FEd April 1999 Newsletter - Haase Letter

April 1999



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Why Don't We Do This More Often?

David G. Haase

Several years ago the national laboratories instituted K-12 science/mathematics/technology outreach programs. Their purpose was to translate the science of the labs to the teachers and students in a way that would enhance K-12 education and encourage the next generation of students to study science. Examples of these Centers are the Fermilab Education Center, and the CEBAF BEAMS program. The programs cover all the science at the lab and include staff members whose prime functions are to link the science expertise of the lab to the needs of K-12 science education.

My question is: "Why don't university science departments or colleges do the same thing? Why don't the academic science departments put more coordinated interdisciplinary effort into K-12 outreach?" We have the same motivations as the laboratories to improve K-12 and to let the public know about our science. The universities surely have a bigger stake in K-12 because we will teach those students some day in our service courses. We will hope to recruit some of them into our disciplinary majors. Maybe we could also lure some into careers in science teaching. K-12 outreach introduces us to our future students and helps us link our curricula to their high school science courses. By making a sustained contribution to K-12 science we earn the right to be heard in the debates on education decisions of our region or state.

One shining example of a university-wide science outreach project is the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley, perhaps the largest science and mathematics resource center in the US. On a far smaller scale, eight years ago our College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences at NC State University established The Science House, a center which has the mission to work with K-12 teachers to emphasize the use of hands-on learning activities in science and mathematics. Building from existing science department outreach programs we annually reach 600 teachers and 20,000 students in about half of the counties in our large state. Our eight teaching staff members and several associated university faculty provide teacher training, school science demonstration programs, summer camps and Saturday academies, and extensive laboratory equipment distribution programs, especially to the many rural schools in North Carolina. We cover physics; chemistry; math; and marine, earth and atmospheric sciences; and collaborate with the biological sciences and science education faculty. We are a full service K-12 science outreach center that is in daily contact with schools, students and teachers.

It is true that many science departments are involved with K-12 science, but most outreach projects from university departments are based in one science and serve a limited number of students and teachers. Sometimes a single faculty member has made outreach a priority and is the "designated outreach person" for the science department. But K-12 science is not split into departments. The high school chemistry teacher may teach physics or math as well. The middle school teacher teaches everything. Our compartmentalized university structure is not a good fit to K-12 science and math. The science departments have to be involved and work together - even to the point of collaboration with the math and education departments!

Although there are notable exceptions, an active research faculty member usually has neither the time nor the expertise to make a lasting impact on K-12 education or to reach students and schools outside his or her immediate geographical area. The scientist has little time to work out the politics of school systems or curricular issues. A scientist who tries to work on K-12 education without assistance risks wasting time and producing negative results. It is, however, important that such faculty be able to contribute in some way in K-12 education.

The advantage of an interdisciplinary science outreach program is that it makes the most efficient and effective use of the resources of the science faculty to support K-12 education. By pooling our programs we can afford to operate year-round projects, not just summer teacher institutes. We can hire and train teaching specialists whose job it is to facilitate the connections among the schools and the university faculty. We can translate the science of the university faculty into lessons that fit the K-12 curricula. We can make connections to the state and local educational systems that are far stronger and longer lasting than the connections of a single faculty member. These connections build the partnerships needed to obtain competitive external funding for K-12 programs. To be effective, K-12 outreach should be as knowledgeable, scholarly and as well-documented as scientific research. An interdisciplinary outreach center can fill these functions.

If we are to preserve physics in K-12 we physicists must collaborate with the other sciences. Only 10 - 15% of students now take high school physics. That number will never improve if we do not support the chemistry, biology, earth science and mathematics courses and the teachers that provide the future physics students.

We have found, as have others, that interdisciplinary themes lure students rather than ideas from one discipline. Like everyone else we are very concerned about interesting students from groups under-represented in science (females, minorities) in studying science and mathematics. One of our high school student programs - built on themes such as Sports Science, Chaos and Fractals, Imaging in Science, and Global Change - has attracted equal numbers of females and males. Our Imhotep Academy for middle school students targets math and writing skills as much as physics and chemistry. In interdisciplinary programs we can show how the physics plays an important part of any science.

The major obstacle to effective K-12 outreach is lack of time and money, but the motivations are many. As part of a land grant university we are motivated to support education just as much as our soil science department is motivated to support farming. The recruiting of students is important and supporting K-12 education is always good public relations. The Science House has benefited from the continuing support from our Dean and from many partnerships to obtain external funding.

Interdepartmental/intercollege rivalry can be an obstacle. There are many cases of lack of respect or cooperation among the science and education departments in universities. They are two cultures having different but inter-twined goals. At NC State we have found that a strong collaboration with the education faculty is absolutely necessary if we are to truly improve and sustain K-12 science education.

Our own physics academic culture limits serious, effective K-12 collaboration. Outreach may not produce tenurable research or big research overhead payments, but it is more easily appreciated by the public than a Physical Review Letter. However, K-12 science outreach is a field worthy of our time, resources and our intellectual efforts, without us having to discard our credentials as scientists.

So I return to my original question. "Why don't the academic science departments put more coordinated and sustained effort into K-12 outreach?" An interdisciplinary science outreach program from a university is an efficient and effective vehicle for the university to contribute to K-12 education. Through its collaborations inside and outside of the university it can produce the sustained programs needed to produce real change in K-12. Through collaboration we physicists can present our science to more students and make a stronger contribution to education than we would by merely concentrating on the minority of the students who end up taking high school physics.

David G. Haase is Professor of Physics and Director of The Science House at North Carolina State University. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the Forum on Education.