FEd August 1998 Newsletter - Browsing through the Journals

August 1998



Previous Newsletters

Current Issue

Contact the Editor

Browsing Through the Journals

Thomas D. Rossing

"Few gold stars for precollege education" by Constantine Anagnostopoulos and Lauren Williams in the April issue of IEEE Spectrum is another article on the sad state of technical literacy in the United States. In 1957 the USSR jolted us out of our complacency by sending the first ever space satellite into orbit. Great efforts to improve K-12 education got under way, but to little avail. Now in the first international comparisons made among nationalities in the 15 years after Sputnik, U. S. Students fared among the worst on mathematics and science tests. U.S. 12th grade students are again at the back of the pack, surpassing only Cyprus and South Africa. Long ago, the goal of public education was to prepare a few individuals-future leaders, managers, engineers, physicians, lawyers, and other professionals-to use their minds well. For most schools, the goal was to teach basic citizenship plus the limited skills needed in an economy that demanded more willing hands than active minds. To join today's workforce, on the other hand, all young people must develop the capacity to think critically, solve problems creatively, work in teams, and use technology effectively.

Uri Haber-Schaim, one of the developers of the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) course in physics in the 1950s, compares the reform movements in physics then and now in a thought-provoking article "Reform in Science Education: Then and Now" in the May issue of The Physics Teacher. His recollections of meetings during 1956 and 1957 are supported by notes taken by Laura Fermi, who was invited to attend as an educated lay person. The results of these early meetings were not intended to become public documents on what should be done, he points out, but rather to serve as guidelines for what was going to be done. In contrast, the national reports and the State Frameworks of today are statements of what should be done and contain most everything that has been said before. "There is no evidence in the National Standards that the time needed to learn the suggested content was ever considered." The PSSC project, he reminds us, was a joint effort of university and high-school teachers. It took physicists with a thorough command of the field to develop a new structure and new approaches; it took competent teachers to test the materials in the classroom and to report back the results. To date, on the other hand, the National Standards and State Frameworks leave the development of curriculum as "an exercise for the reader." This is not an oversight; there is currently a disdain for a national curriculum. The best way to avoid poor science instruction, he suggest, is to define a core science program which will allow a reasonable amount of material to be added. All students should be tested on the core topics, and schools would be given the choice of optional areas for which suitable tests are available.

Separated by Sex: A Critical Look at Single-Sex Education for Girls, a report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), is reviewed in the May/June issue of NSTA Reports. The report, which summarizes a roundtable discussion held at AAUW, can be ordered for $12.95 by calling 800-225-9998. Most contributors seem to agree that girls excel more often in science and math in girls-only schools than in coeducational schools. However, part of the difference may be due to the fact that attending a single-sex school constitutes a commitment to learning. This increases the chances for success, especially for disadvantaged students.

The Institute of Physics (UK) is conducting a radical rethink of physics for 16-19 year olds to attract more young people to the subject, according to an article "Attracting teenagers to physics" in the February issue of Physics World. To make physics courses more attractive to students, curricula must be updated; courses must give a better picture of how physics is used in the real world (communications, materials science, engineering and medicine, for example). More than a hundred physicists are now involved in working groups on varies aspects of the initiative.

A guest editorial "The Science Wars" by Roger Newton in the April issue of American Journal of Physics warns us about the danger to science from the social contructivists, because those they teach "will become future teachers of our young, legislators who write laws and dispense funds touching on science, voters who will elect them, and jury members who may have to make life or death decisions by judging scientific evidence." The active pursuers of the constructivist program are mostly sociologists and philosophers who make it their business to study the practice of science.

"Small Group Instruction in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology" is the title of an article by James Cooper and Pamela Robinson in the May issue of Journal of College Science Teaching. Although more research is clearly needed, preliminary evidence indicated that cooperative, small group procedures can enhance achievement, liking of science and math, critical thinking, and retention. This technique may be particularly effective for women and minority students. There is also evidence that cooperative techniques may increase the likelihood that bright students who historically avoid science, math, and technology courses may be attracted to cooperatively taught courses. A survey of 340 NSF project directors indicated that of 13 possible innovations in undergraduate teaching, students working in teams was ranked the highest.

Many physicists will change direction several times during their working lives or even transform their careers completely. Stephen Rosen examines why some people are better equipped than others to make a move in an article "How healthy is your career?" in the May issue of Physics World. Rosen mentions several "career-change champions, " such as Nathan Myrhvold who began with a PhD in theoretical physics, worked in cosmology with Stephen Hawking and is now chief technology officer at Microsoft. On the other hand, sociologist , economist, and author Thorstein Veblen noticed that the more advanced education we receive, the more unable we are to achieve practical results and the less versatile we become. Veblen called this "trained incapacity." Among the hallmarks of career-change champions: they work hard and play hard; they enjoy stretching their talents; they believe that the harder they work, the luckier they get; they lead full and balanced lives. The author includes a 13-item career well-being inventory in the article.