Starting Young : Grown-ups are finding innovative ways to get children involved in this year's Earth Day festivities.


"If you can't lick 'em, join 'em," the old saying goes. So if you are a science teacher and your pupils spend more time contemplating "Jeopardy!" than genetics, whaddya gonna do?

Maybe turn the whole science lesson--in this case the environmental pages from the official "California Science Textbook"--into the questions for a fast-paced, TV-format quiz show.

"The idea took off right away," said teacher-turned-quizmaster Charlotte Golden. This Saturday you can see a live version of her "Nature Bowl"--specifically modeled after the "College Bowl" TV show--with 15 teams of grade school kids competing at the Ventura County Earth Day celebration. Cash prizes are the goal, just as in life and on TV. But since the theme is environmental, the money will go to the winning team's school science program.

If you think this is going to be a sleepy show with lots of dead time like baseball, know that these rookies will be fielding a question every seven seconds from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Kyla Fields, the "study coach" of the Rio Lindo Elementary School team, has some secrets for motivating sixth-graders during the weeks of preparation. Example: "Studying rocks and fossils is dull," she said, "until you tell them about somebody like Saddam messing with the fossil fuel part of the equation and jerking up energy prices so much that it can cost a kid's family the equivalent of 200 movie visits a year."

When this reporter complimented her on her hardball training tactics, she responded in a serious voice, "We're competing with puberty here, you know."

To pace the training, Coach Fields has also assigned "50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save the Earth." For each "thing" the kids get their parents to do, the student gets a gold star.

By way of diversions for Earth Day celebrants, the Ventura County fest will offer folk and pop groups, a Pinniped Parade for those in costume, an Ecological Treasure Hunt for everybody and "plastic jellyfish, fun and games" in the children's tent. Additional Earth Day activities with a youthful slant are happening throughout the county in the next seven days.

During my interview with Coach Fields, I ventured a suggestion. Her young devotees of mental fitness might profit from a glance at an ABC special, "A User's Guide to Planet Earth: The American Environment Test."

According to advance word from the network, "The hour presents a viewer response test of 20 questions helping the audience evaluate their knowledge of money-saving environmental information. Guest stars will headline a special area within the four major categories--energy, land, air and water."

Well, if Charlotte Golden can become a quiz-show host, I guess it's all right for Roseanne Barr to take up the topic of why, despite tougher laws, air pollution is as bad as it ever was.

Linda Evans' topic will be water purity; Candice Bergen's, the forests. John Ritter discusses environmental labeling, and rock musician Don Henley will describe his struggle to save Thoreau's beloved Walden Pond from developers.

Tom Selleck will host this eco-extravaganza. And I don't want to leave out the rest of the good people on the show serving as study coaches for the Ventura Nature Bowl entrants: Jeff Bridges, Morgan Freeman, Steve Guttenberg, Bette Midler, Susan Sarandon and Ed Begley Jr.

This spectacle of TV in the service of the environment is a commendable development. So is the flip side, where we find teachers using TV tricks. But I chanced last week upon the ultimate use of TV in service to the environment. Apple Computer's Advanced Technology Group is among a handful of organizations working on "virtual reality" hardware--technology that allows the participant to "enter" the video world by strapping on electronic goggles.

Imagine those military night-vision goggles, rigged not to uncover a shrouded world but programmed with computer-generated images to show what may happen if we don't clean up our environmental act. Such a mind-boggling spectacle could compete with both "Jeopardy!" and puberty.


* Ventura County Earth Day--Channel Islands National Park, Ventura Marina at the end of Spinnaker Drive; April 20, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; 644-8262 or 388-4411.

* Moorpark College Earth Day--"Environmental Well Being"; April 24, 10 a.m. to noon; 378-1410.

* Science Fair-- "Tomorrow's Reality"; Ventura County Fairgrounds; April 25, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; 388-4411.

* TV Special--"A User's Guide to Planet Earth: The American Environment Test"; tonight on ABC, 8 p.m.

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