Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Fall 2005 Newsletter

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Thomas Rossing


      "Do US high schools dedicated to science generate future academics or burnt-out whiz kids?" is a question addressed in a news feature in the 16 June issue of Nature. There are now some 86 science magnet schools nationwide, which select gifted children with an aptitude for science. Australia, Jordan, Israel, Korea, Thailand, Japan and the United Kingdom have set up similar science-focused schools. The two high schools focused on are Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia and the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) in Aurora. Competition inevitably arises when over-achieving students are placed under one roof, but most teachers promote group, rather than individual, efforts. Neither high school calculates class ranks, and there are no valedictorians. Most students interviewed were positive about their experiences. About 40% of alumni earn a graduate degree, with healthcare and computer professions as the top career fields.

      "There is a myth in academia that people in universities work the hardest. There is also a myth that good students become professors and everyone else goes off to work in the real world. Also not true," according to Steve Koonin, physicist, as quoted in the September issue of Physics World. Koonin took leave of his position as provost at Caltech to become chief scientist for BP. However, business people are sometimes astounded at the way he is able, as a physicist, to come to conclusions with the minimum of reasoning.

      "Will today's students learn important science lessons and acquire the necessary job skills by playing video games, or will the role information technology plays in 21st-century science education evolve in ways that we cannot yet envision?" is a question raised in a front-page story in the July/August issue of NSTA Reports. Susan Patrick, director of educational technology for the Department of Education is quoted as saying, "The paper-based system does not make any sense to kids who are coming up in school. Is our educational system geared toward innovation? Do we want an 18th-century model or a 21st-century model for our schools? The 18th-century model is the one we have now."

      The first of three editorials on the state of engineering education appears in the May issue of Sound & Vibration. The author, a professor of mechanical engineering, extols the virtue of "hands-on" experience, which means designing and constructing one's own apparatus, sometimes individually, sometimes in small groups. In a typical project, students use CAD and other tools to design a mechanical system, complete with engineering drawings, which they then fabricate in the machine shop.

      "Manna from Heaven or 'Clickers' from Hell" is the title of an article in the July/August issue of Journal of College Science Teaching. Clicker technology, which is becoming popular in large lecture classes, refers to a computer-mediated, wireless response system that asks students to respond electronically to questions designed to stimulate discussion. A clicker system typically consists of three parts, small remote control-like devices used by students, receivers, and a program installed on the instructor's computer. Student clickers emit infrared signals that are picked by the receiver. In spite of many frustrations in getting the system up and running smoothly, the authors concluded that the positive outcomes far outweigh the negatives.

      Having a good mentor can determine the direction and probability of success for a young researcher, according to an article in the 21 July issue of Nature entitled "Learning to Mentor." Mentoring takes skill, and institutions are paying attention to mentoring post docs to develop their skills as teachers as well as researchers. Making the transition from having a mentor to being one is harder than one might think. Managing people, rather than experiments, is unfamiliar territory for many early-career scientists.

      Societal issues, such as global warming and stem cell research, now more than ever show why we must take the advice of novelist/physicist C. P. Snow and bridge the two cultures of the sciences and the humanities, according to an article in the September issue of Journal of College Science Teaching. George Ellis, the renowned humanitarian and physicist, refined Snow's vision by describing the need for three types of experts, researchers, generalists, and synthesizers, to address contemporary complex issues. Science education should encourage interdisciplinary collaboration among all three types of scholars.

      The October issue of Journal of Science Teaching features a set of articles on the use of case studies in science. The case method, which has long persisted in business, medical, and law schools, now promises to do the same in undergraduate science courses. Far and away the most popular tactic for many faculty when teaching a case is the method of "progressive disclosure," where the story is provided piecemeal to students who must act as detectives to solve the mystery. Students who become involved in case analysis and the construction of solutions to the problems raised are likely to remember them and become more confident in their own problem solving ability.

Thomas Rossing is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Physics at Northern Illinois University. He is a Fellow of ASA, AAAS, and IEEE as well as APS and edits the fall issue of the Forum on Education newsletter.

 

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