Andrew Carnegie First Light

In 1902 Andrew Carnegie founded the Carnegie Institution of Washington to “advance the frontiers of science.” This congressionally chartered nonprofit organization has major research facilities around the world and sponsors the work of scientists who study the earth, the stars and much of what is between. The media regularly reports on the activities of the Institution’s scientists, but little reporting has been done on the experiments being conducted in the basement of the 86 year old Carnegie headquarters building.

Nine years ago, Carnegie Institution President Dr. Maxine Singer and her colleagues launched a new program called “First Light.” Each Saturday 30 children from Washington, DC public elementary schools come to the Carnegie Institution for a morning of scientific exploration and learning. The children have built model “water works,” examined a squid, built a styrofoam paddle boat — powered by a rubber band, attended air shows, grown crystals and picked peaches.

After lunch, the children are off on field trips. They visit local farms, computer centers, nature trails along the Potomac river, caves, and even fish markets. The excitement this program stirs in the children who participate is mirrored by the Carnegie staff. Charles James, who conducts the Saturday sessions notes, “Teaching children to become fluent, precise and skillful scientists requires activities that elicit spontaneous and original thinking.” Whether the children are participating in a local archaeological dig or building a bat house for a local park, Mr. James and the other Carnegie staff look for activities that challenge and engage students. The Carnegie Institution bares the cost of this program, which is free for the children.

The First Light program isn’t Carnegie’s only community initiative in Washington, DC. The Carnegie Academy for Science Education (CASE) works with 50 teachers each summer. The goal of this program is to help elementary grade teachers develop new and more effective ways of teaching children about science. Much of what the Carnegie staff does in the First Light program forms the foundation for what the public school teachers learn about teaching children about science in the six-week summer program. The teachers who learn how to enhance their teaching of math and science participate in experiments that are almost as interesting as those featured in the First Light program. For example, teachers are challenged to create the perfect recipe for chalk, test the drinking water in Washington, DC, and build wind-powered land racers. The CASE program also provides ongoing classroom support to the teachers throughout the year and the program works with PTAs and school administrators to ensure that the training teachers receive is fully embraced by the educational community after the summer session ends. Teachers who participate in this program receive a stipend, curriculum and materials for use in their classrooms, and they can even earn graduate school credit for completing the summer program.

Complaints about Washington DC are as abundant as pot holes in the streets of our nation’s capital. Compliments, however, about something positive in the District of Columbia are far too rare. Imagine how much better a place the District of Columbia could be if all the national and international organizations based here made an equivalent effort to help a beleaguered community.

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