I recently attended a conference sponsored by the Smithsonian and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), and it reminded me of Miss Wells, my fifth-grade teacher at the Utica Country Day School in Utica, New York.
We were studying ancient Rome, and Miss Wells told us about the aqueducts with their stone arches. She actually got us thinking: What made them stay up? Why did they need a keystone?
Books didn't tell us much, so Miss Wells had an inspiration. We would build a Roman arch.
It took all fall. We constructed little cardboard boxes and poured in plaster of Paris to make our bricks, and piled them up in a somewhat rickety arch.
Halfway through, I decided I knew all I needed to know about arches, so went off and built a working guillotine. "A guillotine?" said Miss Wells in a tone of admiration and panic. "Yes. Well, all right, Michael."
It was one of those Thirties progressive schools, you understand. The guillotine was displayed without comment alongside the arch at the school fair.
So. Back to the conference, and none too soon. It is called the Elementary Science Leadership Institute, and it is run twice yearly by the ten-year-old National Science Resources Center (NSRC), a jointly operated Smithsonian and NAS program. The NSRC's mission and the purpose of the Institute is to help American students catch up with the world in science. Scott Stowell, a curriculum coordinator from the Spokane, Washington, public schools and a member of the Resource Team, put it this way:
"One of the United States' eight national education goals is being first in the world in science and math. The only way is to have a strong kindergarten through 12th grade program. Computers are just one tool. To understand the ideas of science in a meaningful way, you need to do experiments."
"Hands-on" is the magic word here. Having discovered that the regular old textbooks were not exactly thrilling, the education industry for some years now has been trying in a systematic way to let children all across the nation — especially in the first seven grades, K-6 — do some simple experiments, get their hands on rocks and wires and small living things. A number of companies and nonprofit organizations have put together kits for teaching them.
The problem, as with any new idea, has been to interest the people who run the schools and control the way things are taught. And this is what the Institute is about. Its initiators are way ahead already.