As Science Program Celebrates 20th Birthday, Clouds of Fiscal

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Austerity Dampen the Mood By Peter West

Riverside, Calif.--Long after classes have been dismissed at the Sherman Indian School here, a handful of young men women remain in school, under the watchful eye of their teacher, Arlene Todd.

They are not competing for slots on a school athletic team, or pursuing their interests in an after-school club. Instead, they are busily filling out forms in the school library to gain access to a program aimed at steering them to scientific and technical careers, once remote dreams for

The students' willingness to go to such lengths to apply for the program is common among participants in the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement--or mesa--program, explains Linda Del Osso, the mesa coordinator at nearby Harvey Mudd College.

Ms. Todd, for example, volunteered to teach a before-school advanced mathematics course in order to demonstrate student support for the program.

"She did that for one semester last year, and [the students] all were there really early in the morning," Ms. Del Osso recalls. Such efforts have helped turn the 20-year-old program into a model for similar undertakings that have sprung up in as many as 19 states.

And its sponsors here in California have begun a new initiative, of which the recruitment drive here is a part, to extend its reach to the state's largely rural Native American population.

But while officials celebrate the program's 20th anniversary with alumni reunions and other special events, their jubilation over past successes and future plans + is dampened by economic realities. Instead of seeking out new opportunities, officials say, California's multibillion-dollar budget shortfall and tightened corporate belts have forced them to think about survival.

"It's hard to celebrate when you're trying to keep your head above water," says Jerome W. Blackman, the organization's associate dirctor of development and fundraising.

Tutoring and Counseling

Mesa traces its roots to the late 1960's, when several engineering professors at the University of California at Berkeley discovered a marked absence of minority students, and particularly black students, enrolled in their programs.

A study of the situation led them to conclude that students failed to major in technical subject matter at the college level because they were inadequately prepared, academically and otherwise, for the challenges of technical fields.

Working with a science teacher from Oakland Technical High School, they set out to create a program that would encourage students to develop the skills and attitudes necessary for academic success.

Under the mesa program, which is headquartered at the Lawrence Hall of Science at Berkeley, students are tutored, take field trips, participate in intensive summer programs, and have routine contact with working scientists and engineers.

They also receive counseling about their preparing for college-admissions tests.

But in order to be selected for the program, they must agree to enroll in an academically rigorous selection of courses, which generally includes three to four years of math, science through chemistry and physics, and four years of college-preparatory English.

Mesa students also are encouraged to demonstrate their skills for parents and peers in competitions.

Students may, for example, build oil derricks out of toothpicks and glue and then subject the construction to stresses. Or they may design packaging to allow an egg to survive a drop of several stories without breaking.

"Parents get a real kick out of that," Ms. Del Osso says.

The program also offers cash awards to students who demonstrate high levels of achievement in math and science.

Positive Aspects


In its first two decades, the approach has been highly successful in encouraging students who might not otherwise have chosen to attend college to set their sights beyond high school, proponents point out.

"Parents that we've seen over the last few years say they want their children to go to school," Ms. Del Osso says. "They see that there is benefit to their kids going to college."

About 75 percent of mesa students go on to college, officials say, and those who do appear to be on an academic par with other college-bound youths. A 1983 study of the program, conducted by the Center for the Study of Evaluation at u.c.l.a, for example, found that the Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of mesa participants are roughly equal to the national average for college-bound students, despite the participants' economic and academic disadvantages.

In addition to its academic benefits, mesa has also paid off for schools by encouraging them to forge links with colleges and the private sector.

Each teacher adviser for the program, for example, is teamed with a mesa coordinator from a local college or university.

And businesses today not only contribute funding to the program, they also provide such "in kind" contributions as "lending" executives to work in the mesa system and contributing facilities for annual meetings.


Currently, observers note, there is a greater chance to develop a national consensus about the requirements for teacher education, certification, and licensure than at any time in history.

For example, 22 states now use the National Teachers Examinations, developed by the ets, to license prospective teachers. And more states may choose to do so, based on revisions of the tests now under way.3 Similarly, the creation of the national standards board for teaching--which will develop advanced assessments of what teachers should know and be able to do--could lead to greater uniformity in the standards that states use both to approve teacher-education programs and to license educators.

Already, some states are trying to make it easier for teachers to move from state to state--and to avoid duplication--by entering into reciprocity agreements or by forming multistate consortia to develop teacher licenses and examinations.

The result could be a much more streamlined and rational system of teacher-education requirements, observers hope.

But Mr. Stedman of the University of North Carolina cautions that, for such efforts to succeed, states will have to overcome what he views as a "control issue" regarding teacher education and licen sure. "I think there's an interest among states in not deferring to the national level exclusively," he notes.

"In some cases, states think, 'It's our job. How can we give it away?"' he says. "There's also a suspicion of the outside ... and a nervousness that national standards may not respond to what most states think are needs that they have that are different from those of other states."

Whether such problems can be overcome, he and others note, remains to be seen.

This special series on teacher education has been underwritten by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Vol. 10, Issue 28

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