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NCLB Outrages

Taking Science Lab on the Road, and Bringing Some Magic, Too

Ohanian Comment: This is a Good News story until you get to the last line. Then it jumps to being an NCLB atrocity, one that is being repeated across the country: No matter how good a job you are doing and how much it benefits children, it will be wiped out by NCLB.


THE prominently placed yellow warning signs in the hallways of Glendale Junior/Senior High School say a lot. "No Smoking or Chewing," they caution, and they mean tobacco. Glendale is an isolated rural school with just 480 students from 7th through 12th grades in a poor stretch of central Pennsylvania.

Nancy Gobert, a Glendale High science teacher, has her hands full. Every day she teaches physics, chemistry and biology (microbiology the first semester, anatomy the second).

But Mrs. Gobert and her students can match the wealthiest schools when it comes to having the latest equipment for doing the most sophisticated science lab work. They use $7,000 spectrophotometers. They have a room full of $2,000 analytic balances that can weigh to within 0.1 milligram. They have automated pipettes that can precisely measure one milliliter of liquid.

The Glendale children love lab time. During a recent chromatography lesson, while John Illnicky, a senior who is going into the Air Force, watched for the colors to separate on his spot plate, he whispered to himself, "I'm having a blast."

Mrs. Gobert remembers the excitement during a lab in which her students had to calculate the density of a liquid. They withdrew exactly one milliliter in their automated pipettes. They weighed the liquid on the analytic balances, subtracting the beaker weight, and at room temperature had 0.997 grams. Then they calculated the density (mass divided by volume) and went to the density tables in their textbooks to identify the liquid.

If they had been using standard high school balance scales and hand-held pipettes, this would have been the disappointing moment, when Mrs. Gobert would say, "You get the idea, kids." But this time, the students' numbers matched the table in the book exactly. The mystery liquid was water!

"They get so excited," said Mrs. Gobert. "They see their number, and they understand where the tables in the books come from."

Students get so involved, they rifle through the stock room in search of any clear liquid they can find to calculate density. The number 0.7866? Had to be methanol. And 0.660 grams? Hexane, for sure.

Glendale High can afford state-of-the-art science labs because the equipment does not stay in one place long. A few days before those $2,000 analytic balances were at Glendale High, they were at West Branch High and before that, at Indian Valley High. The equipment is moved over steep mountain roads in a '92 Ford truck by Tara Fitzsimmons, a chemistry mobile educator for Science in Motion. The program, innovative and cost-effective, started 17 years ago at nearby Juniata College in Huntingdon and has spread across Pennsylvania and to 10 other states.

In the mid-1980's, Donald Mitchell, a Juniata chemistry professor, had a problem he could not solve. Each year, only two or three students entered Juniata with an interest in being chemistry majors.

Yet by senior year, he had 15 to 20 hooked. He knows how he got them to fall in love with chemistry - the labs, they worked like magic. He'd have his freshmen take a mystery liquid that looked like water and inject it into a gas chromatograph, and within a half-hour they knew they had a mix of ethanol, methanol and isopropanol, along with the percentage of each.

But when he talked to high school science teachers, he found out they had no magic. They did not have the equipment - a gas chromatograph is $3,500 - or the time or the know-how for such labs. So in 1987, Dr. Mitchell convinced the National Science Foundation to finance a Science in Motion program based at Juniata that would send lab equipment and materials to surrounding rural high schools along with teachers to set up and run the labs. Besides the chemistry truck, there is a biology truck and a biology mobile teacher, Sharon Conaway.

The National Science Foundation typically underwrites pilot programs for up to 10 years, to make sure they take root, then expects the support to come from other sources. Since 1997, Science in Motion has been financed by Pennsylvania's legislature, which has been so impressed, it expanded the program to 10 more colleges. At Drexel University, the rural model has been adapted to serve Philadelphia high schools.

Other states where Science in Motion has been replicated include Indiana, Alabama, North Carolina, Delaware and California.

The gas chromatograph lesson that captivated Dr. Mitchell's college students is now routinely taught at the 250 high schools served by Science in Motion in Pennsylvania. Students work with a $6,000 P.C.R. (polymerase chain reaction) machine and replicate DNA. During a reporter's visit, Kevin McCloskey, a Hollidaysburg High School biology teacher, asked students if they remembered the DNA extraction lab from the year before. "That was cool," said Dennis Hale, a sophomore. "It looked like snot."

Another favorite lab involves taking a jellyfish gene - provided by Science in Motion - and inserting it into E. coli bacteria. Students learn that the transplanted gene can be activated by adding a sugar (arabinose), stimulating the gene to manufacture a protein that looks green under ultraviolet light. They expose one set of the altered bacteria to the sugar, and as a control, leave another set alone. Then they darken the room, look at the bacteria under ultraviolet light, see the fluorescent green protein and know that the transplanted jellyfish gene has done its work inside the bacteria.

As the teacher, Mr. McCloskey says, "When you have 10th grade kids and the results glow in the dark - is there anything better?" And that is how, in this era of reality television, "American Idol" and MTV spring break specials, you teach high school students to love science.

Dr. Mitchell, who is now retired from Juniata, gives the National Science Foundation credit for taking the chance on a new idea from an unknown professor at a tiny college. For decades, the federal agency has piloted such innovative partnerships between colleges and public schools. But this year, the Bush administration has moved to shut down a major National Science Foundation college-public school partnership program, and transfer the funds to the Department of Education, where they could be used for the controversial No Child Left Behind program. More on that next week.

— Michael Winerip
New York Times


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