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Whetting young appetites for science

An innovative program encourages science education for the youngest students.

While heading “La main a la Pate” since 2005, Jasmin has sought to expand the experiment, serving as coordinator for the EU-funded program Pollen, inspired by one of the founders of “La Main” — the late French Nobel-prize winning physicist Georges Charpak. Jasmin is carrying on Charpak’s belief that science education is crucial at an early age to develop reasoning and curiosity.

“The process of science is based on creativity,” he said, “on the way to look at your everyday life. So we try to have very stimulating projects for the students … not only to have future scientists but also to give these students the tools to be good citizens.”

From 2006-2009, the Pollen project’s 12 “seed cities” launched reinvigorated science education programs involving not just the 2,000 teachers and 36,000 enrolled students, but local and national government authorities, members of the scientific and academic communities, businesses and parents.

The follow-up evaluation read like an educators’ dream come true: “The methods used by Pollen have proven to raise primary teachers’ interest, self-confidence and skills in science teaching and therefore the quality and quantity of science teaching sessions. Pollen increased children’s interest in science learning activities. Particularly, the gender gap in science was reduced as a higher share of girls tended to actively participate in science-related activities. The increased interest and participation was even stronger with weaker students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Jasmin notes that the European Commission was sufficiently convinced of the value of the ISBE method to give him another grant to continue along similar lines with the three-year Fibonacci Project, which launched in January. Fibonacci will continue the model and create a pan-European system to disseminate the type of teaching and learning utilized in the Pollen model.

If Charpak and Jasmin’s faith that early science and math exposure can help develop productive and benevolent citizens needs tangible proof, a good place to find it would be among the teams of university students competing in the “Imagine Cup” (, a technology contest for high school and university students sponsored annually by Microsoft.

This year’s task was to create a project that could help achieve the Millennium Development Goals, United Nations aims including the eradication of hunger and poverty, combating disease and achieving universal primary education. More than 325,000 students from around the world competed to “Imagine a World Where Technology Helps Solve the Toughest Problems,” with the world finals in Warsaw in July.

Teams from Asian countries won most categories, but there were Europeans close behind, with Belgium taking second and France taking third in “Game Design,” and France taking third again in “Embedded Development.”

But the big “winner” in this competition was the world, as students projects could have real-world applications. For example, the German team created “Mediator,” which matches up medicine manufacturers and suppliers in the developing world with relief organizations who would prefer to purchase their items in or closer to the countries they are helping. This also helps foster sustainable industry in the target nations. Belgium’s “Nom Nom Productions” created a game in which players help combat various environmental or manmade threats to make the world a better place. A Polish team wrote a program that translated sign language into speech and vice versa.

The German students say they first entered the competition for the school credits they would earn, but “the deeper we entered the area of development aid, the more we got involved emotionally.” When they presented their project to relief organizations, the Mediator team said, “we felt like we could really change something.”