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The art of teaching science

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Science is a discipline that unravels many mysteries of the world around us. Yet the field always seemed stumped by this challenge: how not to be so boring. If ever a subject glazed young eyes, it was science. The teacher with slide rule in hand monotoning his or her way through a presentation on the overheard projector; that's how science was typically presented the past.

Now there seems to be recognition that science wasn't being conveyed in its best light, that a numbing presentation of facts masked its appeal, even drama. Recent articles in The Evening Sun about a hands-on science camp at Baltimore's National Aquarium; a new, engaging math exhibit at the Maryland Science Center, and a popular public television series, "Bill Nye the Science Guy" -- a fusion of the old, campy "Mr. Wizard" shows and MTV -- detailed some of the modern approaches to popularizing technical subjects.

Today's kids have another advantage, too. They're the children of a science-conscious age, in which debates over environmental politics, technological advances and medical challenges and breakthroughs dominate the news. Moreover, girls are being increasingly drawn to what had been male-dominated courses.

Walk inside some Carroll County high schools, for instance, and you can witness the transformation. Rooms with high ceilings that used to house wood-working shops have been converted to science labs, with computer banks and huge aquariums to raise fish for stream restoration projects. Even at the elementary level, the customary texts have been replaced with other materials, mirroring the shift from memorization to application.

Statistics suggest this evolution in science classrooms is having an impact. State scores and participation in advanced placement exams in science are up markedly from just a few years ago. Nearly 70 percent of students passed the biology exam in 1994, compared to 50 percent in 1990.

Improvement is also evident on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. Statewide, more than twice as many students achieved excellent scores on science in 1994 as in 1993.

For a long time, when confronted with chemistry or biology, many students wondered "what use is this stuff?" It is commendable that educators have progressed from a "take your medicine" response to a realization that the fascination in their field was being smothered. Society is sure to reap the benefits of that new attitude.

VTC

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