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Science for all; parents show the way.

SCIENCE FOR ALL Parents Show the Way

EVER SINCE ALEX left elementary school we've had an ongoing discussion about science. We, that is Alex, his Mom (that's me) and his Dad, have been discussing with the junior high school special education staff opportunities to incorporate science into Alex's IEP. They said there was no room in his schedule for it; his day was filled with reading, spelling, math, social studies, home economics, shop, physical education, speech and occupational therapy. We feel science should be part of basic curricula taught in school for all children. Science is a part of the regular education program, and it's also a basic survival skill. Still, our discussions always ended with "there are just so many hours in the day, and this isn't as important as the other courses."

We think it is. Besides, Alex likes science and that's important in itself.

ALEX. Alex is a very outgoing, curious, hard-working 14-year-old who has an interest in learning but, unfortunately, has numerous disabilities which keep getting in the way. Alex has poor fine motor skills, poor gross motor skills, poor eyesight, severe articulation and language problems, and a vast array of learning difficulties. He used to be labeled "learning disabled" but more recently he has been classified as "mildly mentally retarded." He is unable to read, he can't write, and his speech is very hard to understand. His spine is badly curved, he walks with a spastic stride and he has difficulty with stairs. His hearing is just fine.

Alex has the gift of making adults like him. He is polite, friendly, has a sense of humor, never gives up, and makes those who help him feel good about themselves. Still, when many people are faced with Alex, they seem to see the chance for failure much clearer than the opportunity for success.

SCIENCE FAIR. When word of the school science fair came out, I saw a solution. Here was an opportunity for science in his curriculum, participation in a school-wide activity, individualization and FUN. Alex picked up the forms and we came up with a project.

The water in the school water fountains tasted awful; all the students said so. Alex agreed and decided to find out why. We went to the library and checked out several books on water, its purification and problems with tap water. Then a friend who's a science teacher gave me the names of several companies who sell supplies for testing water. We ordered the necessary chemicals, bottles and test tubes.

According to the science fair instructions, participants had to devise a project, conduct their experiment, and then WRITE IT UP. This posed a problem since Alex doesn't write. We considered this for awhile and came up with a compromise. I would read the directions for the chemicals, Alex would conduct his experiments, and his dad would photograph the entire process. Then Alex could mount a photo essay of the experiment. This struck me as a reasonable accommodation, but I wasn't sure the judges would think so. The rules stated quite clearly that students were to write a report. This decision might jeopardize any chance of actually winning an award.

The plan was followed. Alex brought home a jar of "school water," and we gathered around the dining room table to conduct experiments. Alex poured, added chemicals drop by drop, entered results on his calculator and matched findings with the EPA standards we had sent away for. His dad stood on the other side of the table and took pictures. Alex typed the list of chemicals used by copying the names from the bottles we got from the lab.

Then we got an inspiration of showmanship straight out of the old medicine man routines from Western movies. We got two identical plastic pitchers and filled one with "school water" and the other with bottled water. We put out a stack of paper cups and a sign which said, "Which one is school water and which one is bottled water?" This idea proved to be a brilliant touch. While judging of the science fair is "blind" (the judges don't know who did which experiment), there is a public part of the fair and attracting students to your exhibit is part of the fun. Attracting other students to Alex is always difficult and this ploy worked well.

THE BIG DAY. The kids set up their exhibits on Thursday after school. Each student received a category in which to enter the fair and a number which went with his project. The judges were selected from the community, rather than school staff, and they made their comments on the projects by number without knowing the identity of individual entrants. There was no special section or category for special education students; all projects were judged together. That evening the students were asked to come in and stand with their projects; the judges could then ask questions and have students "defend" their experiments. Parents were not admitted. My husband peeked through the door and watched while judges paused briefly at Alex's display, asked one question, and then hastily moved on. Finally, one judge stopped at Alex's booth and stayed. Relief!

On Friday, other students visited the exhibits. Alex's water samples drew a crowd. Everyone wanted to try the two samples, and they all could immediately guess which was which. It was a success. Students stopped and talked to Alex -- students who never talked to him before, who avoided him in the cafeteria and who never said "Hi" in the halls. What a great side effect!

On Friday night was the BIG EVENT. The school musical was to be presented. There was a family dinner, art show and science fair. It was truly a big event and the school was filled with families. The science fair was to be opened to the public after dinner and the play, and awards were to be posted by then. Alex was excited and we kept up a conversation geared towards avoiding disappointment. We talked about how much fun it was to be part of the evening, to have an exhibit on display, and about being proud of the efforts of all the students who worked to make this a special evening. No one talked about prizes.

The fair was finally opened and people began to filter in. Alex was ahead of the crowd and, despite all my talk, was running to check his display. I couldn't look.

"MOM," he yelled across the room, "I WON!" We couldn't believe it. Probably a certificate of participation I thought as I edged nearer. But it wasn't. It was a real award. Alex had placed third in this division. He had won.

Susan Ripley is Deputy Director/Information Services Manager for the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Handicaps. She lives in Falls Church, Virginia, with her husband, Scott, and children, Alex, 15, and Joe, 12. Both of her sons have a rare metabolic disorder.
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Author:Ripley, Susan
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Sep 1, 1990
Words:1163
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