Energy Department Opens Research-Lab Doors To Help Improve Students' Math, Science Skills

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OAK RIDGE, TENN.--Shortly after the gates of this formerly "secret city" swung open at the end of World War II, talented graduate students began flocking to the area to study under some of the world's leading research scientists.

But for decades, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, created as part of the national effort to develop the first atomic bomb, remained a bastion of collegiate studies and largely terra incognita to the thousands of high-school students and teachers in the surrounding rural and urban Appalachian communities.

"It hasn't been a lot of years since, unless you were 18 or over, you couldn't get into a facility like this," notes Chester R. Richmond, the director of science education and external programs for Martin Marietta Energy Systems Inc., the firm that operates the laboratory under contract to the U.S. Department of Energy.

That all has changed, however, in response to a national charge from the Congress and Secretary of Energy James D. Watkins. Through agency policy directives and legislation, federal officials have passed the word to the department's nine national laboratories: Become more involved in precollegiate mathematics and science education.

For officials at Oak Ridge, the new mandates have meant opening their doors and exposing students and teachers from the surrounding communities to the work of the lab. Over time, the officials say, such efforts could improve the quality of school math and science and could encourage more young people to go into the field.

And, while still in their infancy, the new initiatives may also hold some clues to the ways in which other federal agencies can more effectively become involved in education-reform movement.

A Precollegiate Strategy

Under Secretary Watkins, a retired admiral, the Energy Department has lent a forceful voice in Washington to calls for improvements in math and science education.

These efforts were buttressed by the Congress, which in 1990 passed legislation, the Department of Energy Science Education Act of 1990, which made science education a priority for the department.

But while the agency's activities in the education sphere have won kudos from many quarters, they have not always produced the kind of attention that he may have preferred.

Recently, a report drafted by researchers at the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico suggested that reports of the nation's education woes were overstated and argued that reform efforts are "misdirected." The report has never been formally released, and critics argue that it was stifled by Admiral Watkins and the White House. (See Education Week, Oct. 9, 1991).

Pipeline Issues

The federal interest in precollegiate education fell on receptive ears here in Oak Ridge, where the facility has had a long, if at times uneasy, relationship with the surrounding communities.

A short drive into the mountains around Knoxville, the city of Oak Ridge was created from the ground up during the 1940's as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project, which created the atomic bomb. Researchers here performed the technical task of separating the appropriate isotopes of uranium to fuel the explosion.

Today, as a sort of modern-day company town, it serves as home to thousands of Martin Marietta and federal workers employed by one of the federal government's largest multipurpose research centers.

These relatively well-educated and wealthy families have clashed with those in the surrounding Appalachian counties over the public schools, according to Charles W. Johnson and Charles O. Johnson, two University of Tennessee historians.

Writing in City Behind A Fence, a chronicle of the community's earliest days, the historians note that an acrimonious debate was stirred up in both Knoxville and in neighboring Anderson county as teachers fled from the relatively low pay offered by those systems to teach in the "excellent" school system set up to serve the federal reservation.

Today, though, as a result of the federal initiatives, notes Edward D. Aebischer, the manager of university and educational programs for the Oak Ridge lab, officials here are devoting considerable attention to ensuring that more young people--including those from Appalachia--move through the "pipeline" to become scientists and engineers.

"The outreach programs are really going back to the beginning of the pipe line ,. Mr. Aebischer says. "But we also are trying to expand the pipeline by diversifying the types of people that we reach."

'A Total Involvement'

In response to the mandates, the Oak Ridge lab has launched two major programs to improve educational opportunities for students in the area.

In partnership with the Oak Ridge Associated Universities, the lab last year created the Science and Mathematics Action for Revitalized Teaching--or SMART--partnership program to extend its educational outreach. "We're looking at a total involvement in the area, focused on three school districts," Mr. Richmond of Martin Marietta says.

As part of the SMART program, the lab has created workshops for students and teachers to enable them to learn from practicing scientists and technicians.

Under a student program known as MathQuest, students attend 10-day-long "math camps" at the lab, where they experience hands-on instruction in measurement, physics, and other topics from laboratory researchers.

Teachers, meanwhile, are offered intensive workshops to help them improve instruction.

Under the SMART program, the Energy Department also subsidizes release time for three program coordinators, one from each participating school system, to allow them to drum up support for math and science programs among local business and community groups.

Judith Delaney, the SMART coordinator for the Roane County school system, says she is organizing a county science fair, something she would not have time to do without the support of the program.

"What this turns out to be is actually a model for an America 2000 community," Mr. Richmond says, referring to President Bush's proposals to involve whole communities in education reform.

Drawbacks Cited

But, while they are enthusiastic about the program's potential--an enthusiasm they say is shared by many in the community-the program coordinators caution that real reform may be slow in coming.

Stephen Todd, who coordinates the SMART program for the Harriman City School District, says that many in that mill town do not yet understand the need to retool their skills to cope with a changing world.

A native of Harriman, Mr. Todd notes that his parents once encouraged him to forswear postsecondary education to join his brothers and sisters in the local hosiery mill, which once provided a major source of employment for non-college-bound students.

But the mill closed recently, he points out, and young people will need a strong background in math and science to obtain jobs.

"We've got to convince the parents that this is important," Mr. Todd says.

Mr. Todd also notes that officials of the relatively small district have not granted him release time from his full schedule of classes to coordinate the SMART program.

And Toni Thibedeaux, the SMART coordinator for the Chattanooga City Schools, says much of her time is spent persuading local businesses to donate materials to schools,particularly elementary schools, to help mitigate the effect local budget cuts have had on textbooks and materials.

"What I need is 100 percent release time," she says.

Teachers Challenged

On another front, the laboratory is focusing on a joint undertaking with the Tennessee Department of Education, Martin Marietta, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to expose middle- and junior-high-school teachers to the realities of science in practice.

The Academy for Teachers of Science and Mathematics, launched this summer, is open to teachers across Tennessee, and in selected districts with large proportions of Martin Marietta employees in Florida, Kentucky, and Louisiana.

"We try to find the most promising teachers, give them a challenge, and then send them home to do something different with their new insights," says Kenneth J. Monty, a university microbiologist who directs the program.

The program is unusual, he says, in that teachers themselves may not apply to participate, but must be nominated by their district superintendents. That feature helps ensure support for education reform across a broader spectrum, he notes.

Among its goals, Mr. Monty says, the program is designed to give teachers an appreciation of the scientific method of inquiry, and to disabuse them of a popularly held notion in precollegiate classrooms that, in science, "everything's got a precise answer."

The program also trains teachers to emulate the grantsmanship practiced by working scientists by drafting proposals for reforms they would undertake upon returning to their districts.

Mr. Monty says he was encouraged about the success of the program by the quality of the drafts. But he also notes that many teachers expressed concern that their newfound knowledge may be useless in the face of obstacles to reform.

"I can't give them an answer to it," he says. "But for them to talk up the fact that that this is a problem for them in our society is very valuable to them."

Vol. 11, Issue 08, Pages 6-7

Published in Print: October 23, 1991, as Energy Department Opens Research-Lab Doors To Help Improve Students' Math, Science Skills
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