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
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
Ramon Lopez is Director of the APS Education Department.
Ed.: What, in your view, is meant by the term "reform" (in
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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