PORTLAND - In an effort to reach out to a large number of Oregon students and the potential science leaders of the next century, a group of Oregon State University science faculty on Feb. 26 will launch a new initiative to enhance state-of-the-art science instruction in Portland's K-12 public schools.

Called "Science Connections," the initiative will be a collaboration with Portland teachers who want to tap into OSU's vast reservoir of scientific expertise - including not only professors but also their undergraduate and graduate science students.

In the near future, organizers say, OSU faculty and students will regularly be helping to improve K-12 science curricula, speaking to classes, helping to organize experiments and field studies, and injecting world-class science into classrooms across the Portland metropolitan area - which, with 100 schools and 58,000 students - forms the largest single school district in the Pacific Northwest.

"This can't help but benefit everyone involved, and we're quite optimistic the program will be a big success," said Terri Lomax, an associate professor of botany and plant pathology. "K-12 teachers and OSU faculty will work together to improve the science education of Oregon's young students, and the university students will gain valuable experience working with K-12 students in the classroom or field."

More than 30 OSU faculty are already committed to participate in the program and are now in the process of organizing university student teams to assist them, Lomax said. At a kickoff event next Thursday at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, they will meet with a similar group of Portland school teachers and high school students to get acquainted, trade ideas and make plans for collaboration.

Science Connections evolved from the expressed desire of Portland science teachers to gain more access to working researchers in such fields as chemistry, environmental science, space science, molecular biology, ecology, materials science and physics.

"This will be a new avenue for OSU faculty to enhance the quality of science education in Oregon, encourage high school students to pursue science and engineering careers, and generally help them develop the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that are needed in many fields of study," said Fred Horne, dean of the College of Science at OSU. "This will be accomplished through partnering with high school science teachers and active mentoring relationships directly with students."

Earlier this month, President Clinton spoke about science education at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and hailed one proposal that would link seventh graders with college mentors as "one of the most promising approaches" to improve college attendance.

According to Lomax, the activities of the new OSU program may vary greatly depending on the interests and needs of individual teachers in Portland and their OSU counterparts.

"In my own work, for instance, I'm planning to connect with a Portland class that is studying genetic engineering," Lomax said. "I've done research on how plants respond to hormones. We'll talk about how plant hormones regulate the response to environmental signals such as gravity, the use of mutants to study plant reproduction, the genetic engineering of new plant varieties and other topics."

Conversely, a teacher from Cleveland High School in Portland, Dick Pugh - who is also a well-known meteor expert - will come to OSU to lecture on Mars meteorites in Lomax's course on astrobiology, which examines the potential for life elsewhere in the universe.

From OSU's perspective, a key value of the new program will be interactions such as this and increased opportunities for OSU students who may be interested in science education as a career.

"Undergraduates who participate can earn internship credits, experience working in a high school environment and develop valuable presentation skills," Horne said. "Graduate students might develop their teaching and consulting skills and assist with curriculum development."

Liette Powell, a recent graduate who earned biology and international degrees from OSU, will coordinate activities in the new program as a liaison working in the OSU Portland Center.

This program will be conducted separately from and in addition to two other major OSU initiatives to provide improved science education at the K-12 level.

Many OSU faculty are already involved with the "Scientist Education Partnership," or SEPS program, in which scientist-parents have been regularly assisting in science education at the K-12 level in the Corvallis and Philomath school districts. The SEPS concept has proven such a successful model that its organizers hope in the next few years to expand it across Oregon.

An even more established, nationally recognized program at OSU is the Science and Math Investigative Learning Experience, or SMILE program, which encourages science and math interest among Native American, Hispanic and other minority youth in Oregon. Some of the earliest participants from K-12 SMILE clubs across Oregon are already attending college and majoring in science.

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Terri Lomax, 541-737-5278