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Dartmouth project takes science to rural libraries

By Holly Ramer
Associated Press Writer / October 17, 2010

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CONCORD, N.H.—Efforts to boost science education usually focus on kids in classrooms, but two Dartmouth College professors are targeting a different population, in a different place: adults in rural libraries.

Daniel Rockmore, who teaches math and computer science, and Marcelo Gleiser, who teaches physics and astronomy, recently were awarded $2.5 million from the National Science Foundation for a project designed to get people interested in the scientific process and how science affects their daily lives. The professors chose rural libraries as the setting because they often are the social centers of small towns far away from science museums.

"The whole thing is about finding an on-ramp into science for people who weren't even looking to get on the highway," Rockmore said. "When everybody thinks about science education, it's always a 'next generation' or 'tomorrow' kind of thing. But the fact is, we shouldn't forget about today. That's not a lost generation."

Scientists will travel to libraries in rural towns to show videos and lead discussions with community members, who will be asked to read a related work of contemporary fiction ahead of time -- something along the lines of a Dan Brown thriller.

Ten libraries will be selected for a pilot project, with the goal of expanding the program to 100 libraries nationwide by the end of the four-year grant.

"It's not a teaching session. It's meant to be really, really informal ed," Rockmore said. "The evening would be really a guided conversation in which the videos are sort of like slalom poles for the conversation."

He hopes the videos, which will explore broad topics such as immortality and the limits of knowledge, will spark conversations within the community. Rather than coming away with a set of facts, he hopes participants will leave with a new appreciation of science as a "never-ending stream of interesting questions."

The first step will be producing the videos, expected to take about 18 months. Another phase will involve training librarians so they feel more comfortable fielding questions about scientific topics and hosting the discussion sessions.

For Gleiser, who teaches a Physics for Poets class at Dartmouth, the project is another way to reach people who think they are not interested in science.

"What we don't want is to preach to the choir. We want to attract people who don't already read 'Scientific American,'" he said. "We are taking a very gentle approach in which science is not the reason they're there necessarily, but it's really the topic, which is more universal."

"We're hoping that we are going to attract people for their intellectual curiosity and that science is going to come as part of the debate, but not as the central hook," he said.

One of the advisers to the project is Larry Grieco, head librarian of the Gilpin County Library, which serves a county of about 5,000 people an hour from Denver. Though there have been similar efforts to implement science, technology or math programs in libraries before, rural libraries often lose out to larger, urban libraries, he said.

Grieco said the program would be a welcome addition to the library's successful adult programming, which has included a film series and artist-in-residence program, and would appeal to those looking for a way to get to know their neighbors better.

"There's a social aspect to all this," he said. "It's never one of the goals, but sometimes I think it should be, because it's often the result."

Amy Carter, who oversees programming at the Cook Memorial Library in Tamworth, said her community of roughly 2,500 residents would welcome such a program, which would build on a discussion series it has sponsored with the New Hampshire Humanities Council.

"It would bring people in for sure," she said.

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