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Program Applies Science to Answer 'Why Learn That?'

January 12, 1986|BOB WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

\o7 Your problem is to design a cylindrical container that holds exactly one pint of applesauce.

The can could be a mile high, but very thin. Or it could be a mile in diameter and a tiny fraction of an inch high.

Both shapes could hold exactly one pint of applesauce. But they would require tons of plastic or metal to make, and obviously you would have a hard time fitting them onto a supermarket shelf.

So, Mr. or Ms. Designer, how would you determine the best shape for the applesauce can? Or a hair spray dispenser? Or an oil storage tank? Or a spaceship?

Enter Differential Calculus . . .

\f7

Connecting abstract book knowledge to practical applications in real-life careers may be a key technique for luring more youngsters into jobs in science, engineering and other technical fields, according to educators backing a pilot project designed to test the approach.

The program, in which several South Bay school districts are participating, seeks to answer the perennial question of students bored or overwhelmed by seemingly endless streams of facts and theories: "Why do I gotta learn that?"

Students get the answer, the program's sponsors say, through simple classroom experiments that demonstrate scientific principles used by adults working in various technical fields.

To strengthen the connection, the teacher may invite a working professional to help teach the lesson and then talk about his or her work and life in that field.

The result, according to sponsors, is that more students are inspired to say to themselves, "Hey, I can do that."

Called COMETS (Career Oriented Modules to Explore Topics in Science), the program was developed several years ago by Walter S. Smith, a professor of education at the University of Kansas, under a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The program is used in grades 4 through 9, and while few schools have installed it in the classroom, the number is expected to grow.

"Everybody agrees that in an increasingly high-tech society we need to encourage more students to go into science-related fields," said Darrel Smedley, a curriculum consultant with the county Office of Education.

"This way of relating the practical to the theoretical, and then getting role models to tell how it all fits together into a career, should help achieve that goal."

The basic materials include a volume that presents a wide range of technical knowledge keyed to career applications, and another volume of profiles of people who have used the knowledge to build successful personal and professional lives.

COMETS caught the attention of TRW Inc., which sponsored workshops throughout the country and then decided to launch a pilot project in Southern California, according to Dale Van Natta, the aerospace company's director of community relations.

He said TRW plans to expand the program to other major metropolitan areas after educators here have gained classroom experience with the basic concepts.

"To get the thing going, we needed to train and motivate a corps of teachers who would take the ideas and materials back to their districts and train other teachers," Van Natta said. "It's a networking approach."

The networking began in November with workshops at El Camino College and at TRW facilities in Redondo Beach. Smedley, the county's COMETS coordinator, said about 80 teachers from districts throughout the county attended sessions conducted by Smith, the Kansas educator.

Smedley said only a few schools have begun using the program in classrooms, but a wider application is expected when the teachers have more time to fit COMETS into existing curriculum. Training of more teachers will continue through the school year and next summer, he said.

Luring Girls, Minorities

Much of the COMETS material is pitched at making careers in science attractive to girls and minorities. All profiles of successful professionals, for example, feature minority and white women.

To further promote that goal, COMETS has been paired with another program developed at the University of California, Berkeley. Its purpose is explained in its acronym, SPACES--Solving Problems of Access to Careers in Engineering and Science.

"We need to break the old stereotypes that tell young people that only men can be scientists and engineers, or machinists and gardeners," Smedley said, "and we need more minorities in hi-tech careers."

James Kerker, a physics and chemistry teacher in the El Segundo Unified School District who is coordinating the COMETS program there, offered a personal example of how stereotypes can block career aspirations.

'Cultural Barriers'

"My teen-age daughter said she would like to be an architect but she couldn't because she's a girl," Kerker said. "That really brought home to me the value of a program like COMETS that can help overcome these cultural barriers."

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