It was a "Wow!" moment - literally.
As seventh grader Sidhartha Bhuyan turned a dial on the side of a digital microscope, the beating heart of a live daphnia, a tiny crustacean, pulsed into focus on a laptop computer screen.
"Wow!" Bhuyan called out. "Awesome!"
The reaction of the student at Arcola Intermediate School in Montgomery County's Methacton School District is the kind that makes a teacher's day and might jump-start a longer-term interest in science.
The moment came courtesy of Science in Motion, a respected but often-imperiled mobile science program that brings expensive equipment and knowledgable instructors to schools around the state.
This week, hundreds of seventh graders at Arcola have been learning to use digital microscopes, taking pictures of tiny organisms and printing them out at the end of class. Ron Faust, a Science in Motion biology educator based at Ursinus College, oversaw each lesson.
Having students get their hands on the same kind of equipment used in college labs and industry is "unbelievable," Arcola seventh-grade science teacher Peggy Greene said. "It definitely encourages the students to see that the microscope is a tool that can be exciting in learning science. . . . It makes them consider science as a real career opportunity or a real passion."
Students agreed. "It's a good learning experience," seventh grader Hannah O'Neill said. "It's really great to use this cool piece of technology."
The Science in Motion premise is simple: Schools often can't afford state-of-the-art scientific gear, costing thousands of dollars, that might be used only sporadically. Science in Motion buys the equipment and supplies, and lends them to schools that request them. Highly trained staffers often come along, introducing the technology and teaching students.
Started in 1987 with federal funding at Juniata College in central Pennsylvania, Science in Motion began receiving state funding 12 years ago. This school year, it got $1.9 million from the state, a drop of $600,000 from the year before, plus some private donations, and the use of storage, office, and lab space from the 12 colleges and universities that host it. In 2007-08, the last year for which statewide statistics are available, the program served 280,000 students in 337 schools.
In the Philadelphia area, Ursinus and Drexel University are Science in Motion hosts. The Ursinus site serves several dozen schools in about 20 school districts in the area; the one at Drexel operates in the Philadelphia School District.
Each program has about $500,000 worth of equipment, including such devices as infrared and ultraviolet-visible spectrometers, which cost $15,000 to $20,000 each. The spectrometers are used for popular CSI-like forensics classes, in which students identify various substances from a fictional crime scene.
The digital microscopes used at Arcola cost about $1,600 apiece, counting the laptops, and the Ursinus program has 40 of them.
Said Amy Beadle, the chemistry and physics educator for the Ursinus program: "We are the Santa Claus of lab equipment. . . . I get to provide things for kids that they would never dream of seeing in their school districts without our program. They love it and I love it."
Added Faust: "We just can't keep up with demand. . . . We could easily use twice as many people as [the two educators] we have."
The program is popular with legislators as well, said State Rep. James Roebuck (D., Phila.), chairman of the Education Committee.
"It impacts rural, suburban, and urban districts. It has a good track record everywhere," he said. "And we know that we have to do more to expand our capacity in science, math, and engineering education. This helps us do just that."
Still, every year, Science in Motion has to fight for its life. Because it is not mandated by the Pennsylvania School Code, it has to be reauthorized every year. And because it is not on Gov. Rendell's or the state Department of Education's priority list for funding, it is up to the legislature to negotiate for its survival.
This school year, Science in Motion came close to losing the battle. Funding was cut to what many considered an unsustainable level, its start-up was delayed by the budget standoff in Harrisburg, and in late January, the money was cut off by executive order because of a budget revenue shortfall. Activities were halted until a deal with the legislature restored it.
Legislation that would add Science in Motion to the School Code has passed the state Senate and was voted out of the House Education Committee this week. Though inclusion in the code would not automatically secure funding, State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester), minority chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he hoped that by granting it permanent status, the annual cut-and-restore cycle would end.
"The problem for Science in Motion is that by going from year to year with this uncertainty, it is very hard to maintain the consistency and excellence of the program," Dinniman said.
Department of Education spokesman Steve Weitzman said there were no guarantees.
"It's a worthwhile program, but it is a matter of determining priorities in a tough budget year," he said. "It will have to be negotiated through the budget process."