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$1-Million ‘Project Catalyst’ Aims to Foster Better Science Education

Times Staff Writer

With $1 million in federal and private donations, Cal State Fullerton this month launches a 2 1/2-year program to help junior- and senior-high school instructors improve teaching of Earth and space sciences.

“High school and junior high science teachers face many problems, including working with outdated materials,” said Carol Stadum, one of the program’s two directors. “We’re designing a program that can help these teachers, and it’s a program that can go anywhere in the nation.”

Stadum is an award-winning Huntington Beach High School science teacher on loan to Cal State Fullerton as a visiting lecturer. The other project director is Gaylen R. Carlson, a geological sciences professor at Cal State Fullerton.

“This is not a matter of making ‘bad’ teachers into ‘good’ teachers,” Carlson said. “This is an enhancement process. We’re enhancing teachers’ ability to teach (science) in the classroom. . . . We’re going to improve their capability and make them better in the classroom. We’re going to give them a boost--kind of a shot in the arm.”

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The program, called Project Catalyst, is designed to be a national model for updating public-school science teachers and helping those newly assigned to science teaching. The National Science Foundation gave $558,000 to the training project, and private businesses and school districts in Southern California have pledged an additional $500,000.

Cal State Fullerton received about 120 applications from teachers hoping to take part in the program. The university picked 52 applicants, trying to select from a wide cross section of teachers and school districts, Carlson said. The 52 are primarily from Orange and Los Angeles counties.

The teachers are scheduled to get intensive training in astronomy, geology, meteorology and oceanography. They will take part in 14 all-day workshops, two summer institutes and several symposiums and field trips over the next 2 1/2 years, beginning Jan. 14.

The school districts with participating teachers have agreed to pay for their release time from school. “This in itself amounts to a sizeable amount of money,” Carlson said.

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The idea for the program developed after Stadum was invited to be a visiting lecturer at Cal State Fullerton “because of her impressive background,” Carlson said. Stadum, who has taught at Huntington Beach High since 1973, in 1986 was one of three California finalists in the National Science Foundation Presidential Awards program. In 1974 she almost single-handledly led a successful fight to save a 15-million-year-old fossil reef that had been threatened by developers in the Laguna Hills area. The area is now a public preserve, Fossil Reef Park, near Laguna Hills High School.

At the university, the chairman of the geological sciences department asked Stadum to develop a grant proposal. She and Carlson, working together, “went out and talked to industries and school districts and got them committed to this project,” Carlson said. “The National Science Foundation wanted us to be able to show matching contributions, including in-kind donations, before it would make a grant.

Carlson said the program ultimately can help the United States get more and better-qualified science teachers.

“We’re a first-rate nation, and we should have first-rate (science) teachers,” he said. “The evidence suggests that the United States is not doing a very good job in science instruction in the schools. The East Germans, the Japanese, the French, the British, are ahead of us in international (science) test scores.”

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Stadum said the California Board of Education in 1984 enacted regulations for expanded science teaching in the public schools. But she said a drawback has been a shortage of science teachers.

“We have fewer trained scientists going into science education,” she said. “So some schools have had to pull in teachers from other disciplines to teach science. . . . Also, there are some very good existing science teachers, but some of them are teaching from their knowledge of 20 years ago, of science in the 1950s. One of the components of our program is technology in the classroom; we’ll be giving the teachers instruction for science application in their classrooms.”

About a fourth of the teachers enrolled in the program have agreed to conduct similar workshops at their own schools when they complete the course, Carlson said.

“Carol and I think this grant will thus reach about 400 other teachers through this multiplier effect,” he said.

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