Fort Discovery outreach programs interest youths in math and science

by Lisa Alley

It’s a paradox: young children who are computer savvy and digital thinkers, but who become, by middle school, apathetic toward the science and technology that’s almost a fundamental part of them, just like corpuscles in their blood or synapses in their brains.

Recent studies show that American elementary-school children score high internationally in mathematics and science, but by junior high and high school, they score very low. In fact, a 1995 study encompassing 41 countries and a half-million students (Third International Mathematics and Science Study, revealed that only two countries scored lower than U.S. youths.

But experts – like at the National Science Center in Augusta, Ga. – also think that it’s not because of U.S. youths’ comprehension abilities or because the subjects aren’t presented in the first place, but because of the way math and science are presented. "American schoolchildren are increasingly exposed to a larger complexity of subject material as they progress through our education system than their international counterparts who scored higher on the TIMSS study," NSC material states. "Yet the teachers directing that learning, especially in science and math, aren’t prepared to teach this complex material. At NSC, we believe that as technology and global access to knowledge become more prevalent in American classrooms – and American teachers learn to use these resources – we can close the gap in international achievement."

American classrooms are increasingly "wired," producing what recent advertisements are calling "Generation D" (for digital). Estimates are that 87,000 U.S. public schools have 6 million computers, and 80 percent of those computerized classrooms have Internet access. So it’s not that the coming Generation D+ isn’t being exposed to science and technology.

For NSC, the use of technology, above and beyond the acquisition of technology, must become an integral tool in shaping educational reform in each of these classrooms.

That’s a mission the Army, especially the Signal Regiment, shares with NSC. Through the unique private-public partnership that is NSC and its Fort Discovery facility in downtown Augusta (see related story), the Army’s main focus is the extensive educational-outreach programs that have a home at NSC. Outreach activities include TELTRAINs; teacher education; mobile discovery centers; and math and science camps, some specifically established for Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps programs.

Educational-outreach programs are prototyped at Fort Discovery, then distributed throughout the United States. NSC designs, develops and implements all outreach programs following the hands-on philosophy of Fort Discovery’s exhibits.

Simply put, Fort Discovery and the Army concentrate on reaching out to teachers as well as reaching out to youths.

Reaching teachers

One of the outreach program’s key features is teacher education, which offers educators tools to instruct science, math and computer awareness – and more, to make these subjects appealing to children. NSC broadcasts satellite programs called TELTRAINs, which emphasize innovative teaching techniques and are designed for middle-school students are well as professional development for teachers.

TELTRAIN satellite program broadcast from NSC NSC's DL program is part of GSAMS. As one of the world's largest two-way interactive video and audio networks, GSAMS enables NSC to provide educational programs statewide, nationally or internationally without restrictions of time or distance. DL programs are designed to enhance classroom activities for kindergarten through 12th grade and meet national standards for the middle-school level.

NSC has a teacher resource library with more than 7,000 items from math kits to videotapes to software packages.

The Georgia Department of Education selected Fort Discovery as a site for one of its 13 technology centers – the other 12 are located at state colleges and universities. These technology centers train teachers to use technology in the classroom.

NSC also recently installed a statewide distance-learning network compatible with other statewide and national DL networks. NSC uses the Georgia Statewide Academic and Medical System as a delivery platform for DL. GSAMS is one of the world’s largest two-way interactive video and audio networks.

The outreach program also offers electronics training modified from course material used to train Signal soldiers. Subjects include alternating current/direct current theory and power supplies.

NSC is also developing free Web-based resources for teachers and students that include interactive exhibits, lesson plans, streaming video, an educator’s forum and links to other supporting websites. The National Science Center Institute, an arm of NSC, is being restructured as a National Fellows program in cooperation with the National Science Teacher Association so NSC’s web resources will be developed by the nation’s leading educators.

Everything made available, in the spirit of Fort Discovery, involves participatory learning. NSC’s educational programs – in Georgia, the United States and internationally – assist teachers in enhancing the classroom experience for kindergarteners through high-school seniors. The Army is involved behind the scenes with teacher outreach and is very visible in the effort to make science and math fun and interactive for students.

Reaching students

The Army is part of the outreach programs’ "deployment" via NSC’s mobile discovery centers. Mobile discovery centers are colorful 18-wheeled trucks that travel across the country September through May, making scheduled stops at schools in inner-city and rural areas. The trucks, which reach as many as 60,000 students each year, convert to small theaters, offering multimedia shows, science demonstrations, plus interactive exhibits and experiments that entertain as well as educate.

This program works in collaboration with the Army’s Recruiting Support Battalion. Soldiers drive the trucks and work with the children in conducting experiments. Youths interact with technicians in white lab coats who, once they take their lab coats off, are actually soldiers in Class B uniforms.

Static electricity experiment SFC Tony Stocks demonstrates static electricity in the outreach program's mobile van.
Mobile outreach program through NSC Two mobile discovery center 18-wheelers visit urban and rural schools throughout the United States. Staffed by soldiers, the vans expand to small theaters and contain interactive exhibits and experiments which entertain as well as educate.

The Army is also involved in the NSC outreach programs’ math and science camps: week-long camps in students’ hometowns taught by their local teachers. A part of the camp program is the JROTC summer-camp math and science outreach, which provides hands-on math and science activities to JROTC camp commanders to include in JROTC summer-camp curriculum.

Science activities consist of theory, construction and testing of basic electronics modules. Math activities involve problem-solving, visualization, conjecturing and role playing to solve math problems not answerable by normal math functions. The idea is to take high-schoolers beyond rote learning and get them to think about math and science.

The camps’ target audience is high-school students, with the occasional middle-school cadet who attends a military academy included. There are two phases of math and science; each phase has four hours of math, four hours of science. Phases are provided in alternating years to prevent repeating activities for cadets who attend consecutive years.

The JROTC program started in 1993, when NSC provided materials and instructors for 4,500 cadets at five camps held at Fort Gordon; Fort Dix, N.J.; Fort Knox, Ky.; Fort Jackson, S.C.; and Fort Rucker, Ala. The program has grown to encompass this year’s 65 summer camps and 23,000 cadets. Cadets from 41 states, including Hawaii and Alaska, plus Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa have participated in NSC’s math and science camp programs. And it’s not just the Army – in 1997, the first Air Force JROTC program joined in, and now eight Air Force JROTC programs are part of the camps, with the Navy also expressing interest.

"The nationwide educational component of NSC is growing," said Dr. George Fry, head of NSC-Army. "The Army is very much a partner in this. Our nation benefits from this as a whole, but the Army can also benefit. Thousands of youths remember the man or woman with the lab coat on is a soldier. The Signal Regiment may get young soldiers and officers someday who will be better communicators and automators."

Ms. Alley edits Army Communicator.

Acronym QuickScan
DL – distance learning
GSAMS – Georgia Statewide Academic and Medical System
JROTC – Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps
NSC – National Science Center
TIMSS – Third International Mathematics and Science Study

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