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The Art of Attracting Students to Science : Education: A UCLA artist in residence tries to expand knowledge and awareness of the field.


In artist Pamela Davis' view of science, formulas fly through a chemist's head. Lightning bolts dart across the physicist's face. A mathematician seems to engage time by peering through the transparent face of a clock.

By creating these images, Davis hopes to attack scientific illiteracy with art. In fact, it is part of her job as artist in residence at UCLA's College of Letters and Science. "I want to represent the cutting edge of intellectual effort through visualizations," she said.

Davis' art is part of a broader campaign at UCLA to expand knowledge and awareness of science in general and, specifically, to attract and motivate good science students.

Chemistry professor Orville Chapman, who was recently appointed associate dean for educational reform and charged with looking for ways to improve the level of science education at UCLA, says the mission is urgent.

"We'll go back to the Dark Ages if the trend toward scientific illiteracy continues," Chapman said. He cites poor reading and math skills as among the causes for the decline.

Some of the endeavors by the staff on the Westwood campus include creating high-tech visualizations of scientific processes, employing distinguished teacher-researchers who serve as role models, and outreach efforts aimed at providing the public with hands-on scientific experience.

One such outreach effort took place on campus last month when Davis and others organized a "Math Passion Day." Students demonstrated their passion for math by crawling around on their hands and knees in front of one of the science buildings, turning the Pythagorean Theorem into performance art. The actors in this "happening" performed the famed geometric proof by drawing with pieces of chalk on the rough concrete.

"It was larger than life," said math/philosophy major Avrom Faderman after working on the group proof. "The experience helped dispel the myth that math is a hands-off science. When I think of biology, I think of creatures; when I think of chemistry, I think of formulas. This (experience) shows that math is real," he said.

Although Faderman, a senior, is enthusiastic about science and math, educators worry about the many students who are turned off. Even at prestigious UCLA, students of the '90s compare poorly with those who enrolled on the Westwood campus only one decade before them.

"They're just as smart as they were 10 years ago--the gene pool hasn't changed. (But) they just haven't learned anything," said physics professor Walter Gekelman. "They can't read well. They can read a novel, but they can't sit down with a science text and read it."

One of Gekelman's techniques for reaching the Nintendo generation involves using an interactive computer program, created at UCLA, to demonstrate principles of the Theory of Relativity. By moving knobs, students hurl a cube on the computer screen through space at velocities approaching the speed of light. They manipulate its course through the twists and magnifications that affect matter at such great speeds. "You want to use every tool you can get their hands on to help them out," Gekelman said.

Elma Gonzalez, an associate professor of biology who works with Los Angeles Unified School District teachers and their students, agrees that innovative approaches are necessary in all aspects of science teaching, and are particularly crucial for recruiting women and minority students into scientific careers.

A plant-cell biologist, Gonzalez serves as a role model for such students. The daughter of South Texas farm laborers, she sometimes visits schools in barrios and immigrant neighborhoods to tell the children that the world of science has a place for them.

There are other forms of outreach at UCLA. This summer, the university plans to open a visualization center where researchers will develop computer-aided instruction. In the fall, a public art-science center will open with exhibits based on current scientific research on the Westwood campus. Visitors will be able to work with the relativity cube and interact with art created from the aesthetics of science--including some works by Davis.

Davis is working with physics professor H. Wen Jang on some new artworks based on principles of superconductivity, which are to be displayed at the center.

Davis describes her approach to art and science as a kind of journalism, which takes concepts only scientists and mathematicians understand and makes them clear to everyone. "I'm translating scientific ideas into art. I'm taking things that are obscure and inaccessible and making them accessible," she said.

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