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Bringing the Sizzle to Science in the Schools
by Linda Marsa
Scott Phelps, left, a high school science and math teacher, collaborates with Jerry Pine, director of a Caltech program to improve science education in the schools.
A stately mansion on a tree-lined street in Pasadena is the unlikely nerve center of a national effort to transform the way science is taught to America's youngsters. While the once-grand house at the edge of the California Institute of Technology campus has seen better days, there's nothing dated about the program it houses. The Caltech Pre-college Science Initiative (CAPSI) aims to make science appealing to all students, not merely to those who plan to pursue science-related careers.
"Every student should have a quality science education—it shouldn't be just for the elite," says Wayne Snyder, project director at CAPSI. "Children are natural scientists. If they are nurtured, they will become scientifically literate citizens. But if science instruction is minimal or consists of being force-fed rote facts, kids get turned off."
Funded in part by grants from HHMI and the National Science Foundation, CAPSI is the brainchild of two Caltech professors, Jerry Pine and Jim Bower. CAPSI builds on Project SEED (Science for Early Educational Development), which Pine and Bower founded after noting with dismay the lack of decent science education programs in Pasadena's elementary schools. Starting in 1984, the pair worked in tandem with teachers and administrators in the school district to develop an innovative and successful science program for the city's youngest students (see sidebar).
But Pine, Bower, and colleagues noted that when SEED graduates moved on to junior high and high school, there wasn't a corresponding program for them in Pasadena. So they decided to create courses for grades 7 and 8. They expected not to have to reinvent any wheels. "Initially we thought we'd find a good secondary-school program somewhere else and use it as our model," says Snyder. But then, he says, they found that "there were no good programs."
Photo: Steve LaBadessa