Gerry Lewis of the Bayer Corporation’s Making Science Make Sense program teaches hands-on science to students in Pittsburgh schools.
Credit: Bayer Corporation 1999 Annual Report
Gerry Lewis looks out over fifty bright faces at a Pittsburgh school, blows up a balloon and sticks a wooden skewer into the top of the rubbery orb. Nothing happens, which is exactly what Lewis expects but which is a surprise for the children who have covered their ears with their hands.
"Polymers," says Lewis, who is wearing a whimsical, tie-dyed lab coat. "Tight polymer strands on the sides. Loose polymer strands on the top and bottom." He explains that polymers are chemical compounds or mixtures consisting of chains of repeating molecules. Some of those chains are formed loosely. Others are close together. The ones that are loose allow a skewer to poke through without causing any damage. The children giggle and cheer.
In a quality assurance laboratory that shuts out the summer humidity of Pennsylvania's green Lebanon Valley, Steve Diamond sits in front of a spectrophotometer, a machine that uses light to identify the purity or degradation of -- in this case
-- aspirin. He is demonstrating to a local high school teacher how he and other scientists in the quality control laboratory test the raw materials that go into products.
Lewis and Diamond are two emissaries from Bayer Corporation's Making Science Make Sense (MSMS), a school/business partnership that shows teachers and students that the best way to learn science is to do science -- ask questions, hypothesize, experiment, analyze, and test.
Bayer Quality Assurance Laboratory supervisors Steve Diamond and Carolyn Hoffman look on as teacher Dominic Centzone learns about scientific documentation.
Credit: Earl Brightbill
No Quick Fixes
Increasingly, the private sector and public schools have moved away from partnerships in which a corporation simply writes a check every now and then for varied programs. Instead, companies tend to want to have a hand in creating long-term reform that takes advantage of their particular expertise, and they want to establish a closer relationship with the communities where they are located and do business.
"Science is the common denominator across our employees, our customers, our suppliers, the communities in which we live and work," says Helge H. Wehmeier, president and CEO of Bayer Corporation, which has major businesses in health care and life sciences, chemicals, and imaging technologies. "Given the fact that scientific literacy is bound to affect virtually everyone's life, regardless of career choice, it's time we give students opportunities to interact with professionals who can help them not only see that science is fun and exciting, but that it is all around them and extraordinarily relevant to their lives."
The companies gain goodwill from their communities for their deeds, plus they have a hand in turning out a better-prepared crop of employees for their own professions. The schools benefit from real-world experience and outside interest in what happens inside the classroom. And the employees become more connected to their communities -- and to their jobs.
"Volunteering really enriches the way I feel about my job," says Pat Jacobs, a development scientist in the coatings and colorant division who also is in charge of the Pittsburgh volunteer effort. "You get so serious here at work working against deadlines and trying to get projects completed. To be able to enjoy science from a child's point of view is really renewing. It makes you appreciate the company more, and I certainly know more about the schools."
The Bayer program -- involving more than 1,000 employees at twenty-four locations -- is a companywide initiative to increase science literacy across the country through hands-on, inquiry-based science learning, employee volunteerism, and public education. It has won numerous awards, including the President's Service Award 2000. Programs include a science center at a California school, an environmental awareness program in South Carolina, farm day for city kids in Missouri, as well as a national competition in which middle school students solve community problems through science and technology.
In Pittsburgh, employees have formed BASIC (Bayer Association for Science in Communities) as an offshoot of MSMS. Lewis, who has become almost a legend in the Pennsylvania city as one of the most popular and busiest of BASIC's more than 200 volunteers, made fifty-five appearances at schools and other institutions in the past year. Volunteers go to the classrooms of teachers who want some help in making science come alive, and the Bayer employees always tailor their presentations to the curriculum needs of the particular grades and teachers.
"Kids love science if they realize its hands-on," says Lewis, a technician specialist who works in the polyurethane division. "Once youve touched something, you understand it better."
The responses he gets after the demonstrations, which can include hands-on lessons in gravity, mixtures, the periodic table, the properties of space, what's biodegradable and why, color separation, or static electricity, are more than worth the extra hours he puts in. "You changed my son's life," one mother told him. "We wish that one day we could both be really cool scientists," a boy wrote of himself and his brother. "Seeing a professional Afro-American male, such as yourself, will inspire the younger generation of Afro-American males to pursue a career in science ... or another professional field," wrote an elementary school principal.
Parents and other employees who want to volunteer at their children's schools but arent sure what they can contribute are encouraged to attend Lunch and Learns, monthly meetings to teach new experiments and explain the theory behind those experiments. The employees -- some scientists, some not scientists -- are then given time off to go to the schools and try out their new-found knowledge. Jacobs says a lot of people go to their child's classroom and then end up doing three or four other classrooms at the same grade level because teachers appreciate the hands-on help, the humanizing of science, and the materials that come with the demonstrations.
Working with Real Scientists
In the Lebanon Valley, Steve Diamond and fellow laboratory supervisor Carolyn Hoffman help oversee a program sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce at Bayer's Myerstown, Pennsylvania, Consumer Care Division. The program gives teachers a chance to work next to real scientists. In the three years of the program, two chemistry teachers and one agriculture science teacher from nearby high schools have worked side-by-side with Bayer scientists.
Diamond and his fellow scientists in the quality assurance department work with sophisticated technology like spectrophotometers and chromatography to determine that the ingredients that go into Bayer products as well as the products themselves meet all health, safety, weight, and appearance standards.
Dominic Centonze, an agriculture science teacher from Eastern Lebanon County High School who completed Bayer's four-day on-the-job program last summer, shadowed workers at Bayer rather than working in a laboratory. He said he would be able to take back tips on monitoring, recording, safety, and high standards that will be useful to his students, especially those he guides in Future Farmers of America. "It was fantastic," Centzone says.
Diamond returns the compliment. "I wish I'd had teachers like the ones who have come to Bayer when I was in high school."
Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.