APS News

Spotlight on the Physics Profession

How Scientists Can Help With K-12 Education

By Diandra Leslie-Pelecky

Did you know that only 10% of Americans can explain what a molecule is? Fewer than 50% know that the Earth takes a year to circle the Sun, and only 75% realize that the Earth goes around the Sun and not vice-versa. [The entire questionnaire from which these data are taken can be found at http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/seind00, See especially figure 8-4.] The physics community usually treats these statistics as a sad curiosity; however, they represent a significant threat to our future. One need only look to one's elected representatives, college presidents and CEOs to realize that important decisions impacting science often are made by people who don't understand science. Even those with the resources to judge questions on their scientific merit must justify their decisions to an increasingly science-illiterate public. If we don't address the general lack of science knowledge by the public, we are jeopardizing our own future.

One of the most effective approaches for improving public science literacy is to team with K-12 schools, teachers, and the people who educate K-12 teachers. Less than 30% of high-school students take physics and, out of the 1.2 million first- year college students, only about 320,000 (27%) take an introductory physics course. If we wait until students reach college classrooms, we've already lost nearly three quarters of our potential audience. The one experience common to most people is that virtually all of them pass through the 5th grade. Creating science-literate (and science-interested) students also broadens the pool from which to draw physics majors, which in turn creates future scientific and technical employees and graduate students.

The traditional involvement of scientists in the classroom is the demo visit, in which scientists wow students with liquid nitrogen and beds of nails. These activities are great for stimulating kids' interest in science; however, we need students who are not only interested and enthusiastic, but who also have the knowledge and skills necessary for understanding science. Once-a-semester visits from scientists addressing random topics is not enough. We must have more sustained involvement, which means establishing long-term collaborations between scientists, teachers, school districts and Colleges of Education.

My experience collaborating with Gayle Buck (a University of Nebraska Teachers' College faculty member) and Suzanne Kirby (a 4th grade teacher with Lincoln Public Schools) has been a good lesson for me in the benefits and potential pitfalls of scientists' involvement in K-12 education. Our collaboration resulted in our current NSF-funded "Project Fulcrum", which links science, math and engineering graduate students with an elementary or middle school for an entire year. [See http://www.physics.unl.edu.]

I mention this explicitly to emphasize that the only way to bring about long- term change is to involve scientists, teachers and teacher educators as equal partners. Collaborations are not always easy. The disparity of cultures and vocabulary and the stereotypes we hold about each other can get in the way of accomplishing anything. Even the social conventions and styles of communication familiar to one group can be alienating to another group. It is important to find collaborators you trust and whose work you respect.

For example, there is an assumption that placing scientists from underrepresented groups in the classroom will change student stereotypes. We analyzed interactions between physics graduate students working on electric circuit and magnetism units with fourth graders. Our volunteer students, most of whom were female, introduced themselves as scientists, showed videos of their research labs, and described their research to the students. The graduate students worked with the fourth graders two hours a week over eight weeks building and analyzing series and parallel circuits, and exploring the properties of magnets. We all were impressed by how much and how quickly the students learned, and especially by how they were able to suggest new experiments based on their observations.

About halfway through the project, Gayle pulled me aside to update me on the results of her student interviews. She said, "You know, the kids don't believe you're scientists." The female graduate students didn't fit the fourth graders' stereotypes of scientists, as expected. What I didn't expect was that, instead of rejecting their existing stereotypes, the students concluded that the graduate students must not be scientists. (Sadly, student stereotypes included not just that scientists wear lab coats, but also that 'real' scientists wouldn't be able to communicate with kids, and wouldn't be interested in whether the students were learning.) The teacher of this class interviewed parents of the students and found that one parent was under the impression that the visitors were the scientists' wives. If I had executed this project by myself, I would not even have thought to ask the students whether they believed that their visitors were scientists.

Many collaborations are short circuited by the assumptions scientists have about teachers (and vice-versa). Scientists who have visited K-12 classrooms sometimes complain that collaborating with teachers is impossible because the teachers 'don't know any science', 'aren't smart enough to learn science' or 'don't want to teach science'. The vast majority of teachers want to teach science and want to teach it well; however, many of them need assistance in understanding content, using equipment and relating science to everyday life. Although scientists can assist with these missing elements, we need educators' expertise in how to deal with kids, parents, school district, state and federal rules and requirements, and the politics of K-12 education. Neither group can accomplish this task alone.

Before setting foot in a classroom, scientists must understand the constraints under which teachers teach. Teachers have very little latitude in the topics they teach due to the adoption of National and State Science Education Standards. Debating whether the standards are right or wrong is a moot point: they are in place and teachers are accountable for meeting them. The emphasis on standards is so high that teachers' raises (and sometimes jobs) can be strongly impacted by their students' performance on standardized tests.

Ignoring science is not an option for teachers. The stake are even higher because content, (students must be able to distinguish between reflection and refraction) and process standards, (students must be able to design and execute an experiment, and communicate the results) must be satisfied. Their students must not only be able to state that like poles repel, but must also be able to design an experiment that tests the assertion and graph the results. These goals are consistent with what physicists would like to see: students with good problem-solving skills, a decent base of knowledge on which to build, and a desire to learn science.

I think that physicists can be most useful in teaching problem-solving skills and building enthusiasm for science. One of ur Project Fulcrum fellows - a geoscientist - accompanied a group of fourth graders on a field trip to a restored prairie. She brought her field notebook and took notes. The students were fascinated by how carefully she observed, and how she recorded all of her observations. They knew scientists did experiments, but they didn't associate documenting observations, recording data or communicating results with 'science'. They didn't realize that science might be done anywhere except in a lab. The fourth graders started recording observations in their own 'science notebooks' and students who thought that their love of writing precluded science as career learned that this is not necessarily so. These unplanned lessons emphasize the value of having scientists in the classroom: there is no replacement for students experiencing real-time problem solving. Students learn that science is not a body of facts, but a way of thinking.

If our effectiveness increases when we reach students early in their education, we must also ensure that future teachers are equipped with the skills they need to teach science before they enter a classroom. In most states, working with future teachers requires collaboration with the education college. The importance of this issue demands that we make a serious effort to overcome past history, turf battles and culture differences so that we can productively collaborate with teacher educators. We cannot treat K-12 science education as someone else's problem; however, it is not our responsibility alone. I am explicitly not suggesting that physicists should teach future teachers how to teach physics. Our responsibility is to ensure that they know enough about physics and scientific thinking that teachers can learn new material on their own and can troubleshoot experiments that aren't working. Remember that we spend a career developing and honing problem-solving skills. The skills a teacher can develop taking a limited number of science classes cannot replace what students will learn and experience interacting with scientists in the classroom. [Editor's note: APS is spearheading the PhysTEC program, designed to enhance physics teacher preparation. See APS News, November 2001]

Although improving K-12 science education is a critical issue, we must recognize that not everyone is interested in or has the skills to work with K-12 students, teachers and teacher educators. It is important that - just as in research - you invest your time in doing those things about which you are passionate, and that you believe you can make an impact doing. In the end, it isn't nearly as important what you do as it is that you do something.

Diandra Leslie-Pelecky is an assistant professor of physics at the University of Nebraska and a former chair of the APS Committee on Careers and Professional Development.


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