Inventor and entrepreneur Arnold O. Beckman is donating $14.4 million to improve science education in Orange County's school districts, with money going to train teachers, give direct grants to districts and create hundreds of hands-on kits for children to perform experiments.
The gift from the Beckman Foundation, announced at a news conference Monday, is the second largest private donation given to a California public-school system.
"Science, I think, is extremely interesting, and I want to stimulate that interest in young people," Beckman said Monday after the announcement at the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center in Irvine.
The 98-year-old founder of Beckman Instruments said he first became fascinated by science while reading a chemistry textbook at age 10.
Under the grant program, dubbed Beckman@Science, individual school districts can apply for as much as $200,000 to improve science curriculum at elementary schools.
The Discovery Science Center, a children's science museum due to open in Santa Ana in December, will receive about $3 million to train the county's elementary-school teachers in science and provide classroom materials.
The third component of the gift is a series of hands-on science kits--140 so far in 14 science subjects--that will be rotated among elementary schools for classes to conduct their own experiments.
"We really have not done a good job of teaching science," said Marian Bergeson, the governor's chief schools advisor, who attended Monday's news conference. "That's why this is such a beautiful gesture. I know of no greater gift to young people that will help expose them to science."
Through his foundation, funded from his own pocket, Beckman has contributed about $300 million to the advancement of research and education.
Beckman's expertise in chemical engineering led him to his first invention, the pH meter, which quickly became an indispensable tool in analytical chemistry. He continued to develop and manufacture other instruments critical to science and medicine research.
As a philanthropist, Beckman has left his mark nationwide by building scientific and medical institutions at UC Irvine as well as Stanford University in Northern California, Rockefeller University in New York and the University of Illinois, Urbana, his alma mater.
This latest gift to Orange County elementary schools was conceived about a year ago, said program director Julia Wan, also an administrator with Cal State Fullerton.
Four school districts--Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified, Saddleback Unified, Tustin Unified and Westminster--will receive grants of $200,000 each over the next four years, Wan said. That money can be used for anything from science textbooks to lab equipment, as long as districts map out specific plans.
Westminster School District will use its money to send teachers to science training seminars and to buy classroom materials, said Tracy Painter, director of special projects.
"Often, teachers majored in subjects other than science in college," Painter said. "This gives them the opportunity to attend staff training and learn more about science that they will impart on the children."
There is enough funding for all 24 Orange County public elementary school districts if they qualify, she added.
A cadre of 24 elementary-school teachers is going through two years of extensive training to become science mentors for other instructors. Monthly training sessions are held at Cal State Fullerton.
Later, teachers in both private and public schools will undergo a two-day workshop at the Discovery center, where they will learn innovative ways of teaching science. With Beckman-provided kits, teachers are given nationally designed science workbooks and materials to help children conduct experiments.
The Beckman initiative also will host parent and community lectures on science education, with the first scheduled in November.
News of Beckman's latest project won praise from national science leaders and educators who called it one of the most comprehensive.
"This is a real rarity," said Cindy Workosky, spokeswoman for the National Science Teacher Assn. "In the sciences, we're always looking for added support and funds to help teachers."
Beckman@Science was modeled after a joint program run by the Pasadena Unified School District and the California Institute of Technology. That program, begun in 1992, provides similar training and materials.
"We hope this will make science a core subject," said Heidi Shinaberger, an Anaheim fourth-grade schoolteacher undergoing the two-year training. "Usually, the push is to get students to understand reading and math first. But with science, students must apply all their writing, mathematical and analytical skills."
A search by the Foundation Center, a New York-based group that tracks foundation grants, revealed that the Beckman donation was among the largest contributions given recently to any public school system in the nation. A $25-million grant, the biggest gift to public schools in the past four years, was given to Bay Area schools in 1995 for school reform.
"It's not unprecedented for a public-school system to receive a grant of [$14 million]," said Rayburn Chan, a spokesman of the Foundation Center. "But such grants are not very prevalent. Most of the larger grants are given to the private realm."
* EDUCATED GIFT: Tustin couple pledges to donate $20 million to USC's School of Education. B1
* LIFE SCIENCES: Private donations to UCI reflect a strong interest in foundation outreach efforts. B3