FEd April 1998 Newsletter - Science Education Reform

April 1998



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Science Education Reform: Interviews with Ramon Lopez and Dean Zollman

There has been much discussion about science education "reform" the past several years, some of it prompted by well-publicized studies such as "A Nation at Risk;" this discussion and subsequent action has led to equally familiar publications such as "Science for all Americans" and "Shaping the Future." International exams such as TIMSS warn us that our students are not learning math and science in grades K-12. Studies of conceptual learning in college physics courses tell us that students are missing most of what we think we are teaching them.

We recently passed the 40th anniversary of the launching of sputnik, an event which has been perceived as the trigger for educational reform of the 60s. It offers us an occasion to reflect on reforms of the past and of the present, and to ask what is different about the present reform. With this in mind, the FEd Editor interviewed two leaders in science education to get their observations on reform and the future of science-and especially physics-education.

Ramon Lopez is Director of the APS Education Department.

Ed.: What, in your view, is meant by the term "reform" (in this context)?

RL: "Reform" means lots of things to different people. To me it means moving toward a philosophy of science education where children learn by doing. In an institutional sense, reform means that a school system redefines how students do science. A lot of this comes down to budget line items. Real reform means institutional and administrative changes that support what goes on in the classroom.

Ed.: Is science education reform now occurring in this country?

RL: Yes. It is spasmodic, but it is there. The current reform builds on the last wave of reform generated by Sputnik. The fundamental difference between this and the sputnik reform was that the earlier reform focused on the "best and brightest", in order to develop a cadre of scientists and engineers to counteract the perceived defense threat. Now we work from the premise that all children need to be scientifically literate. Physicists have played a major role in both reforms, from Jerrold Zacharias to Lillian McDermott.

Ed.: What do you see as the principal goals of science education reform?

RL: The principal goal is scientific literacy for all. The reform itself is based on activities and inquiry in science education. There has been a general tendency for children to start losing interest in science in the elementary grades, but research has shown that when children have been doing hands-on science, they stay interested.

Ed.: How will this reform be different from past reforms?

RL: Institutionalization is the big difference. The sputnik-inspired reforms generated high quality hands-on teaching materials but did not pay enough attention to institutionalizing the reforms. Institutionalizing means developing a materials support infrastructure, providing ongoing professional development for teachers, aligning assessment with instruction, and assuring ongoing community and administrative support.

Ed.: What do you see as the major obstacles to reform?

RL: I see lack of will---"benign neglect"-as the major obstacle. Communities need to decide that science is as important as, say, athletics. Parents need to understand the importance of science education in helping their children prepare to get better jobs.

Ed.: Is reform taking place at the college level? In physics?

RL: College-level reform is especially taking place in physics. Research has been built up over the last 15 years to support reform. People like Lillian McDermott have shown the ineffectiveness of traditional methods for teaching conceptual understanding, and have developed new materials and practices which have been shown to be effective. I am especially excited about the way the University of Illinois has redefined its courses along these lines in what I would call a systemic reform. There are many other examples of reform, among which I would mention Eric Mazur's work on peer instruction, and Jack Wilson's studio physics approach.

Ed.: How can faculty be encouraged to "buy in" to reform…how can they become engaged in it?

RL: Faculty concerns are legitimate. A lot is known about the sociology of instituting change. It cannot be too burdensome, or it won't work. Departments have to provide support structures so that it is as easy as possible for faculty members to make changes. They shouldn't have to reinvent the materials and techniques themselves. The technology they are to use must work and be supported. Faculty must have the right materials, in ready-to-teach form. Training is also vital. These issues must be considered carefully if we are to effect systemic change. Not just faculty, but also TAs must be included. The whole issue of faculty development is a key one.

Ed.: At the K-8 level, how can reform become systemic?

RL: Systemic change means that in the end you have the same budget as before the reform, but you are doing things differently. But there is a one-time cost of implementing change. New materials and initial training are new costs. Parents must be prepared to support this.

Ed.: What are the major trends in reform of high school physics?

RL: There are efforts to improve instruction and materials. Not much thought has been given to structural changes in the way physics is taught. For example, block scheduling, where a class would meet for two hours a day rather than the one hour (or less) in the traditional schedule, would provide the time needed for inquiry-based learning.

Ed.: Do you have any other observations you wish to share with me?

RL: The recent changes in the ABET standards, which would allow Colleges of Engineering to teach physics (and other sciences) themselves, pose a huge and potentially serious challenge to Physics departments. This year the APS is organizing a pilot Strategic Planning Institute for Improving Undergraduate Physics Education. The goals of the institutes would be for teams from participating colleges to prepare a draft strategic plan for systemic change to take back to their institution, and to build a network of institutions implementing similar approaches. AAPT is also very active in promoting change in undergraduate physics education. I think that over the next few years physics department will rise to the challenges before them and better serve their students as a result.

