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Engineers Work to Revive Science in Schools : Education: World in Motion program introduces grade-school students nationwide to new ways of thinking.


NEW YORK — Four fifth-graders argued over how to approach a science project. Steve Gadzinsky, an engineer, suggested they write down their options and try each one. Several minutes later, the children had stopped arguing and were putting each solution to a vote.

The work force of the future? That's what big business is betting as it supports a program to introduce elementary school students to basic physics concepts, teamwork and engineers.

More than 100 corporations, including General Motors, Allied-Signal, GTE and Caterpillar have invested $7 million in the project, developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers and known as A World in Motion.

Over four years, it has quietly become what is believed to be the most comprehensive, private collaborative effort in support of public elementary school science education.

Although large companies have traditionally donated large sums to education, about 90% has gone to universities, the rest to high schools, experts say. Those efforts haven't been enough to build a science-literate population, companies find.

"Most people are afraid of science and technology," said Lloyd Reuss, former General Motors president and a leading force behind the program. "We need to get young children to think of science as fun and applicable."

The hands-on physics and math curriculum is being offered in 12% of public elementary schools in all 50 states, according to project director James Cook.

Under World in Motion, 23,000 kits have been distributed free to elementary school teachers. They include print and video materials for experiments demonstrating the relationships among math, science and technology. Kits explore some of the main physics concepts including friction, mass, inertia and force.

Just as important, a local engineer or scientist participates as a mentor. More than 10,000 have already volunteered 50,000 hours of time working with teachers and students in the classroom, SAE said.

A recent survey of teachers using the program found 90% believed students had better physical science skills, SAE said. Seventy percent thought math skills had improved.

In September, the National Science Foundation awarded SAE a $1.8-million grant to expand the initiative to middle schools. The association is seeking an additional $16 million within six years to widen the reach of the initial project and develop the second.

Why are companies, usually motivated by bottom-line concerns, spending money on elementary school students?

"We need to get kids excited about wanting to learn," Cook said.

Schools in the United States aren't doing a good enough job educating students for a world increasingly dependent on sophisticated scientific knowledge and rapidly changing technology, according to the National Science Teachers Assn.

Most children leave school without a basic understanding of science, mathematics or technology. More than 50% don't take a science class after the 10th grade, the association said. About 40% take a course in chemistry, while only 19% take a course in physics.

In a particularly disturbing finding, girls are often discouraged by their abilities in science and math. The 1992 American Assn. of University Women report, "How Schools Shortchange Girls" found 80% of student-assisted science demonstrations are carried out by boys.

And about 65% of high school senior boys who had taken physics and calculus planned to major in science or engineering in college compared to 19% of girls who had taken the same subjects.

At the same time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that employment in technical occupations will grow at a faster pace than overall employment and shortages of workers in the science and engineering job markets cannot be ruled out.

What was it that caused interest in science and technology to decline?

Sputnik, Cook said, was a detriment to the study of science in the United States. When the Soviets launched the first satellite in 1957, there was a rush to sign up students for such courses. But schools couldn't take all who wanted to participate, so they made courses excessively tough.

"It was a turn-off when a kid's successful parent couldn't figure out a homework science problem," Cook said. "It didn't take a generation of kids long to say, 'Who needs this?' "

Later, Vietnam was a deterrent to others. A cadre of teachers came into the profession who were anti-technology, Cook said. Children looked at scientists as the creators of napalm, the atomic bomb and pollution, he said.

"In my era, people looked up to scientists like Thomas Edison and Dr. Jonas Salk," Cook said. "They were seen as improving things rather than as bad guys."

In addition, in the 1970s and '80s, women with a background in science and math took advantage of new opportunities and went into industry rather than becoming teachers.

Then there was a downward economic spiral in schools across the country, Cook said. Science courses were expensive to teach, and fewer children were signing up, so they were the first to be dropped when budget cuts hit.

In 1983, "A Nation at Risk," a government report, sounded an alarm about education in the United States, triggering efforts in most states to raise school standards. But public schools don't have the resources to fully meet the challenge, so industry is stepping in.

Bob Schwartz, director of education programs at The Pew Charitable Trusts, said that recently, companies have started involving themselves in kindergarten through 12th grade education at the local level, but not nationally.

"A World in Motion is an unusual example of cooperation," Schwartz said.

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