CORVALLIS - A K-12 outreach program developed four years ago by "scientist-parents" in Corvallis has proven so successful that organizers are now ready to take the concept statewide.
This "Scientist Education Partnership," or SEPS program, was the brainstorm of involved parents from Oregon State University, who also happened to be working scientists. They observed a paucity of science exposure in elementary and other K-12 classrooms - ages at which a budding interest in science can either be nurtured or allowed to wither.
At first with no budget at all, and later with $525,000 in support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and an Eisenhower Grant, these parents virtually created from scratch a science curriculum for elementary schools, a support system of portable laboratories and a small army of volunteers who troop regularly into area classrooms, many of them as the group's "adopted" scientist.
"SEPS has worked far beyond our initial expectations, when we just hoped to get a few parents helping out in K-12 classrooms, and letting our kids see scientists as real people who liked their jobs," said Russ Meints, professor and director of the OSU Center for Gene Research and Biotechnology.
"Now we're going to take it to the next level, at least statewide and hopefully beyond that," he said. "This doesn't have to be confined to a university town, there are scientists everywhere and we hope the young students in Oregon's future work with a lot of them. It's the least we can do for these K-12 teachers who try to produce more every year with budgets that keep shrinking."
Continued funding is being sought from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute primarily to expand this working concept and educational structure across Oregon, Meints said.
Among the program's accomplishments:
Volunteer scientists and profiles of their expertise are now listed on-line and in a printed database for schools to tap into.
Three newsletters are published each year, workshops for teachers are heavily attended, recruitment of scientists is ongoing and extensive participation has been obtained from the many scientists at a large Hewlett Packard industrial facility in Corvallis.
Special programs such as Family Science Night, Outdoor School, Scientist-in-Residence Program, a "Celebration of Science" poster contest and high school mentorship programs attract increasing numbers of students and parents.
The SEPS program has also created a more sophisticated science education curriculum, especially at the K-5 level where it previously was almost nonexistent. And it's developed almost 30 new "science kits" for usage in various experiments from the K-5 level on up.
"One of our more successful initiatives for the higher grades are portable molecular biology laboratories that can be transported and shared among various classrooms," said Carole Beedlow, coordinator of the SEPS high school program. "These are fairly sophisticated instruments which allow students to perform DNA extraction, gel electrophoresis and other technologies."
Such kits have already been shared with schools in Portland, Salem, and other areas besides Corvallis, Philomath and Albany, Beedlow said.
The reaction of the Corvallis school district has been sufficiently positive that the district now plans to continue SEPS activities indefinitely and provide the necessary, modest funding, Beedlow said. It's hoped that the same approach - get the ball rolling and then turn the program over to local school districts - can be implemented around the state, she said. And SEPS participants endorse its success.
"Our scientist-in-residence has been around a lot more blocks than I have," said Gerhard Behrens, a second grade teacher at Inavale Elementary School in Corvallis. "When we're confused about a scientific concept or need an example from everyday life, he can help. He brings in resources and ideas that would never occur to us and. . . is another caring adult in the classroom. I don't think I need to elaborate on the value of a person like that."
Emily Finnan, an advanced placement biology student at Corvallis High School, participated in the SEPS mentorship program that gives students one-on-one time with working scientists. "I see a connection between my coursework and what is happening in the lab," she said. "I enjoy watching the different methodical processes the scientists go through in each step of the experiment."
"We're now getting calls from people all over the state wanting to learn more about this program and how they can set up something similar," Meints said. "And it should work anywhere, because there are scientists in every community. Doctors, pharmacists, engineers. I could go into almost any timber mill and find you a wood chemist who could be a lot of help to young students.
"And I can see it working. Parents tell me that there kids are coming home from school now, talking about science. That never happened before."