Broadening the Physics Degree: A New Bachelor's Degree in Computational Physics at Illinois State University

Richard Martin and Shang-Fen Ren

A decade ago the physics department at Illinois State University, realizing the increasingly important role computation was playing in our discipline, began a systematic effort to incorporate computational exercises into all our physics major classes. The response from students over the years has been quite positive, to the extent that many reported back after graduation that they wished they'd had even more computational experience. Partly in response to such input, we have developed a new Bachelor of Science degree sequence in Computational Physics. The degree is targeted at students aiming for employment as computational scientists and engineers, as well as those bound for graduate study in a computationally intensive field. Already, in its first year of existence, the program has attracted a large group of students including some converts from our traditional physics degree, but also several from our "3-2" physics-engineering double degree program with the University of Illinois. Apparently, these students see the program as a good compromise between a full engineering degree (which requires at least one extra year of school) and the traditional physics degree, which is perceived as being less useful for immediate post-baccalaureate employment. Moreover, we are investigating several recently developed computational science and engineering graduate programs, for which our degree could serve as a feeder program. We see the program as a potentially useful recruiting tool, which we will take advantage of in the near future. Besides in-house support, the program has been supported by an NSF/ILI-LLD grant, and has received two awards from the DOE Computational Science and Engineering program.

The new sequence, leading to a B.S. in Computational Physics, parallels the standard Physics degree for the first two years, requiring all the same introductory and intermediate physics and math courses as well a Computer Programming for Scientists class. In the Junior year students in the new program begin taking more computationally intensive classes (along with a reduced load of advanced physics classes): Hardware and Software Concepts, Methods of Computational Science, Advanced Computational Physics (a team-taught projects course), and Computational Research in Physics (a senior capstone semester project). A variety of senior electives are offered, including two computationally oriented courses: Molecular Dynamics and Nonlinear Science. Thus, the computational physics students obtain a strong foundation in physics as well as a solid introduction to computational methods, modeling, and analysis, preparing them with the flexible skills required for today's competitive employment environment. In particular, the programming skills obtained through the program open up a much wider array of immediate employment opportunities.

The Department of Physics at Illinois State University has thirteen full time faculty and about 100 physics majors. Two-thirds of the faulty are active in research involving computational physics. Our computational curricular development over the past decade is a natural exploitation of this departmental strength, in the best teacher-scholar tradition. A side benefit is that students are offered a wide array of opportunities for active involvement in computationally oriented research. With their improved computational skills, majors in the computational physics program can become useful contributors to research projects, and gain invaluable experience and self-confidence in the process. We hope this education-research synergy will expand both programs in to the next century.

For further information, our web pages are located at http://www.phy.ilstu.edu/CompPhys/CP.html.

The authors are from the Department of Physics, Illinois State University, Campus Box 4560, Normal, IL 61790-4560.

Astronomy and the New National Science Education Standards: Some Disturbing News and an Opportunity

Jay Pasachoff

The National Research Council's "National Standards in Science Education," released in January 1996, is the latest and most comprehensive set of national standards for science education in grades K-12. Required by the adoption of national educational goals through President Bush's America 2000 and President Clinton's Goals 2000 programs, voluntary national standards are a relatively new strategy for improving the quality of education in the United States. National standards in social studies, mathematics, and science have already been published. Receiving major funding from the Department of Education and the NSF, the National Research Council, at the request of the National Science Teacher's Association, organized the creation of "National Standards for Science Education."

Previous science education standards outlined in Project 2061's "Science for All Americans" and "Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy" and in the NSTA's "The Content Core" have concentrated on defining the specific knowledge needed for scientific literacy. The new NRC standards include not only content requirements defining scientific literacy, but also standards for student assessment, teaching, teacher development, and program and system performance. But while the aims, breadth, and general quality of the new standards are impressive, the standards are seriously flawed with respect to their treatment of astronomy education. Their greatest shortcomings are the shallow, empirical treatment of astronomical topics and the categorization of all such subject matter under one discipline called "Earth and Space Science."

Briefly, the only content standard requirements relevant to astronomy (topics that should be taught at each grade level) in the new standards are as follows:

Astronomy Standards (From Table 6.4, "Earth and Space Science Standards")

  • K-4 Objects in the Sky, Changes in the Sky
  • 5-8 Earth's History, Earth in the Solar System
  • 9-12 Origin/Evolution of the Earth System, Origin/Evolution of Universe

Note that no astronomy outside the solar system is listed for grades 5-8 and even the mention of the solar system minimizes the astronomy point of view. Apparently even the idea that stars shine from nuclear energy was deemed too abstract to teach before the 9th grade.

