FEd April 1996 Newsletter - Browsing Through the Journals

April 1996



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Browsing Through the Journals

by Thomas Rossing

Although discrimination against women in the sciences has been outlawed in the United States for more than two decades, disparities remain in several areas and fields, report Gerhard Sonnert and Gerald Holton in "Career Patterns of Women and Men in the Sciences" in the Jan./Feb. 1996 issue of American Scientist. The article summarizes results of Project Access, which focused on a group of female and male scientists who had the same kind of auspicious starting positions as they began their careers as professional scientists. In biology, virtually no differences appeared between the academic career progress of men and women; however in the physical sciences, mathematics and engineering (lumped together, as usual!), a significant gap separated the average academic ranks achieved by women and men, especially among younger faculty.

Some preliminary results from the evaluation of the Introductory University Physics Project (IUPP) carried out during 1991-92 are reported in two papers by R. Di Stefano in the January 1996 issue of American Journal of Physics. One conclusion, not specific to the IUPP course, is that demonstration experiments in class are a valuable learning experience. (Typical comment: "I think I pay attention more if something is being shown to me rather than told to me.")

The December issue of The Physics Teacher includes 18 more "physics trading cards." The 1995 all-stars include: Luis Alvarez, Hans Bethe, Ludwig Boltzmann, J. Willard Gibbs, Johannes Kepler, Maria Goeppert Mayer, Jules-Henri Poincare, Isidor Rabi, Lord Rayleigh, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Benjamin Franklin, George Gamow, Lise Meitner, Albert Michelson, Wolfgang Pauli, Charles Townes, Hermann Weyl, and Chien-Shiung Wu. A set of 18 trading cards previously appeared as a centerfold in the December 1991 edition.

Regular readers of this column know that one of my favorite editorial writers is Clifford Swartz, editor of The Physics Teacher. In the November 1995 issue is an editorial entitled "First, the Answer." His suggestion for solving physics problems: first, write down the [approximate] answer. This approach to physics problems is the same as we use in everyday life, he points out. If you go to the store to buy a new coat, you figure out in advance the price that you will pay, probably to within 25%. Working a physics problem should be like buying a coat. "Within a factor of 2 or 10, what would be a reasonable value?" An editorial entitled "The Teacher-Centered Lecture Method" in the October 1995 issue defends physics lectures, which have been under attack from so many quarters recently. Of course, he defends good lectures, not bad lectures. "A physics lecture should not be a means of transmitting facts from teacher to student. For that, we have textbooks, which students should learn to study." The lecture, rather, should do something that most texts can't -- demonstrate an attitude, whip up enthusiasm, show a love of the subject. A good lecture should center around one "powerful idea," should include an appropriate demonstration experiment, should include pauses during which students can discuss a problem.

Three articles in the November issue of Journal of College Science Teaching summarize talks on introductory science courses presented at an NSTA meeting in March 1995. "The Nature and Process of Science: A Goal-Focused Approach to Teaching Science Literacy" by Elliott Hartman and Nathan Dubowsky discusses courses that carefully define science literacy, designate science literacy as the primary goal, and direct all learning activities toward achieving this primary goal. "Teaching the Process of Science Using Risk and Folklore as Examples" is the title of the second article by biologist Florence Juillerat. An interdisciplinary unit on folklore might use folklore to establish differences between science and nonscience, for example. Finally, Lynda Micikas discusses the "why" and "how" of teaching science in a paper entitled "Ask 'Why?' Before Considering 'How?'" Reasons why students should learn about the nature and processes of science include these: learning to think investigatively and clearly is a useful life skill; and learning about the methods of science can help correct misconceptions that people have about it.

In the Dec./Jan. issue of Journal of College Science Teaching is an article by Diane Bunce entitled "The Quiet Revolution in Science Education-Teaching Science the Way Students Learn." The author points out that students are not easily able to access their knowledge or even properly encode it in memory if it is unconnected both to their past experience and to other concepts in the course. An important point is to establish a need to know within the learner. Such needs might involve setting a scenario from stories in the newspaper.

The Harvard Commencement Day address by President Neil Rudenstine, entitled "The Imagination of Well-Prepared Minds" appears in the October issue of American Journal of Physics. "Research and advanced education are inescapably linked to one another," Rudenstine reminds us. "Neither can flourish without the other." He recalled that Sir Alexander Fleming, speaker at the Harvard Commencement 50 years ago described the role of chance in his own discovery of penicillin. However, fortuity alone does not produce new knowledge; rather significant new knowledge depends on the rigorous work and imagination of prepared minds. "The unprepared mind cannot see the outstretched hand of opportunity," Fleming reminds us.

"Most people who obtain a degree in physics do not end up as physicists," Marc Brodsky reminds us in an editorial "Making the Case for Physics" in the Spring 1995 issue of Radiations of Sigma Pi Sigma. Out of 20,000 technical employees at Boeing, nearly 1600 have at least one degree in physics (although fewer than 100 belong to one of the AIP member societies and thus probably do not consider themselves to be professional physicists). Apparently Boeing finds that a physics degree has prepared its employees for careers as engineers, managers, and technicians. Brodsky's conclusion is that the case for physics has to be reestablished. Physics must be acknowledged as a discipline that is just as effective at helping the United States achieve economic security as it was for bringing the nation military security during and after World War II. "If I can convince the physics faculty that physics is the best darned way to prepare students for the uncertainties of the job market, then I will have succeeded as a leader in my profession," comments Brodsky, who is Executive Director of the American Institute of Physics.