John L. Hubisz
I'm firmly convinced that the key to scientific literacy
in this country lies in the Middle Schools (called "Jr. High" in
some places.) Part of the problem with the poor textbooks and the poor
preparation of teachers at this level lies with us, and we have to
do something about it. Let me suggest something from my own experience.
Many years ago I got a frantic call from a mother
whose 5th grader was having trouble in school. Apparently he was very
bright and extremely advanced in science and mathematics, but didn't
want to do anything in his other subjects. He was very disruptive in
school and the teachers didn't know what to do with him. I suggested
that she bring him out to the college after school on Mondays and Wednesdays
and leave him with me in my laboratory and pick him up by 8:45. I kept
him busy with puzzles and problems and books and got him to help setting
up and taking down labs. He enjoyed talking and working with my students.
He even served as a good lab assistant. He certainly wasn't a bother
and his troubles at school disappeared.
later his mother told me that she was taking both boys to San Francisco
for a week while her husband attended a conference and wanted to know
where she might take them. I immediately recommended the Exploratorium.
I suggested other places if she could get them away from the Exploratorium.
She couldn't and didn't. On returning the first thing that she wanted
to know was how we could get a hands-on museum for Galveston. She did
the work. She got board members from all the right places, got the
Rosenberg Library to donate space for a monthly lecture series, and
arranged for incorporation of "Science, Inc." Besides the
lecture series (always packed even for Saturday morning talks), we
had summer programs for children (so oversubscribed that even with
extra sessions added we couldn't handle all those who wanted to take
part). We also got the high school science fairs started again after
a lapse of many years. We got small grants to build hands-on equipment
from Exploratorium plans that were then cycled through the schools
and we even got a building for a year, but that's another story.
Some time later I was attending a meeting in a building
that was the #1 tourist attraction (next to the beach itself) on the
Island. During the break I took advantage of the "free admission" to
wander about the building. I passed by a room where another group was
meeting and could hear that they were talking about education. I slipped
in. The attendees were almost all women and they were principals and
assistant principals for the most part. At that point the discussion
was about inviting speakers to the elementary schools. One woman expressed
concern that they wouldn't be able to get scientists to come to elementary
schools. I got the moderator's attention and pointed out that I had
been running the lecture series at the Rosenberg Library for some time
now and no scientist had ever refused to come and talk. Scientists
love to talk about their work and it allows them to sit back and think
about their work in a wider context. I mentioned that I had talked
to kindergartners, Cub Scouts, service organizations, and just about
every grade level about physics. I said that I would be glad to help
get speakers and left my card with the moderator and went back to my
Two weeks later I got a call from a school principal
who had heard that I would be willing to help improve science and mathematics
in elementary schools and would I come out to her school. Not quite
what I had said I would be willing to do, but I agreed. Apparently
the school board was concerned that while the school scored 2-3 grades
above the national average in recent tests in most subjects they were
2-3 grades below the national average in science and mathematics. She
wanted help in science and mathematics at all grade levels (K-6). I
didn't know what to do so I started rummaging around storage spaces,
talking to teachers, talking to classes about what they were doing,
and so on. Requests for me to talk to classes increased so much that
the principal had to set up a sign-up sheet for teachers to make specific
requests. Each Wednesday I would get a call listing the classes that
I would visit on Friday and the topic that the class was studying.
It was a lot of fun and the students had great questions. I opened
boxes of science equipment that I had found at the school and did demonstrations
or more often got the students to do experiments. Realizing that there
were no competitions in either mathematics or science like the ones
that they had in most of their other subjects I designed a Physics
Faire for students in grades K-6.
I made up simple rules and discussed them in all the
classes. I trained judges in techniques for asking questions and made
certain that parents and others were not allowed in the area while
judging was going on and two of the questions had to be "How much
help did you have?" and "What question were you trying to
answer with your experiment? "Physics (capital "P")
was defined as "natural philosophy" and there were four categories
for entrants to choose from: biology, chemistry, geology, and physics
(small "p"). The first Faire was very successful. The librarian
declared that the library had never been used so much. A nearby elementary
school asked to be included for the next year and they were and we
had our first inter-school Faire held for the winners at all grade
levels. Within three years we had 23 schools including home-schoolers
(slightly modified rules) and over 300 entrants taking part in the
countywide Physics Faire.
Within four years the original school scored 2.5-3
grade levels above the national average in science and mathematics
in the same tests that started the project. I met many of the students
over the nine years that I was directly involved with the Faire who
credited their interest in science with the Faire. It continues with
a former assistant of mine who went on to get a master's degree in
physics and who is now a high school physics teacher.
None of this was planned. We can't tell what efforts
might be rewarded, but we have to try. Become aware of the materials
that can help Middle School teachers (e.g., Powerful Ideas in Physical
Science from the AAPT and Enhanced Science Helper CD from
the Learning Team.) Donate a CD or a set of PIPS materials through
your local PTA. Visit your local Middle School. Volunteer.
Hubisz is President of the AAPT.
He is on the faculty of the Physics Department, North Carolina State University,
Raleigh NC 27695-8202.