You never can tell what will appeal to a child's mind. ''Worms:Can They Learn?'' was the subject of inquiry in an experiment entered in the 11th annual Morgan State University Science Fair, which opened yesterday and continues today.
Some 176 entries filled Morgan's Hill Field House, with experiments testing everything from ''How Does Eye Makeup Cause Bacteria Near the Eye?'' (Tonichea C. Butler, Northern High School) to ''Discovering the Chemical Structure and Synthesization of Arachnid Silk'' (Octavio Andres Blanco, Atholton High School) to ''Isolation of Conditionally Lethal S. Cerevisiae Mutants During Preanaphase Movement of Nuclear DNA'' (Theodore H. Stiefel, Poly).
But back to the worms. The creepy crawlers were put through their paces by Kito R. Wiley of Hamilton Middle School, with the telling result that, yes, they can learn. But slowly, and mainly if you let them do it in the dark.
The purpose of this annual exercise, conducted by engineering professor Russell V. Kelley and Anasuya Swamy, director of the Center for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Education, is fourfold:
* To identify and encourage promising students in science.
* To provide an opportunity for high-school students to have practical experience in developing good science projects.
* To develop a good, cooperative relationship between the university and area high schools.
* To provide an opportunity for science-education majors to learn hands-on planning and logistics for putting on a science fair.
Unstated in the university's materials, but very much an up-front factor, is the plan to motivate inner-city schoolteachers to bear down harder on science. It is all very well that America's businesses are coming to the realization that only active participation, with financial support, institutional help and the PTC loan of personnel, will help solve the problem of what to do about next year's work force. It is encouraging that the White House, the governor's office and City Hall have begun to pay attention to the persistent warnings about how badly America's kids are falling behind the youth of other nations in math and science. Nothing meaningful can be accomplished without getting the teachers on board.
Demographics make it obvious that urban schools and urban teachers must become key players. That's where the numbers are for new entrants to the U.S. labor force, replacements for the generation of workers, technicians, scientists, managers and, yes, teachers needed to face the international competition of the 21st century.
The scientists and engineers called to judge the fair exhibits may be more used to the esoteric studies on the far reaches of knowledge, but the phenomena the youngsters want to investigate are more down-to-earth.
One student, Steve Cocoros of Perry Hall Middle School, looked into commercial claims about dry-cell batteries. Would those ''extra-life'' batteries hold up as well in actual use as the TV ads say? Hooking up a lamp to each of several brands, Steve checked the voltage hourly till the light burned out. Then he calculated the cost of an hour's time of steady voltage, arriving at ratings for efficiency as well as longevity under load. That might not have occurred to the average adult, but kids buy a lot of batteries. Consumer Reports, your next test technician is preparing his resume.
And then there's the worm study. Or the arachnids -- spiders to the rest of us -- maybe someone will eventually figure out a way to synthesize the silk they use in their webs. Maybe it'll even be Octavio Blanco.
Patricia Schmoke, an alumna of the Baltimore city schools, Coppin State College and the University of Maryland Medical School, is keynote speaker for the awards dinner, set for tonight at 7. Chief of ophthalmology at Liberty Medical Center and a consultant to several health-maintenance organizations, Dr. Schmoke makes a pretty good role model for youngsters struggling to figure out what to be when they grow up. Her husband, the mayor, is scheduled to speak briefly, too. But he went into law, not science, so he doesn't get to say much here.
Studies show the average secondary-school student in even Third World countries knows more science than his American counterpart. That can't be reversed until all students, those headed for science and engineering careers and those headed for other pursuits, are brought up to a higher standard of understanding of the vital forces that make their world go 'round. If science fairs and the connections they spark when the kids see what their competitors are doing help motivate them and their teachers to get cracking, the more the merrier.
Oh yes, and about those worms. Don't be surprised if a gentleman in a trench coat and dark glasses comes around asking which strains became the smartest burrowers . . .
Garland L. Thompson is an editorial writer for The Sun.