Soldiers bring science to kids

ksaldarini@govexec.com

It's easy to imagine Army grunts crawling under barb wire and hurling grenades, but you might not expect to see soldiers conducting science experiments for kids and answering tough math questions. But don't be too surprised if you do. Because the Army is bringing science and math education to schools nationwide.

At Fort Discovery, a hands-on science museum in Augusta, Ga. created by the Army and its nonprofit partner, the National Science Center, visitors can experience a lightning storm demonstration, be chased by sharks in a virtual reality display, simulate a skydive with the Army's Golden Knights at the video special effects area, and see how thermal imaging cameras work.

The museum isn't the only way the Army gets its message about the importance of science and math across to students. Perhaps the service's most innovative method for reaching students nationwide is its two mobile education vans. The eighteen-wheelers, staffed with soldiers, travel to schools around the country to provide kid-friendly science demonstrations and education.

"They're not book-like projects," said Dr. George J. Frye Jr., head of the Army side of the National Science Center partnership, but "hands-on, Mr. Wizard-like experiments to teach students that science and math is all around them."

Other agencies, including NASA and the Energy Department, also view science and technology education as a key part of their mission, because they rely heavily on employees with strong science and technology backgrounds.

Lt. Gen. William Hilsman pioneered the idea of Army-supported math and science education while serving as the commanding general of Fort Gordon and the U.S. Army Signal Center. Hilsman noticed that many soldiers at Fort Gordon's Signal school had to be taught remedial math and science skills before beginning basic Signal Corps courses. Upon consulting with colleagues in academia and business, Hilsman found widespread concern that American students were not well-educated in these subjects.

To help address that concern, in 1985 Congress chartered the National Science Center at the Army's behest. The science center is a non-profit association that provides fund-raising and operational support to the Army's educational outreach programs.

"The Army's interest is just like corporate America's," said Phyllis H. Hendry, president of the science center. The Army "had the vision to see an incredible opportunity for encouraging students to gain an interest in science and math so when the time came they would be ready to defend the nation," Hendry said.

Frye says the education outreach is not used as a recruiting tool, although the mobile van staff is from the Army's recruiting command. "There is no overt selling," he explained. "But the programs certainly show the Army in a positive light."

A main goal of the educational outreach programs is to encourage science and math education among women and minorities. "From the beginning, there was a specific mandate to reach these underserved groups," Frye said. Several groups representing minorities sit on the science center's advisory board and the organization is making arrangements with the Girl Scouts and Brownies to get women more involved with its programs.

The science center has also recently formed a board of private sector technology experts, including executives from IBM and Boeing, to help it stay at the cutting edge of new technology. The center plans to use multi-media efforts to expand its educational outreach, including developing web-based curriculum packages for teachers to use with students before and after visits to Ft. Discovery.

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