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Cool for school

June 13, 2009
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CAN BREAST CANCER survivor Sheryl Crow help schoolmarms make tumor research cool? Can cult video artist will.i.am get students to crack the code on Alzheimer's? Can Aerosmith's Joe Perry rock the next generation into genetics? These mysteries are about to be answered in a "Rock Stars of Science" public service campaign launched by the designer clothing line Geoffrey Beene. Pop stars are photographed "jamming" with America's top scientists, such as the HIV/AIDS expert Anthony Fauci, Harvard Alzheimer's researcher Rudy Tanzi, and Nobel cancer researcher Harold Varmus.

The campaign wants to change a "recognition gap" in which a 2008 survey by the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry found that only 4 percent of Americans can name a living scientist and 50 percent said that either entertainers or athletes were the most influential figures for youth (compared with 6 percent for teachers). By dovetailing the likes of will.i.am, who inspired young voters, with the likes of Varmus, a member of President Obama's science and technology advisory panel, the campaign hopes to further brighten the most optimistic time for federal science support in years.

It also coincides with Obama's appointments that are diversifying the face of science, such as African-American Lisa Jackson to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and the selection of African-American retired astronaut Charles Bolden to run NASA.

Whether people of color in federal scientific posts can inspire inner-city youth to close American racial achievement gaps in math and science remains to be seen, but it is worth a try. Andrea Ingram, vice president of education at the Chicago museum, said in an interview that the "Rock Stars" campaign is right on point. "The last 20, 30, 40 years, we've defined science as hard and only for the elite few who think in a particular way," she said. "Too often we send them down the textbook road, learning rote. It's also about creativity and failure, curiosity and resilience. If they can start with natural curiosity they can be inspired."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said President and First Lady Obama "have made learning cool and hip." With Obama a model for young people, perhaps the "Rock Stars" campaign should pose him jamming for his own agenda: cracking the code for children to learn to love science.

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