Furthermore, stars as they exist are not explicitly mentioned. Other content standard categories in the new Standards include "Science as Inquiry," "Physical Science," "Life Science," "Science and Technology," "Science in the Social and Personal Perspectives," and the "History and Nature of Science." Perceiving that the fundamental concepts of astronomy were not appropriately integrated into the standards of physical AND earth/space science, an AAS focus group recommended in 1995 that additional topics be added to these minimal requirements under the heading "Physical Science." The focus group was Chaired by Mary Kay Hemenway, AAS Education Officer, and consisted of members of the AAS Education Advisory Board, the AAS Education Policy Board, and the three AASTRA site directors.

The AAS focus group's 1995 recommendations and requests for change were basically to redefine the standards as follows, in order to put some physical thought and some modern topics in the listings:

Astronomy Standards (From Recommended "Physical Science" Standards)

  • K-4 Motion of sun, moon, planets
  • 5-8 Stars and how they shine
  • 9-12 Nature of Galaxies/Universe

Astronomy Standards (From Recommended "Earth and Space Science" Standards)

  • K-4 Objects in the Sky, Changes in the Sky
  • 5-8 Earth's History, (Earth and) The Solar System
  • 9-12 Origin/Evolution of Earth System

Some specific suggestions from the AAS focus group's content recommendations were:

  • K-4: Add the relation of light and stars; comparison of motions of terrestrial and celestial objects.
  • 5-8: Add stars as sources of energy, heat and light; role of gravity in guiding solar system motions; Geological properties of earth compared with other planets.
  • 9-12: Leaping to origin of universe in context of earth sciences/planetary systems is shallow; in physical sciences, add role of gravity in driving evolution of physical universe and concepts of gravitational, kinetic and radiant energy.

IN GENERAL: The astronomy standards lack any mention of how astronomers gather data and infer the nature of objects which cannot be touched directly.

Unfortunately, as the first chart shows, none of the major recommendations made by the focus group were incorporated into the final draft of Standards. There were no re-classifications of astronomy subject matter under "Physical Science," nor were any new topics added. Some minor changes, such as including professional scientists and labs in lists of teaching resources for the general public, were made. Finally, there was considerable objection by the focus group to the way in which an important standard for the inclusion/exclusion of material was left undefined. In this case, the focus group requested clarification of a sentence in the introduction praising teachers who make science "relevant" to their students -- as opposed to those whose courses are "simply. . . preparation for another school science course" (p. 12). Without defining what "relevant" should mean, the focus group feared this phrase might allow teachers to exclude certain subject matter from science curricula on the basis of their personal concept of what was "relevant" to a student's life -- and one could argue for the "irrelevance" of many aspects of astronomy.

All in all, the astronomical community has much to regret in these standards. The minimal content standards for astronomy could lead to large amounts of material being left out not only from curricula but from textbooks, too. The appeal of astronomy to the imagination has not been used to draw students to the physical sciences. The intimate relationship between physics, chemistry, math, and astronomy has not been stressed. Now that the standards are promulgated, it is up to us as astronomers and educators to provide interesting material in various forms so that teachers choose to teach it under the rubrics adopted. We must now make the most of our opportunities.

The National Science Education Standards are available for sale from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Avenue, NW, Box 285, Washington, DC 20055. Call 800-624-6242 or 202-334-3313.

This is a longer version of the content standards that apply to astronomy, aside from the straightforward physics ones (like gravity):


Objects in the Sky -- The sun, moon, stars, clouds, birds, planes have observable, describable motions & properties. The sun provides the light and heat necessary to maintain the earth's temperature.

Changes in the Earth and Sky -- Objects in the sky have patterns of change/movement; ex. solar motion, lunar motion and phases.


Earth's History -- Earth history is occasionally affected by asteroid/comet collisions.

Earth in the Solar System -- Solar system has nine planets, their moons, asteroids, comets; sun, an average star, is central. Solar system objects are in regular, predictable motion; motions explain the day, year, phases of moon, seasons, and eclipses. Gravity keeps planets in orbit around sun; gravity holds us to earth and causes tides. Sun is major source of energy for phenomena on earth's surface; cause of seasons.


The Origin and Evolution of the Earth System -- Solar system formed from disk of gas/dust 4.6 billion years ago.

The Origin and Evolution of the Universe -- Basics of big bang theory. Light elements clumped into stars; galaxies are gravitationally bound clusters of stars, form most of visible mass in universe. Stars produce energy from nuclear reactions, primarily fusion. Processes in stars lead to formation of all elements.

Jay M. Pasachoff is Professor and Chair of the Department of Astronomy, Williams College, Williamstown, MA 01267. This article was taken from a presentation made at the APS meeting in April, 1997. It has also appeared in the Newsletter of the American Astronomical Society