APS News

Lopez Heads APS Efforts in Science Education Reform

lopezFor the last two years, APS involvement in national reform of K-12 science education has been spearheaded by Ramon Lopez, a magnetospheric physicist at the University of Maryland, College Park who concurrently serves as the Society's director of education and outreach programs. As such he is responsible for organizing High School Teacher Days at Society meetings and planning and implementing efforts to involve more research scientists with elementary and high school teachers.

Lopez knew he wanted to be a physicist by the age of 11, when he became fascinated by the notion of atomic structure. He received his PhD in space physics from Rice University in 1985, and spent four months there as a postdoctoral researcher before joining the staff of Applied Research Corporation, on contract to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Desiring to spend more time on educational pursuits, he accepted a part-time research faculty position in the Astronomy Department at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1992. Since then, he has engaged in a varied and growing number of physics education activities, in addition to his ongoing research. "By remaining active in research, I'm more credible as a scientist concerned with education reform," he said, rather than being labeled primarily as an educator who has left active physics research.

He worked as an long-term consultant with the National Science Resources Center, a joint organization of the National Academy of Science and the Smithsonian Institution, working to improve science teaching nationwide. In this capacity, he has played a significant role in designing workshops for scientists and for school districts.

Other prior education-related activities include service on the Board of Directors of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, which explicitly includes pre-college education as part of its mission. With the Institute, he has worked on the development of hands-on investigation modules based on space science for middle school students, and helped develop a major travelling museum exhibit entitled, "Electric Space: Exploring our Plasma Universe," which is currently being exhibited through May at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore.

Lopez has participated in curriculum review, report preparation, and provided technical assistance to school districts engaged in the systemic reform of elementary science education through a group called National Science Research in Washington, DC. He has also served on education- related committees of the American Geophysical Union and as an independent consultant for the Discovery Channel.

Q What has your focus been in terms of the Society's education activities?

A Most of my time has been spent developing the new Teacher-Scientist Alliance (TSA) program. It's essentially a program for scientists interested in systemic reform of elementary science education. The focus of TSA is hands-on science for all kids in a school district. It's working with scientists and school districts to affect the way that the school district does business overall. So we're not talking about a single teacher or school, but an entire district and its the administrative, budgetary, and professional development structures - all of which are part of helping teachers do quality hands-on integrated science in the classroom.

Q What is the conceptual model for the TSA program?

A There are essentially four components: regional institutes for school districts; one-week institutes for scientists like the one we hosted in Washington in January; one-day local workshops for scientists; and broader-based community information workshops. For our Leadership Institute in January we brought in scientists and other key leaders from places we're working with around the country to give them a one-week intensive overview of issues in the reform of elementary science education. Then with that knowledge, they're able to be much better partners for their school districts. They also become our partners as we go to the next step in recruiting scientists locally.

For example, at last year's Institute, among the participants were three scientists from Tucson who were working with the school district to implement a hands-on kit-based program. By the summer, they were ready to start recruiting scientists. They enlisted 45 scientists and engineers in the Tucson area, and I went there and headed a one-day workshop to illustrate what hands-on science reform is about and how they could help implement the program. They signed up to work with teachers, to visit schools, to be community advocates, to visit the Science Materials Center - a wide range of activities.

That's an archetypical example of how the TSA program is supposed to work. It doesn't always happen that way, but certainly we've had plenty of successful partnerships that have evolved, and we've got a lot of scientists and engineers who have come through our programs and are now working with school districts.

Q What are some specific elements that must be present in a school district to successfully implement reform?

A This is not the first time that hands-on science has been tried in schools. In the late 60's and early 70's many districts bought science kits, but only a few were able to maintain their programs. For that experience we know that school districts that don't have the following pieces in place are not going to be able to build lasting programs. First, they must have top quality materials, not those developed by local teachers, but nationally developed materials with a strong R&D base. Second, they must have a support infrastructure that delivers teaching materials in a ready-to-teach fashion to teachers. If teachers don't have the "stuff" to teach, they're not going to do it. There's a high activation barrier to doing hands-on activities in the classroom if teachers have to go to K-Mart to buy materials beforehand.

But having good materials and delivering them to teachers isn't going to help if teachers don't understand the content of the science in the kits themselves, and if they don't understand how they should be guiding student questions, rather than just lecturing students. So there has to be an ongoing professional development program in the district. That's where we involve a lot of scientists: working with teachers as they are changing their practice in the classroom.

Q Why is the involvement of professional scientists so important?

A Because scientists can be models for scientific inquiry. Set a physicist in front of a bunch of wires and batteries and bulbs and they immediately start playing. That validates the playful nature of science to teachers, who for the most part are intimidated by things like electricity. Elementary teachers don't have a lot of contact with those kinds of content areas, so they will often avoid them. But it becomes less daunting if they have a chance to work with scientists in a friendly, collegial environment.

Q Would you describe this as a grassroots approach to educational reform?

A We focus on working at the school district level. That is really the administrative unit that controls what happens in the classrooms. They're the ones who purchase the materials and do everything else that is necessary for reform. If you're working with individual schools, you could be frustrated because anything a school tries to implement could be undone by larger trends in the district. And individual schools generally do not control all the resources. If you try to work at the state level you will also be frustrated, because it's very amorphous and decisions are being made somewhere else that will work against what you're trying to do at a state level. We try to invest at the strategic level in a school district, working with a few people to build a leadership team in that district. Then those people become our partners for recruiting scientists locally.

Q What are some of the criteria you consider when selecting educational materials?

A We look for materials that reflect the national science standards and recommend those to school districts. We favor those that have been developed by education research groups like the National Science Resources Center. They involve science educators, psychologists, teachers, scientists, and evaluators in the process - a wide spectrum of professions, all of whom are contributing their particular expertise to the development of those materials. Such materials have undergone extensive field testing in a variety of settings around the country. And they are based on cognitive research that exists around a particular subject, so that the materials can address any set of misconceptions kids might have about how something works.

For example, most kids, and many adults, hold the naive conception that heavy things sink and light things float. That's a pretty good description for most of the things they're going to encounter in the world, but that's not the scientifically accurate idea. So one set of materials tries to modify that understanding so the kids emerge with a much better understanding of things like displacement and other scientific factors that affect whether an object sinks or floats. That particular unit took almost three years to develop.

Q Why is a hands-on approach considered so important to reforming science education?

A You learn science by doing science; anybody who's been to graduate school knows that. That should be the way all people have the chance to learn science. The national science standards contain a wonderful line: "Science is something that children should do, not something that should be done to them." Science is often something that is done to kids, so it's no surprise that by the third grade most kids are rapidly tuning out to science. Another essential aspect contained in the science standards is the notion of science as inquiry: the questioning, the reasoning, the problem solving - all of that is seen as part of the content of science.

Q What are some important future directions for the APS education activities?

A The big issue on the horizon is undergraduate reform in science, math and technology. This May there's going to be an APS/AAPT department chairs conference on undergraduate education. That could evolve into national undergraduate reform. This is an area in which the APS can help because we are a major voice for the physics community. The time is right.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin