In New Mexico Schools, Students Learn From National Lab’s ‘Science Ambassadors’

By Julie A. Miller — May 13, 1992 7 min read
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During most of his working hours, Eugene Lujan uses computers to design weaponry and other scientific equipment. But one day in late April, he is standing in a classroom at Isleta Pueblo and 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. Mr. Lujan says it worked because he smeared Vaseline on the skewers to act as a sealant and inserted the skewers 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.

Mr. Lujan is a science adviser at the Isleta school, which means 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 participate in the program, each assigned to one or more schools.

Currently, 106 Albuquerque public schools participate, along with 42 rural schools, and 29 Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, such as Isleta.

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 “SCIADS,’' as they are called at Sandia, is to act as scientific 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.’'

“In low-income areas, in particular, the role-model aspect of it is very important,’' adds Raymond Heath, who coordinates the Albuquerque portion of the SCIAD program.

To that end, the program’s directors said they try especially hard to recruit advisers such as Mr. Lujan, who is of Native American descent.

“It’s a valuable lesson that Larry is a Hispanic,’' Marie Garcia, the director of instruction for the Belen school district, says of Larry Salgado, a SCIAD who works at two schools there.

“Kids think of someone in a white coat with thick glasses, hunched over a beaker,’' Ms. Garcia says. “They can identify with Larry.’'

Improved Student Attitudes

Educators involved with the program eagerly volunteer evidence of improved student attitudes. At Isleta, for example, the 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 were asked to “illustrate their favorite subject,’' more than half chose science. Belen’s La Merced Elementary School had so many entries that it had to hold two science fairs this year.

“The difference in quality was amazing, too,’' says Rudy Chavez, the school’s principal. “Even the parents could see.’'

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

The lab has also developed a resource center stocked with both individual pieces of equipment and prepackaged boxes with the materials for a particular demonstration.

For example, a box Mr. Salgado brought to Belen Junior High School holds jars and a selection of bottled scents that becomes 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.

Some teachers also say they appreciate the help of a scientist because they realize that the subject is not one of their strengths.

“You only need three hours in science methodology to be an elementary-school teacher,’' says La Merced’s Mr. Chavez.

Teachers and SCIADS added that most of the training elementary-school teachers do receive is in life sciences, rather than the physical science the Sandians specialize in.

“I never had the courage to start a science club before this,’' says Harriet Reid, a teacher at Mark Twain Elementary School. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to answer their questions.’'

Several teachers say the experience has also 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.’'

Focus on Elementary Schools

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

The SCIAD program began in the 1990-91 school year with 108 advisers and 120 schools. Mr. Wartell says 103 of the SCIADS “made it through the year,’' and 75 re-enlisted. 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 program.

The program has expanded geographically. Some Sandians travel for hours to make monthly visits to Indian schools in northwestern New Mexico. In addition, 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.

The SCIAD initiative is the largest component of an education program that Sandia, with an overall $1-billion budget, will spend an estimated $8 million on this year. That figure includes the cost of 25 employees who work full-time on education initiatives and the cost of the volunteers’ time. Mr. Wartell says a relatively small portion of the education budget comes from specific D.O.E. grants.

Most of the $108.56 million the D.O.E. spends nationwide on education programs focuses on teacher training, according to Rich Stephens, the director of the office of university and science education.

Many of the labs, including Sandia, operate research internships and in-service workshops for teachers, but Mr. Stephens said the SCIAD program is unique.

Sandia’s first venture into education research stirred up a national controversy. In 1990, several of the lab’s data analysts were asked to examine statistical evidence of the quality of the nation’s education system, and they concluded that policymakers and pundits who bemoan a systemwide crisis are both overstating and misstating educational woes.

The report was sharply criticized by Bush Administration and Congressional officials last year. Some researchers have charged that the Administration has failed to publish the report because it conflicts with its rhetoric.

Evidence of Success

But despite the controversy, officials from the Administration and local schools appear sold on the SCIAD program.

As evidence, the local officials point to an evaluation of the program prepared by the Albuquerque school district, which compared answers on questionnaires administered to teachers, advisers, and students at the beginning and end of the school year.

More than 80 percent of teachers surveyed said the program had a positive impact on their attitude toward science and their ability to teach it. Changes in most student responses were statistically insignificant, but the number who said they could “do scientific things on their own’’ rose from about 60 percent to about 80 percent.

The science-adviser program’s directors say that the best measure of its success will be how many participating students pursue careers in science, and that they are uncomfortable about using test scores to gauge the quality of the program.

“There’s pressure from D.O.E. to show an impact, because it costs so much money,’' Ms. Podlesny of the Albuquerque district says. “They want quantitative proof.’'

Mr. Stephens of the D.O.E. says the Energy Department wants to measure “more than attitudinal shifts.’'

“We’re trying to develop a strategy for evaluating this kind of program,’' he says.

He notes that the D.O.E. has contracted with an educational-consulting firm to evaluate the program.

“If the results are as positive as we think, there’s no reason we can’t replicate this,’' Mr. Stephens says.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 1992 edition of Education Week as In New Mexico Schools, Students Learn From National Lab’s ‘Science Ambassadors’

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