FEd August 1998 Newsletter - Whatever Happened to…? A look at educational programs from the recent past

August 1998



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Whatever Happened to…? A look at educational programs from the recent past

Sam Bowen

An interesting historical exercise would be to look up the September 1991 Physics Today and read some of the articles on the state of science, and especially physics, education in the country at the beginning of the 90's. This issue reflects a time in which the federal government was actively involved in supporting educational programs to improve science and mathematics education. In particular, Clifford Swartz' historical article is revealing. This column will examine two very effective programs invented by physicists and discuss some of the lessons which have been learned in these two, somewhat related programs. In the following Howard Goldberg's TIMS (Not TIMSS) Teaching Integrated Math and Science curriculum and Leon Lederman's Teacher's Academy for Math and Science (TAMS) will be examined.

TIMS: A Physicist's Solution for teaching math and science in elementary schools

In the mid-80's Howard Goldberg at the University of Illinois at Chicago started to design a science and mathematics program which was particularly effective for urban students. This program was called TIMS (for Teaching Integrated Math and Science) and was based on the twin foundations that "Science is Experimental" and "The Language of Science is Mathematics". A set of over 57 laboratory exercises was invented (for grades 1 through 8) which gave elementary students a structured experience studying very accessible problems.

The goal of each TIMS experiment is to find the relationship between two primary variables. There were four types of experiments: classification, frequency distribution, weak correlation, and strong correlation. As the children progressed through the grades the experiments shifted from classification and simple frequency distributions to more complicated frequency distributions and on to weak and strong correlation between the variables. Each laboratory study was structured in the same way, but was designed to fit each age group of students.

The student participation in the experiments was built around four steps:

  1. Drawing and labeling a picture of the experiment and study.
  2. Seting up a data table for the two primary variables.
  3. Graphing the data
  4. Asking and answering questions based on the experiment and possibly designing another.

The complete set of experiments were organized under the following categories: Classification, Frequency Distribution, Length, Area, Volume, Mass, Velocity and Acceleration, Inertia & Balanced Forces & Newton's Laws, and Work & Energy & Simple Machines. All of the experiments had captivating titles and were anticipated by the students. A typical experiment took about five, forty minute periods, typically carried out over one week. Teachers were to do at least one experiment per month each academic year.

In contrast to many other curricular efforts these laboratory exercises could stand alone without an additional textbook and the students learned scientific and mathematical thinking by carrying out the process listed above.

How successful was this program?

The success of the program depended critically on the teacher becoming well trained in the use of the materials and the mathematical and scientific background of the experiments. The program was tested in 13 schools over a four year period. Initially, a long and careful inservice training program in all of the experiments was given to the lead teachers from each school. These lead teachers were then to train their colleagues in their schools. When the data were collected during each year of the project the results were very positive. Doing the experiments increased the ability of the students to understand and solve mathematics problems. The improvement from year to year scaled linearly with the number of experiments done in the preceding year. The program seemed to have been effective for both low and high reading skill children. Compared to control groups the students who did larger numbers of experiments showed significant gains. The program demonstrated itself to be highly effective. Why is it not more widely adopted today?

What were the major problems encountered by the program?

The major problem encountered by the program was the amazingly large turnover of teaching and administrative staff in the schools and the even greater attrition of students in these urban area schools. The first problem was that the lead teachers who had received significant training in the math and science of these laboratories were soon regarded as mathematics and science experts and received better job offers at other schools. After four years of the program only half of the initial lead teachers remained. Similarly, only three of the original principals who had promised to support the program remained at the end of the four years. Among the other teachers in each building, the turnover of teachers who had been trained by the lead teachers also was large.

More striking was the turnover of students in these mostly urban schools. Over 25% of the students left the classroom each year. Out of the original 2835 students who took the first examination, only 837 completed all four years of the assessment examinations. Attempts to find these missing students in other schools were not productive because of the state of student records.

A second, more subtle problem became apparent as the program continued. School administrators and other teachers classified TIMS as a mathematics program and not a science program, since there were no lists of new terms and topics covered. Their major complaint was that there was no identifiable science content in the experiments. In other words, they could not list the topics covered in what they regarded as science. The pressure from this quarter to adopt more traditional science curricula was great.

This narrow classification of TIMS as a mathematics program was also adopted by staff at the federal funding agencies. They would not fund the continuation of the program as an integrated math and science program, but would support it only as a mathematics curriculum. Because of this decision the program evolved into a mathematics program with much of the same approach. The excellent, resulting curriculum is called Math TrailBlazers and is available from Kendall Hunt, (see below).

TIMS was used as a major part of the science training of teachers in schools by Leon Lederman's Teachers Academy of Math and Science. That application led to those schools showing significant building-wide average score increases in state of Illinois standardized tests. It seems that these experiments are an effective way of providing teachers and students with practice using the tools of science.

The complete set of the TIMS experiments and supporting documents are available on a CD from Kendall Hunt Publishers, which can be ordered at 1-800-542-6657 or examined on the publisher's website (http://www.kendallhunt.com).

The TIMS story has a number of lessons for physicists who would work in the schools and make a lasting change. Even with a curricular package of high quality and demonstrable effectiveness, the lack of knowledge of the nature of science by teachers and administrators can reduce the effectiveness of the program. Turnover and transience among staff and students requires a long term plan and recurring training of new staff for any effective educational program.