New Orleans-Area Educators and AAAS Show the Lasting Power of a Good Idea
The parking lot outside of a New Orleans-area mall will be packed on Saturday and hundreds of school children and their families will stream through the doors to take part in a day-long celebration of science. Few would have predicted it 15 years ago, but the annual Fun Science for Families Day has become an institution.
Marjorie King, the K-12 science consultant for the Jefferson Parish Public School System, and Yolanda George, deputy director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, were among the original authors of the idea back in 1990. Since then, they say, the event has conveyed the excitement of science and discovery to thousands of students and their parentsand has become a model closely studied by other educators nationwide.
"We have a threefold purpose," King said in a recent interview. "First, to show kids and parents that science is not limited to people in white coats and strange little laboratories, and that it can be fun and exciting for anybody; secondly, to get parents involved in the education of their children; and third, to emphasize to the community the importance and significance of science education."
Jefferson Parish includes many of the suburbs immediately outside of New Orleans. The parish school system has 52,000 students.
The concept emerged from the 1990 AAAS Annual Meeting in New Orleans. The local school system was "working with AAAS on getting minority families involved" in science and math, King said. George grew up in Jefferson Parish; AAAS provided a small grant and George provided her expertise to the local educators who wanted an event modeled on AAAS's Public Science Day.
"The first year," King recalled, "we selected 150 families. We got input from the schools on minority and economically deprived kids, and we sent invitations to those families to come to Fun Science for Families….So it was small, but it was so successful that we decided to really expand it."
That first year, George said, "I remember teachers saying that kids who were failing science and mathematics in school were doing great at figuring out answers to inquiry-based science activities presented at the public science event."
Every year since, the event has been held at the big Oakwood Center mall in Gretna, La. If the location seems unexpected, the organizers say it has proven effective in helping to reach the broadest possible audience.
"It reaches parents who would not normally show up at a PTA meeting," George said. King, who was elected a AAAS Fellow in 1985, said the event in years past has drawn as many as 1,500 visitors.
The event this year will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and will feature many local scientists and educators. There will be four entertaining science demonstration programs. Fifty booths with "hands-on" science activities will be set up around the mall; teachers and scientists will be at each one to give students and families a chance to learn about magnetism, the color spectrum, recycling, crystals, sound and momentum. They also will be able to study reflection/refraction with mirrors, blood types and Newton’s laws of motion. They’ll learn about surface tension, air pressure, chromatography, genes, rocks, fossils and minerals.
"Kids that are usually not motivated in science and mathematics in schools gain a new perspective about science and mathematics," George explained.
For parentsespecially those who don’t have a background in science or mathsuch activities can provide clues about "what types of things they can do to support their children's interests" in those fields, she added. "Support could include taking the family to the science museum or aquarium or an IMAX theater or buying science books and toys. After visiting the exhibits and tables, parents want to know where they can get science and mathematics education books and toys for children."
Family Fun Science Day is sponsored by the Jefferson Parish Public School System; the Oakwood Center; Cytec Industries Inc., a specialty chemicals and materials technology company; and AAAS.
AAAS will have a booth at the event, and George will be there to talk about Kinetic City, AAAS’s web-based science program for kids, and about Science NetLinks, which provides state-of-the-art resources for science and math educators.
Edward W. Lempinen
5 May 2005