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Current Science Research in the High School Science Classroom

by Peter Garik, H. Eugene Stanley, Edwin Taylor and Paul Trunfio

Over the past five years, we and some of our col-leagues at Boston University have been introducing our own physics research into high school classrooms: research that combines computer modelling with experiments. From the beginning, we and our graduate students collaborated with high school teachers and science educators. This intensive educational effort afforded us a unique perspective on how the physics research community can serve the educational needs of society, while simultaneously justifying public investment in maintaining support for research and graduate students.

The opportunity rests on the following circumstances:

  • Research dollars are at a premium and the support of graduate researchers must be justified by its practical social consequences.
  • Society recognizes the need for upgrading U.S. science education in order for the country to be technically and economically competitive.
  • Technology is changing so rapidly that high school science education cannot wait 20 or even 10 years to incorporate today's developments.
  • Research in science education has led professional educators to a view of the ideal classroom which is nearly coincident with the training and research processes practiced at the university level.

Our experience is that the best way to transfer modern science to the classroom is to directly involve science research workers. My colleagues and I were fortunate to receive support from the NSF Applications of Advanced Technology Program to experiment with such a direct installation of research into the high school. Our own research depends on computer models that use randomness and simple molecular interactions to analyze the growth and form of fractal structures such as lightning bolts, coastlines, nerve cells, termite tunnels, bacteria cultures, root systems, forest fires, soil cracking, river deltas, galactic distributions, mountain ranges, tidal patterns, cloud shapes, and the sequencing of nucleotides in DNA. Such research, like much modern physics, is interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary, characteristics that educators are trying to promote in high school science classes.

The classroom strategy that evolved over three years has similarities to graduate education, with the high school teacher taking the role of research adviser. The teacher sets the stage, trains students in the use of apparatus and software, and supervises execution of an orienting experiment. Students compare the outcome of the experiment with a computer model whose parameters can be adjusted. Having provided students with an example of the research process on this topic, the teacher asks student groups to devise variations on the initial experiment, along with corresponding variations in the computer model. As students initiate their own projects, the teacher does less instructing and more advising, becoming a mentor for student-directed investigations. In one of our classrooms, the outcome every year is a mini-research conference, in which student groups report on their investigations and comment on the results of others.

It turns out that our "new" classroom strategy has already been described, tested, and reported in the education literature by Allan Collins and others under the name "cognitive apprenticeship." Cognitive apprenticeship is adapted from the traditional apprenticeship training of artisans, modified to take into account the more abstract nature and wider applicability of subjects taught in high schools. Their learning model is not so different from the model of graduate research that inspired us.

Not only high school teachers and students benefit from this project. We and our students also benefit as research workers. Simplifying and adapting research materials to education bring new physical insights, and high school students often ask fundamental questions. At least one research publication from our group developed from an educational topic. Our graduate students and postdoctoral associates are stimulated by contact with high school teachers and students. And the high school students enjoy and profit from contact with real research workers.

Graduate students and postdoctoral associates receive a direct professional benefit from their participation in such a project. In the current funding climate, the ability of a young scientist to communicate and teach is a much more marketable commodity than in the past. Graduate students and postdoctoral associates with experience in educational innovation are attractive to smaller institutions, which offer most of the available faculty posts. Participation in a community dedicated to educational innovation provides a much richer preparation for teaching than the often isolating graduate student task of teaching a recitation section in an introductory course.

The implications of our project go even deeper, to the undergirding of public support for science research. Congress and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are responding to public demand that government funding have immediate impact. We cannot guarantee that our fundamental science will bake tomorrow's bread. But we can assert that it has immediate appeal to high school students, bringing them to exciting new topics at the edge of what is known, and short-circuiting the decades-long wait for science to enter the school curriculum. Student-led investigations not only transmit the content of science but also train students in science itself _ the research process by which science moves forward.

We believe that The American Physical Society should work with the NSF to establish a regular mechanism for inviting and supporting the participation of the research community in high school education. The products of this program should be multi-faceted, including new experiments and techniques, new uses of computers, and first-hand contact with university research workers. All such projects should have the following common characteristics:

  • involvement of high school teachers from the outset;
  • involvement of physics graduate research students in the development of educational materials;
  • inclusion of education research faculty and education graduate students at all stages;
  • generation of continually updated materials that keep pace with new research rather than being fixed in textbooks;
  • training of high school teachers in the restructuring of classrooms and the use of new materials;
  • and the use of the Internet and future networks for dissemination of materials, for close collaboration between universities and high schools, and for collaboration among high school teachers and among groups of students in different locations.

In brief, science research and science education are mutually supporting, intellectually, practically and _ in the best sense _ politically. The American Physical Society should move to take advantage of this opportunity.

Peter Garik is a research associate in physics and in the Center for Polymer Studies. Edwin Taylor is a research professor of physics. H. Eugene Stanley is a professor of physics and director of the Center for Polymer Studies. Paul Trunfio is project manager for education programs. All are associated with Boston University.

Example: Growing Random Fractals

(1) Students roll a four-sided "bone" (sides labeled: right, left, up and down) and move a penny accordingly in a two- dimensional random walk on a checkerboard. They place a shiny quarter at the center of the checkerboard. When a random-walking penny staggers into one of the four boxes nearest the quarter, the penny "sticks" there. More pennies random-walk from a distance, ultimately sticking to either the quarter or one of the pennies already grouped around the quarter. In this way, students grow a small "random aggregation."

(2) "This takes too long!" So let the computer flip the coins and move the penny, which it does wholesale, building on its screen a wide range of random aggregations for study and investigation. Students have previously learned how to measure the fractal dimension of a random structure both by hand and with a software program. They form a computer-generated image electronically and measure its fractal dimension.

(3) Now to the laboratory, where students, working in groups, pour copper sulfate solution between two sheets of plastic that contain a central wire electrode surrounded by a circular electrode. They connect a standard low-voltage power supply and watch as ragged aggregate grows outward from the center, a pattern strikingly similar to the previous computer patterns. Students scan the aggregate into the computer and measure its fractal dimension, comparing results with patterns generated by the software.

(4) Students speculate about the mechanism of pattern formation and predict the results of varying the procedure. They devise and carry out an experiment of their own, trying to model their new results by changing the parameters of the computer program. Some student ideas: more distance between the electrodes, off-center electrodes, electrodes of different shapes, varying the current in the cell, varying concentration of the electrolyte, using another electrolyte, and using aluminum instead of copper electrodes.

(5) Student groups report on the results of their investigations in a mini "research conference" with other students, attended by research workers and educators from the sponsoring university.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin