Ambassadors For Science

By Julie A. Miller — September 01, 1992 4 min read

During most of his working hours, Eugene Lujan uses computers to design weaponry and other scientific equipment. But on this spring day, he is standing in a classroom at Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico, poking wooden skewers into balloons, to the delight of a roomful of 1st graders.

“I hope it busts,” says Jerry Nutumya, clapping his hands.

“I hope it doesn’t,” counters Athena Herrera, covering her ears.

She gets her wish. Lujan says it worked because he smeared Vaseline on the skewers to act as a sealant and inserted them into the poles of the balloon, where the rubber was stretched the least. He is teaching scientific concepts. But he is also trying to change the children’s attitudes toward science and scientists.

Lujan is a science adviser at the Isleta school; he is given one day a week off from his job at Sandia National Laboratories to work there. About 200 of the Albuquerque laboratory’s scientists take part in the program, with each assigned to one or more schools. Currently, 106 Albuquerque public schools, 42 rural schools, and 29 Bureau of Indian Affairs schools participate.

One goal of the program—part of a U.S. Department of Energy education initiative—is to encourage better science instruction. But an equally important mission of the science advisers, or “SCIADs” as they are called at Sandia, is to act as ambassadors, convincing students that science is both exciting and a career they can aspire to.

“I try to emphasize that science is a fun activity, to demythologize it,” says John Torczynski, a chemist who is an adviser at Hawthorne Elementary School in Albuquerque. “When a child comes up to you and says, `I want to be a scientist,’ it sends chills up your spine.”

Educators involved with the program eagerly volunteer evidence of improved student attitudes. At Isleta, for example, principal Joseph Green notes that 25 students entered projects in a science fair for Native American students held in April in Milwaukee. “The first year I was here, there were zero,” he says.

Likewise, when students at Hawthorne Elementary School were asked to illustrate their favorite subject, more than half chose science.

Each SCIAD consults with educators at his or her assigned school to fashion a program that meets its needs and curriculum. Some primarily work with teachers on lesson plans or on schoolwide activities like science fairs. But most advisers help teachers inject more hands-on science into their lessons by preparing in-class experiments.

The lab has developed a resource center stocked with both individual pieces of equipment and prepackaged boxes with materials for a particular demonstration. For example, a box Larry Salgado brings to Belen Junior High School holds jars and a selection of bottled scents that become a lesson on how adult animals and their offspring recognize each other. Half of a 7th grade class gets the jars, while the others get the lids, and they scurry about the room trying to match scents.

Teachers are uniformly enthusiastic about gaining access to such equipment as generators and lasers that even more affluent schools do not usually possess. And many appreciate the help of the scientists because they realize the subject is not one of their strengths. As Rudy Chavez, principal of La Merced Elementary, points out, “You only need three hours in science methodology to be an elementary school teacher.”

Several teachers say the experience has increased their confidence by making science seem accessible to them, in much the same way the advisers aim to make it more accessible to students. “I think I could have done 20 percent of the experiments last year,” says Karin Swelling, a teacher at Hawthorne Elementary. “Now, I could probably do 70 percent.”

Michael Wartell, the director of Sandia’s Education and New Initiatives Division, created the science-advisers program after he was named to head the lab’s education initiative in early 1990, when all DOE research facilities were developing education programs in response to a directive from Secretary James Watkins.

The program was launched during the 1990-91 school year with 108 advisers and 120 schools. Wartell says 103 of the SCIADs “made it through the year,” and 75 reenlisted. All the original schools opted to continue.

The Sandians decided to focus primarily on elementary schools because high schools are more likely to have trained science teachers—and because they think they can have a greater impact on younger children. “If you haven’t followed the science path by the 9th grade, you’ve eclipsed the possibility of a career in science,” says Adrienne Podlesny, a science-curriculum expert for the Albuquerque schools who works full-time on the SCIAD project.

Since its inception, the program has expanded geographically. Some Sandians now travel for hours to make monthly visits to Indian schools in northwestern New Mexico. And 12 schools serving tribes as far away as North Carolina participate long distance, communicating with their advisers by computer, fax machines, and videophones, which transmit still photographs via telephone lines.

Although the directors of the adviser program say that the best measure of its success will be how many participating students pursue careers in science, Rich Stephens of the DOE says the agency wants to measure “more than attitudinal shifts.”

“We’re trying to develop a strategy for evaluating this kind of program,” he says, adding that the DOE has contracted with an educational-consulting firm to measure its success. “If the results are as positive as we think, there’s no reason we can’t replicate this.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Ambassadors For Science