Browsing Through the Journals
Thomas D. Rossing
A thought-provoking guest comment by Alan Cromer in the December issue
of American Journal of Physics raises some critical issues about
what he calls the "science standards mania." He cites the Massachusetts Science
and Technology Curriculum Framework (1995) as well as the National
Research Council's National Science Education Standards (1995).
The National standards, he reminds us, started out from the decidedly antiscience
position that the standards would reflect the "postmodernist view
of science" that "questions the objectivity of observations and
the truth of scientific knowledge." He concludes that "the development
of fanciful standards and frameworks unconstrained by consideration of
time or sequencing has been a major disservice to science education."
Also in the December issue of American Journal of Physics is the
lecture given by Millikan Medalist David Griffiths entitled "Is there
a text in this class?" The author, a noted writer of physics textbooks,
warns us that "a book, at best, is static and one dimensional, but
a good lecture exploits the much richer resources afforded by the temporal
domain." Although he acknowledges that students at his own Reed College,
as well as elsewhere, show only slight improvement in their performance
on such tests as the Hestenes Force Concept Inventory, he questions whether
these results should be paramount in the current reform movement and "what
we are (perhaps inadvertently) sacrificing when we teach to the Force Concept
Inventory." He reminds us that most persons learn by the "spiral" approach,
in which the same subject recurs again and again, and one's comprehension
deepens with every pass.
"US women drop out of research more often than men, so that by the
time they reach the end of the 'leaky pipeline'-from undergraduates through
to faculty appointments-they are substantially under-represented. By contrast,
ethnic minorities-African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians-tend
not even to begin science studies, science writer Potter Wickware comments
in the November 27 issue of Nature. According to NSF statistics,
women account for only 22 per cent of scientists and engineers in the US
labor force, while African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians (who
collectively amount to more than a quarter of the population) account for
only 6 per cent. Given the PhD glut, static levels of undergraduate enrollments
and Federal research support, why should science be concerned about opening
up a larger pool of applicants? The all-important reason says Caroline
Kane, a Berkeley biochemist, is diversity of ideas. "People's life
experiences and cultural antecedents are different, sometimes radically
so, and these will affect choice of research problems. The result will
be an expansion of creative breadth."
"Science Literacy and the U.S.Congress" is the title of a guest
editorial in the Journal of College Science Teaching by Vernon J.
Ehlers, U.S.Representative from Michigan and the first research physicist
elected to Congress. He feels that "some aspects of our science education
system provide excellent service to the students. Our graduate education
programs mirror the preeminence of our academic research, although I am
concerned that so many of our graduate students come from other countries.
At the undergraduate level, we are not succeeding as well; this is particularly
true for those not majoring in math, science , or engineering." Ehlers
feels that we should focus our reform efforts on teacher preparation and
teacher enhancement. "With over half of our K-12 teachers ready to
retire in the next decade, we have a great opportunity to accelerate top-to-bottom
reform of our education system." We need to have more undergraduate
science courses that meet the needs of future K-12 teachers, he feels.
Finally, he points out that scientists can have a positive influence by
being involved in political life at the local and national levels. "I
have been pleased by the efforts of many in the science community to become
more involved, and there is evidence that Congress has an increasing appreciation
of what is at stake as we strive for a technically literate society."
An editorial by Bernard Khoury in the December issue of AAPT's Announcer discusses
the question "Physics: Content or Process?" "Ask a group
of physicists to identify how best to improve physics education and they
are likely to answer something like, 'Employ more teachers who know more
physics.' Ask a similar question of a group ;of educationists and you are
likely to hear something like, 'Employ more teachers who understand how
students learn, inquiry based instruction, collaborative learning, constructivism,
and authentic assessment." One group, he points out, feels that content
is more important than process, while the other group feels that an undue
focus on content overwhelms most students and that we need to pay more
attention to how students learn.
A paper by John L. Koprowski on "Sharpening the Craft of Scientific
Writing" in that same journal addresses another problem: how to improve
student scientific writing. The author, in the Dept. Of Biology at Willamette
University, has made his junior-senior course in general ecology a writing-intensive
course. Early in the semester, the students write a laboratory manuscript
in the standard scientific format (introduction, methods, results, discussion,
and literature cited) based on data collected during a laboratory session.
A second such manuscript is "peer reviewed" in double-blind fashion.
Students evaluated two papers each and received points for each review.
Koprowski acts as an editor, reviewing and commenting on the manuscript
and also evaluating the quality of the reviews, responding to misleading
comments, and finally supplying a grade on the manuscript and the review.
Students had the option of rewriting the manuscript to incorporate the
comments of the "editor" and the student reviewers.
The November/December issue of the U.S.Department of Education's Community
Update has excerpts from the speech "What Really Matters in
American Education" by U. S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley
at the National Press Club in Washington. "The American people recognize
that progress is only going to happen if we make sure that every child
has mastered the basics...This is why 79 percent of all Americans support
voluntary national tests according to the latest Wall Street Journal poll," he
reminds us. Other needs, along with national tests in reading and math,
are for "disciplined and drug-free schools, a greater investment
in technology, and a growing recognition that taking the tough core courses