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NASA , Science Center of Pinellas County spark science interest in minority students

Breanna Gardner is 11 and African-American, and the state of Florida probably wishes it could clone her.

After reading a book her mom gave her, Breanna wants to be an astronaut. She has a poster of Neil Armstrong in her room. She dreams of visiting Saturn.

"I read books about science all the time," said Breanna, a fifth-grader at Azalea Elementary in St. Petersburg.

The Science Center of Pinellas County and a team of educators from NASA did their best last week to spark the cloning process. They invited hundreds of students from Azalea Elementary, Azalea Middle and Academy Prep to the center for activities that especially targeted minority students.

The students rigged rockets out of construction paper. Viewed the Milky Way in an inflatable planetarium. Learned about minority men and women who became inventors and engineers.

"We're focusing on the underserved," said Joseph Cuenco, the center's executive director. "That person who doesn't have a computer at home may be a genius. We want to develop that talent."

In Florida, there are three good reasons to rev up minority interest in science: Economics. Demographics. Academics.

Business leaders and educators alike say Florida's economic future depends on cultivating a work force that is highly skilled in math, science and technology. Florida schools as a whole are now "majority minority" and becoming more so every year. And science test scores show minority students in Florida lagging far behind their white peers, in a state that trails behind most of the country, in a country that many fear is losing ground to the rest of the world.

Translation: Florida's future may hinge on how fast minority students — who have made nationally recognized gains in reading and math over the past decade — also get up to speed in science.

"We're not tapping the entire population," said Winston Roberts, a Florida State University physics professor who has been commuting to a Jacksonville high school to boost science interest among low-income and minority students. "There's a lot of potential talent, potential manpower, that is not being used or will not be usable."

Of particular concern to university science educators is the low numbers of minority students scoring at the highest levels on the science Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test — a bar they say must be reached for students to have a good chance at the next level. Those numbers are headed in the right direction, but nowhere near fast enough for those who want to see more minority hydrologists and aeronautical engineers.

In 2009, for example, not a single school district in Florida had more than 10 black students score at the highest level (Level 5 on a 1-5 scale) on the science FCAT.

In 2010, one did. (Broward, with 16.)

FCAT science scores aren't so hot at basic levels either, especially in Pinellas.

Compared to their peers in the state's 12 biggest districts, Hispanic students in Pinellas who score at grade level or above are near the bottom in all three grades tested. Black students in Pinellas are dead last in all three. (White students in Pinellas are also near the bottom.)

"Part of it is a cultural question," said Roberts, who hails from Trinidad and was the first in his family to earn a college degree. "Lots of African-American and Hispanic kids don't know what a scientist is. … What does a chemist do? What does a physicist do? They're people in white coats seeking to destroy the world."

That's not the impression Alejandro Sandoval leaves with his daughter, a fifth-grader at Azalea Elementary.

Sandoval, who is of Cuban and Peruvian descent, calls himself a "science fiction geek," a "Star Wars freak" and an "armchair scientist" who can't get enough of the Discovery Channel. But as a self-described "working stiff" who works in a call center at Bright House Networks, he said he understands why many other minority parents might not be passing on a love for science to their kids — time, money, distractions and maybe a lack of knowledge themselves.

"They're trying to work and pay the bills," he said.

Both Sandoval and Roberts said in that vacuum, it's incumbent on schools and other institutions to find ways to get students engaged.

At the science center Wednesday, students tested their rockets after attaching fins and cones with tape. They attached them to one end of PVC pipe, then launched them in a field by stomping on 2-liter plastic bottles strapped to the other end.

"Three … two … one … STOMP!"

"WHOOOO!!!" the kids screamed.

Waves of multicolored rockets dotted the grass. Some blasted 100 feet. Some fizzled at 10. One of the NASA educators said he wanted the students to learn from their mistakes — just like scientists do during their experiments.

Cone too flat? Fins too small?

Zack Eggitt, 11, said next time he'll try more fins.

Also a fifth-grader at Azalea, Zack said he wants to be a football player when he grows up — preferably a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles. But if that doesn't work out, profession No. 2 is zoologist.

"My favorite animals are penguins," said Zack. "I'd like to go to Antarctica and study them."

Ron Matus can be reached at or (727) 893-8873.

2010 fifth grade
FCAT science scores

Number shows percentage of students scoring at or above grade level.
District White Black Hispanic
Florida 63 27 42
Pinellas 60 17 33
Hillsborough 64 25 35
Pasco 50 27 36
Miami-Dade 67 28 46
Broward 65 30 50
Palm Beach 76 31 47
Orange 68 29 39
Duval 63 27 47
Polk 54 23 31
Lee 63 25 40
Brevard 65 34 48
Seminole 74 32 45
Source: Florida DOE

NASA , Science Center of Pinellas County spark science interest in minority students 02/12/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 17, 2011 6:15pm]
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