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Topics / SCIENCE : Space-Age Programs Target Black Children

August 14, 1994|ERIN J. AUBRY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hal and Bettye Walker believe that for black children to seize control of their futures, they must shoot for the moon.

The Walkers are not speaking metaphorically.

The retired laser scientist and his wife, an educator, say black children must be educated about not only space travel, but the fast-moving world of science and technology that has brought about everything from space shuttles to laser disc players.

It is the lack of emphasis within the black community on such knowledge, the Baldwin Hills couple say, that prompted them to recently open the Science and Discovery Learning Center at 3639 La Brea Ave. The Walkers aim to demystify science for black youngsters and make it as real to them as Nintendo.

Hal Walker Jr., who developed laser equipment that projected images of the moon back to the Earth during the 1969 Apollo moonwalk, says it is time that blacks focus on the importance of science to their progress as a people.

"I believe that we have to pursue using technology as a solution to social problems," said Walker, 60, who is being honored with an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington commemorating the moonwalk. The Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza also is honoring him with an exhibit.

Bettye Walker, a retired teacher and educator with the Compton and Los Angeles school districts, echoed her husband's conviction that the key to the future is involvement in technological advancements.

"The answer to all our troubles is technology. We have to make technologists," she said. "And we have to start doing it early."

At the center, an airy five-room office space, children can learn how to use a computer, assemble simple robots, participate in round table scientific discussions and watch a slide show on the properties of laser light.

"This is good because it'll help me become an inventor," said 8-year-old Benar Arlain, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "Passing the Torch." "I like science. I know a lot of guys who want to be in this."

For now, the more than two dozen participants are all boys between the ages of 4 and 17, members of the African-American Male Achievers Network (A-Man for short), a nonprofit mentoring group formed two years ago by the Walkers. .

The activities of the group took a scientific turn last year when, during a trip to the NASA Space Camp in Florida, Hal Walker realized virtually no black youths were participating except for his group.

"It really got their attention, especially the simulators that had them walking on the moon, moving through zero gravity," Hal Walker recalled. "It makes such a difference in interest level when you can see things close up. I thought: 'We need to make our own camp.' "

The newly acquired space on La Brea, wedged between the shuttered Baldwin Theater Complex and a mini-mall, practically fell out of the sky: the couple were frantically searching for an office after they had to vacate their temporary quarters at King-Drew Medical Center.

The couple hope to generate enough corporate and community interest to keep the office. All of their office furniture, scientific equipment and computers were donated.

All of this, they say, is not so much to groom technology wizards as to expose a generation of black children to air that is too often perceived as rarefied.

"Look, we're not looking to create 1,000 scientists," said Hal Walker. "Just one. But the key thing is getting the young people to spread the word."

The Walkers hope to expand the free program, which already has a waiting list of 10. Information: (213) 296-1182.

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