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Carmen Ramos Chandler ,
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CSUN Program Helps Teachers Make Science Exciting

(NORTHRIDGE, Calif., July 3, 2000) --Lurking in piles of dirt and dry leaves, almost too tiny to be seen with the naked eye, insect-like arthropods called Collembola -- nicknamed "springtails" -- act as mini-recycling plants, decomposing rotten vegetation and keeping soil healthy.

Terri Miller learned all about the little organisms last summer through a Cal State Northridge program designed to teach teachers to make science exciting to their students--and excite her students she did. Miller and her 68 students at Parkman Middle School in Woodland Hills added dirt and leaf litter to water-filled baby food jars, then shone a light on the jar. The little organisms plunged into the water. The class studied them under a microscope seeking to identify different species.

"You know what it's like when a kid goes out to find Easter eggs? Well, it's the same kind of thrill," said Miller. "The anthropods have six legs and little tails that enable them to jump. The students are very excited when they find them."

Across town in South Central Los Angeles, another CSUN-trained teacher borrowed microscopes so his low-income, limited-English speaking students could do Collembola research.

"My students loved it. They never worked deep in science before," said Charles Lawrence, a teacher at Bret Harte Middle School. "I'll be back to CSUN this summer to work again in the program."

Open to kindergarten through high school teachers, the six-week summer program is funded by a three-year, $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, said Steven B. Oppenheimer, director of CSUN's Center for Cancer and Developmental Biology, who secured the grant.

CSUN has trained science teachers before--through workshops and lectures. This program gives teachers an intensive research experience under the guidance of CSUN science professors in CSUN laboratories.

CSUN education professors then help the teachers devise lesson plans for teaching the research to their own students. Other topics studied were genetic engineering involving recombinant DNA technology and plant physiology, Oppenheimer said.

"The usual situation in grades K-12 is you'll get one or two students in class who have a lot of help at home and will do a typical science fair project, mostly kids from homes where there's a very high level of education," said Oppenheimer. "But what about all the other students who come from disadvantaged homes or homes where the parents don't have much in the way of education? One of the main goals of our program is to get as many students as possible in the classes of these newly trained teachers to do research."

Cathy Coyle-Thompson, a part-time instructor at CSUN who taught eight teachers to conduct Collembola research, said she selected the project because Collembola-collecting kits could be assembled for $1 to $2, consisting of such readily available items as baby food jars, coffee cans, plaster of Paris, yeast, charcoal and fish food. Then, all the teacher needed was to buy or borrow a microscope. One middle school's PTA purchased Collembola-collecting kits for the entire school, she said.

The students at Parkman Middle School were seeking to discover different families of Collembola but may have discovered a whole new species; CSUN researchers are seeking to determine that question now, Coyle-Thompson said. More important was the discovery of how exciting science can be, she said.

Miller kept the Collembola organisms in her classroom and her students studied them under a microscope she purchased with half the $1,800 stipend teachers receive for completing the CSUN program. Academic credit from CSUN and salary credit through the teacher's school is also available, Oppenheimer said.

"It's wonderful because the animals are so tiny, it's like having a zoo. You can have a zoo in your classroom," said Miller. With twice-weekly feedings of yeast and water, they thrived so much that Miller had to remove eggs with a Q-tip twice to avoid "being inundated with them."

For more information, call Oppenheimer at (818) 677-3336 or Coyle-Thompson at (818) 677-3351. Oppenheimer's e-mail address is

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