South Dakota students soon will have access to advanced research equipment used by professional scientists: State officials are readying two mobile labs that will travel the state through an innovative program designed to spark students’ interest in science and technology.

The 53-foot semi-trailers hold advanced science equipment for student experiments related to the environment, human body, biotechnology, scientific measurements, light, and energy.

Each traveling classroom is equipped with 12 Gateway Profile computersor approximately one computer for every two studentsas well as a unit installed for teachers.

But the technology trailers are more than portable computer labs. They also contain high-powered microscopes; biotechnology equipment to help teach DNA analysis; global positioning system (GPS) units, part of a statewide initiative to teach GPS technology; data collection software for organizing experimental results; and complex spectrophotometers that let students perform environmental tests on air and water quality at their schools.

Every unit also is fully connected to the internet and has access to the state’s Digital Dakota Network, which allows even the most remote schools to communicate through videoconferencing and electronic messages.

Educators say the labs will provide an opportunity to expose children to new scientific concepts and ideas that are difficult to teach in a traditional classroom, where technology sometimes is inadequate.

For example, the mobile labs will enable students to learn how to analyze DNA fingerprinting, perform microscopic analyses of human tissue samples, use laser technology to study light and vision, and conduct experiments around wind, solar, and nuclear sources of energy. The labs will be available to schools at no cost. Money from the state Future Fund, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, and private dollars will pay for the Science on the Move program, state officials said.

The cost of building the vans was $600,000, largely because state prison inmates did much of the work. Former Gov. Bill Janklow, who left office this year, said none of the money for the science vans will come from dollars that fund elementary and secondary education in South Dakota.

“I think the more exposure students have with advanced science [the greater their interest will be] in continuing their scientific studies,” said Jerry Opbroek, Science on the Move coordinator.

Opbroek, a retired science teacher, said he and other teachers examined the state’s math and science standards to try to match some of what the students would do in the lab with those requirements.

The vans will begin visiting schools early in 2003. Some of the equipment hasn’t been delivered, and Opbroek said he wants to do some test runs before he goes on the road.

He estimates the trucks will spend at least two days and up to a week at each school they visit. Ideally, students from several classes will use the experiments while the truck is at each school.

The idea of the mobile labs stemmed from a meeting 18 months ago between Janklow and Jerry Luetzow, a Brookings, S.D., physicist and businessman, who told the governor the state could no longer afford not to generate an interest in science.

In discussions with educators, scientists, and politicians, the governor decided the best way to spark that interest was to offer hands-on instruction with a touring lab, Opbroek said. The program stands to be particularly useful in South Dakota, where a number of rural schools lack adequate access to cutting-edge technologies, said Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

Wheeler said the mobile trailers give the state a unique ability to deliver science technology to students and teachers who previously had to look for such opportunities outside of school.

The program “brings the resources directly to the children and their teachers,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for children to see cutting-edge technologies.”

See these related links:

Science on the Move

National Science Teachers Association