Corporations are finding that sponsoring educational programs is a good way to put forward a friendly, kid-caring face, while promoting their chosen message to the next generation. The danger is that often the message has more to do with PR spin than scientific value (oil companies with bad environmental reps want children to believe offshore rigs only improve the marine habitat they drill into). The Making Science Make Senseprogram sponsored by Bayer, a company that produces an array of chemicals, is motivated by another very troubling problem: By 2006, the number of technology-based jobs will triple as the average American student's scientific literacy falls.
For Bayer to fill its positions, its managers need a new batch of students to pursue and appreciate science. So researchers and environmental scientists from the company volunteer to do experiments, teach kids about molecules, and tell them about what a rewarding career they can have in the world of chemistry (at Bayer, wink-wink, nudge-nudge).
Speaking for their credibility is the lack of industry people on their advisory boards, which instead have included the director of Carnegie Science Center and the editor of Encyclopedia Britannica. Their national spokesperson is the first black woman in space, Mae C. Jemison, a Houston resident and environmental studies professor at Dartmouth College. She will host some two dozen high school students, who will try to come up with innovative solutions for society's problems, such as traffic, garbage collection and revitalizing downtown. Then, in addition to signing autographs and copies of her latest book, she will also be encouraging women and minorities -- sorely lacking in many technical occupations -- to pursue a career in science. And with so many warm bodies needed, that makes a lot of sense.