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Despite Record Conference Attendance, NSTA Worries About 1997 Turnout

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St. Louis

Even as the National Science Teachers Association recorded its highest-ever conference attendance here, officials already were looking to next year's meeting and beginning to worry about turnout.

More than 17,500 science teachers were here for the NSTA's 44th annual meeting--2,500 more than expected. The five-day conference ended last week.

The teachers filled the meeting rooms of the Cervantes Convention Center, a complex adjoining the domed stadium that will soon house the St. Louis Rams football team.

Many of them were able to attend because their districts pay their way with federal funds from the Eisenhower Mathematics and Science program.

But the scope of that program has been broadened, enabling states and districts to use the money for professional-development programs in any "core" academic subject, including the arts, civics, English, geography, and history.

Several NSTA members here said they were concerned that if the program is opened up, there will not be enough money left for math and science.

"Without Eisenhower funding, we wouldn't be able to come," said Diana Wilhite, a science and reading teacher at Reading Elementary School in Reading, Kansas.

Throughout the convention center, science teachers sprawled on the floor, flipping through the 500-page, 3-pound program, trying to figure out which of more than 1,000 workshops to attend.

Several settled on a presentation by Robin Cotton, the laboratory director of Cellmark Diagnostics Laboratories in Gaithersburg, Md.--better known as a DNA-identification expert who testified for the prosecution during O.J. Simpson's recent trial.

"It was my teachers who are responsible for what I'm doing, why I'm doing it, and more importantly how I'm doing it," Ms. Cotton said, adding that her high school biology teacher was her favorite.

Ms. Cotton explained that DNA identification has a range of uses, including paternity determination, identifying human remains, and, of course, including or excluding suspects in criminal investigations.

She encouraged those in the audience to consider that all students--not just those who eventually become scientists--need to have scientific skills.

When working on criminal cases, Ms. Cotton said, one of the first things lawyers often tell her is that they hated science.

So she has often found herself in the role of teacher, explaining the principles of genetics to lawyers. "And guess who the judge is?" she said. "He's another lawyer who hated science."

Ever wonder what happened to Mr. Wizard?

Don Herbert, who became famous under that name as the host of a popular 1950s and '60s science television program, is alive and well and living in Los Angeles with his wife, Norma. And he's still on the air, now as the host of Nickelodeon's "Teacher to Teacher With Mr. Wizard."

Mr. Herbert was the host of "Watch Mr. Wizard" on NBC from 1951 to 1966. He also appears in 78 episodes of "Mr. Wizard's World," which has aired on the Nickelodeon cable-TV channel since 1983.

Mr. Herbert's new show spotlights outstanding elementary school teachers who use hands-on, inquiry-based approaches to teaching science. Two 15-minute segments of "Teacher to Teacher With Mr. Wizard" air Tuesdays at 5:30 a.m. Eastern and Pacific time, and 4:30 a.m. central time.

"It provides a visual image of the kinds of science the [voluntary national science] standards are promoting," said Dennis Harlan, the president of the Mr. Wizard Foundation, which produces the show.

Last week, the tireless Mr. Herbert took time here to greet his science-teacher fans and sign autographs. Over and over, they told him: "You're one of the reasons I became a science teacher."

Jim Swank, a biology teacher from Crestwood, Mo., asked Mr. Herbert to sign a special memento: a metal "Mr. Wizard science lab" box of gadgets and chemicals he received as an 8-year-old in 1956.

"I got that black fingerprint powder all over the house," Mr. Swank said, laughing. "My mother hated it."

While the baby boomers remember Mr. Wizard's work in the 1950s, a new set of fans has grown up watching his Nickelodeon shows.

For example, one young waiter at a hotel here was pleased to find Mr. Herbert among his customers at breakfast. Trent Dingwell, 21, a sophomore at Belleville Area College in Belleville, Ill., recognized Mr. Herbert instantly and began rattling off descriptions of his favorite episodes.

"It helped to explain science in a way that was fun, and it stuck," Mr. Dingwell said, referring to Mr. Herbert's more-recent programs.

For more information about Mr. Wizard's new series and a World Wide Web site that will debut this year, call or write the Mr. Wizard Foundation at 44800 Helm St., Plymouth, Mich. 48710; (313) 416-1840.

The Student Science Teachers Association at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls borrowed a tactic that has made television host David Letterman famous.

The group, whose members are all aspiring science teachers, sold T-shirts emblazoned with "Top Ten Reasons for Being a Science Teacher" to help members pay their way to the conference.

Coming in at number 10 was "Big explosions are cool." Topping the list at number one was "Two words: 'Hands on.'"

To order a T-shirt, call Greg Stefanich at (319) 273-2073.

--Meg Sommerfeld

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