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Science stays on the move, thanks to Opbroek

"Science on the Move" still is -- on the move, that is -- because science teacher Jerry Opbroek refuses to let it die.

After a six-year run, the state cut funding for the mobile science program at the end of the 2008-2009 school year.

"The governor's office basically told us to drop it," said Opbroek, 68, of Mitchell, who was the program's coordinator. That meant parking the two, 53-foot long tractor-trailer rigs that served as rolling classrooms and handing in the keys.

"It's really unfortunate that Gov. Rounds chose to just bag the program without at least giving us a chance to revitalize and revamp it so we don't waste this great equipment, but that didn't happen," he said.

Canceling the program essentially discarded the many dedicated, personal hours that science teachers around the state invested in training so they could use the rolling science lab, Opbroek said.

Opbroek, an award-winning science teacher who retired from the Mitchell School District in 2000 after a 38-year teaching career, decided the program was too important to be treated as an erasable line item in a budget and revived it on his own.

He received permission from Black Hills State University to use some of the equipment from the old trailers, which had been stored at the Homestake Mine, and for the past year and a half he's been packing the scientific gear into his personal pickup and driving to schools around the state.

The do-it-yourself program gets no state funding.

Opbroek said he contracts with schools who want the program and charges a $200 per diem rate for his time and expertise. All expenses, from motel rooms to gasoline for his pickup, come out of that. He tries to cut costs and maximize effectiveness by scheduling several days at each location.

"I'm not getting rich," he said with a laugh. "I'm just doing what I can.

The arrangement makes some of the science equipment available for use by students so they can do high-quality experiments, said Opbroek, who does the teaching.

While the Mitchell School District has excellent science equipment, he said, some smaller school districts have little to no science gear. "I've been to some districts that barely have a few graduated cylinders (containers for measuring liquids)," he said.

Opbroek's dedication to excellence is no surprise to his former student, Julie Olson, who teaches science at Mitchell High School. Olson did her student teaching under Opbroek and now sees him as a colleague and inspirational mentor.

Both are recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science and the state's Biology Teacher of the Year award. Additionally, Opbroek was named South Dakota Teacher of the Year.

She shares his commitment to teaching.

"Jerry's very passionate about science," she said, "and this program is tremendously important. It has scientific materials that schools can't afford and kids -- even little kids -- just love working with it. They get to do things and not just look at demonstrations."

Opbroek said students can watch a heartbeat on a computer screen, and advanced biology students can perform electrocardiograms. They can learn to use motion sensors to measure the acceleration and velocity of cars heading down a ramp, and more, Opbroek said, noting a few of the nearly 200 different experiments available from the mobile lab.

The Science on the Move program, originally developed under former Gov. Bill Janklow, used two semitrailers to take advanced science equipment and professional instruction to schools statewide. Inmates at Mike Durfee State Prison built the mobile labs, which contained computers and electronics installed by instructors at Mitchell Technical Institute. The trailer rigs began rolling in Febuary 2003 and were shut down in 2009.

Since the shutdown of the labs, MTI has taken ownership of the trailers and has re-fitted them for use as tools to recruit students to its specialized technical programs.

Opbroek said his current one-man show has its drawbacks as well as advantages.

Some equipment isn't available that was on the semitrailers, he said, but classes are now held in actual classrooms that are roomier than the often-crowded lab trailers. The downside is that Opbroek has to load and unload his gear as he travels from school to school and can only carry a limited number of experiments.

At a cost of $300,000 a year, Opbroek acknowledges that the former Science on the Move program was expensive, but he also believes it can be done more economically and effectively.

"I'd like to see the program expanded again," he said. "If I were the 'god of science teaching,' I would load the equipment into vans and give one van to each of the seven regional Education Service Agencies in the state that each serve 10 to 15 schools."

It would be more cost effective for the schools in a particular ESA to share expensive science equipment, he said, than for each school to spend thousands of dollars to purchase its own equipment.

Opbroek visited about 30 schools last year, he said. When Science on the Move's tractor-trailers were on the road, the program visited 120 schools each year. He believes demand remains strong for the program, and he plans to stick with it.

"I really enjoy this, because students are excited about it," Opbroek said. "They enjoy it, students are engaged, I have no discipline problems, and they say 'thank you' when they walk out the door."