for a very high-powered and tense moment in science education, and what you need, ideally, is someone familiar with all of the players and all the backgrounds."

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