CORVALLIS - Oregon State University has received a three-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create a Rural Science Education Project, which will broaden the university's science outreach efforts into five small-town school districts in Oregon and provide teams of students to assist with innovative new approaches to science education.

This is the second grant of its type made to OSU, which is one of only a few universities in the nation to receive such a high level of support from the National Science Foundation for its K-12 outreach programs.

The participating school districts in the new initiative will be in Halsey, Lebanon, Sweet Home, Falls City and Independence, all in Oregon's Willamette Valley. Under the program design, a team of two OSU science students, one graduate and one undergraduate student, will work alongside local science teachers in the schools to deliver new types of educational programs in the biological and natural resource sciences.

"This program will try to spread the concepts of inquiry-based learning, in which middle and high school students study the streams, crop lands or ecosystems around them and develop science projects," said Sujaya Rao, an OSU assistant professor of entomology and principal investigator on the new grant.

"They can develop questions about these systems, propose and carry out experiments, and do original research as a hands-on technique of learning about science."

The OSU students involved are pursuing careers in science, Rao said. They will get some advance training on science instructional methods, class management, curriculum development and other issues before entering the local schools. Participating students are now studying such fields as biology, botany and plant pathology, horticulture, oceanography, fisheries and wildlife, crop science and several other areas.

Altogether, 12 OSU students and about 10 faculty members will assist with the project, with the OSU faculty serving as advisers.

"This is another way to tap into the broad array of scientific expertise at OSU and help improve the science education in our public schools," Rao said. "And we plan for the concept to be self-sustaining. Videos will be made of the approaches being used and those materials shared with other science teachers in the K-12 schools to help spread the idea about this type of science education."

The project is supported by the NSF's GK-12 Education Program, which this year is providing $21 million in 18 states to bring talented college students in science, mathematics, engineering and technology into public schools. The graduate students receive annual stipends of $21,500 and undergraduates can make up to $5,000 per academic year and an additional $5,000 for service during the summer.

Experts involved with the program say the response has been enthusiastic, as K-12 students get a sense that the science they're learning is important and see that a career in science is feasible.

OSU is a leader in science outreach education in Oregon.

The university pioneered the Science and Math Investigative Learning Experience, or SMILE program to help minority elementary, middle and high school students across the state study and pursue careers in science and mathematics. OSU has also been active in Saturday Academy, a statewide program to enhance science education; the Scientist Education Partnership, in which OSU "scientist parents" routinely assist in local classrooms; and Science Connections, a collaboration with Portland public schools to get graduate and undergraduate students more involved in science education and student mentoring.

All of OSU's programs, officials say, are based on the concept that an interest and aptitude in science is something that should be started at a young age and encouraged through fun, creative and stimulating educational activities that are available to all students regardless of race, gender and economic backgrounds.

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Sujaya Rao, 541-737-9038