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Unearthing Enthusiasm : Project Aims to Boost Minority Students' Interest in Science


There was no hesitancy in the voice of Michael Forrest of the Southern California Earthquake Center when he exhorted a party of 35 elementary school teachers to scramble a couple hundred feet up a dusty, steep and slippery slope to take a close look at an ancient fault near Portuguese Bend.

And for the most part, there was no hesitancy among the teachers either. A few held back, but the overwhelming majority, some holding on to one another, clambered up the slope until they could touch the fault.

Forrest explained that they were at a place which 15 million years ago, when the Los Angeles Basin was opening up geologically, had seen a major sinking of crustal blocks, other important earth movements and dramatic upwellings of lava.

It was in some respects an unusual science field trip. The teachers--part of a larger group of 160 from 32 schools on the south and east sides of Los Angeles--were not specialists in science, and they came from schools in which there has been little instruction in science or enthusiasm for the subject.

The field trip on the Palos Verdes Peninsula occurred during a two-week Institute in the Earth Sciences. The summer program was one component of an elaborate three-year project financed by the National Science Foundation and private foundations designed to ultimately improve the woeful underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos among those who earn advanced college science degrees.

According to figures supplied by the NSF, only 5.9% of all science and engineering doctorates earned in 1992 nationwide went to U.S. minorities, who constitute 24.8% of the total population, and many of those degrees went to Asian Americans. That year, only 40 more African Americans earned such doctorates than in 1975.


Blacks, constituting 12.1% of the total U.S. population in the 1990 census, only made up 1.9% of the employed scientists and engineers with doctorates in 1991, the latest year for which figures are available. Latinos, making up 9% of the nation's population, constituted only 1.6% of scientists and engineers with doctorates. Native Americans, 0.8% of the population, formed only 0.2% of the scientific and engineering work force with doctorates. Asian Americans, by contrast, made up only 2.9% of the population, but 6.9% of that work force.

Of the current elementary school training project, Lois Slavkin, executive director of the Center to Advance Precollege Science Education at USC, said: "This is not meant to be a course. It is simply meant to develop interest and enthusiasm among the teachers for science instruction."

All too often, Slavkin said, what elementary instruction is offered takes place "in a haphazard, unplanned way. The students are turned off because the teachers are turned off, and they don't grow up with any science in their lives," accounting for the paucity of minority science students at the college and postgraduate levels.

A mission statement developed by the USC center says: "Two factors conspire to exacerbate the underrepresentation of low-income minority students in the sciences.

"First, the vast majority of elementary teachers have little or no science in their background. Second, when children 'turn off' to science, it is often as early as the third or fourth grades.

"Taken together, the outcome is too little science taught poorly to students who quickly become permanently disinterested in science as an academic major or career."


In developing the training program, which costs about $1 million a year, Slavkin's group sought out school principals and teachers who would agree to put extra effort into the project, including forming science clubs on their campuses and requiring parent participation in them alongside their youngsters.

There also are numerous follow-up sessions to the summer training. Five Saturdays a year, teachers attend these, as well as a weeklong winter retreat. Each school also receives several thousand dollars worth of instructional materials from the organizers.

Two-thirds of the teachers involved this summer were in their third year of participation. The first summer program was devoted to the life sciences, the second to the physical sciences and this year's to the earth sciences.

In addition to field trips, there were lectures and discussions this summer at the Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet School on the Eastside. Although much scientific information was imparted, the teachers were told they should seek to convey what they had learned in informal ways.

"Our goal is to move away from the lecture format, in which the student is a passive recipient of information and the teacher is the sole imparter of knowledge, and toward interactive, student-centered, hands-on delivery of knowledge in which the teacher is a facilitator," Slavkin said.

Teachers participating in the program said this was a good year to focus on the earth sciences, since the Jan. 17 earthquake awakened a natural interest among most students in the topic.

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