FEd April 1998 Newsletter - Browsing through the Journals

April 1998



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Browsing Through the Journals

Thomas D. Rossing

A thought-provoking guest comment by Alan Cromer in the December issue of American Journal of Physics raises some critical issues about what he calls the "science standards mania." He cites the Massachusetts Science and Technology Curriculum Framework (1995) as well as the National Research Council's National Science Education Standards (1995). The National standards, he reminds us, started out from the decidedly antiscience position that the standards would reflect the "postmodernist view of science" that "questions the objectivity of observations and the truth of scientific knowledge." He concludes that "the development of fanciful standards and frameworks unconstrained by consideration of time or sequencing has been a major disservice to science education."

Also in the December issue of American Journal of Physics is the lecture given by Millikan Medalist David Griffiths entitled "Is there a text in this class?" The author, a noted writer of physics textbooks, warns us that "a book, at best, is static and one dimensional, but a good lecture exploits the much richer resources afforded by the temporal domain." Although he acknowledges that students at his own Reed College, as well as elsewhere, show only slight improvement in their performance on such tests as the Hestenes Force Concept Inventory, he questions whether these results should be paramount in the current reform movement and "what we are (perhaps inadvertently) sacrificing when we teach to the Force Concept Inventory." He reminds us that most persons learn by the "spiral" approach, in which the same subject recurs again and again, and one's comprehension deepens with every pass.

"US women drop out of research more often than men, so that by the time they reach the end of the 'leaky pipeline'-from undergraduates through to faculty appointments-they are substantially under-represented. By contrast, ethnic minorities-African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians-tend not even to begin science studies, science writer Potter Wickware comments in the November 27 issue of Nature. According to NSF statistics, women account for only 22 per cent of scientists and engineers in the US labor force, while African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians (who collectively amount to more than a quarter of the population) account for only 6 per cent. Given the PhD glut, static levels of undergraduate enrollments and Federal research support, why should science be concerned about opening up a larger pool of applicants? The all-important reason says Caroline Kane, a Berkeley biochemist, is diversity of ideas. "People's life experiences and cultural antecedents are different, sometimes radically so, and these will affect choice of research problems. The result will be an expansion of creative breadth."

"Science Literacy and the U.S.Congress" is the title of a guest editorial in the Journal of College Science Teaching by Vernon J. Ehlers, U.S.Representative from Michigan and the first research physicist elected to Congress. He feels that "some aspects of our science education system provide excellent service to the students. Our graduate education programs mirror the preeminence of our academic research, although I am concerned that so many of our graduate students come from other countries. At the undergraduate level, we are not succeeding as well; this is particularly true for those not majoring in math, science , or engineering." Ehlers feels that we should focus our reform efforts on teacher preparation and teacher enhancement. "With over half of our K-12 teachers ready to retire in the next decade, we have a great opportunity to accelerate top-to-bottom reform of our education system." We need to have more undergraduate science courses that meet the needs of future K-12 teachers, he feels. Finally, he points out that scientists can have a positive influence by being involved in political life at the local and national levels. "I have been pleased by the efforts of many in the science community to become more involved, and there is evidence that Congress has an increasing appreciation of what is at stake as we strive for a technically literate society."

An editorial by Bernard Khoury in the December issue of AAPT's Announcer discusses the question "Physics: Content or Process?" "Ask a group of physicists to identify how best to improve physics education and they are likely to answer something like, 'Employ more teachers who know more physics.' Ask a similar question of a group ;of educationists and you are likely to hear something like, 'Employ more teachers who understand how students learn, inquiry based instruction, collaborative learning, constructivism, and authentic assessment." One group, he points out, feels that content is more important than process, while the other group feels that an undue focus on content overwhelms most students and that we need to pay more attention to how students learn.

A paper by John L. Koprowski on "Sharpening the Craft of Scientific Writing" in that same journal addresses another problem: how to improve student scientific writing. The author, in the Dept. Of Biology at Willamette University, has made his junior-senior course in general ecology a writing-intensive course. Early in the semester, the students write a laboratory manuscript in the standard scientific format (introduction, methods, results, discussion, and literature cited) based on data collected during a laboratory session. A second such manuscript is "peer reviewed" in double-blind fashion. Students evaluated two papers each and received points for each review. Koprowski acts as an editor, reviewing and commenting on the manuscript and also evaluating the quality of the reviews, responding to misleading comments, and finally supplying a grade on the manuscript and the review. Students had the option of rewriting the manuscript to incorporate the comments of the "editor" and the student reviewers.

The November/December issue of the U.S.Department of Education's Community Update has excerpts from the speech "What Really Matters in American Education" by U. S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley at the National Press Club in Washington. "The American people recognize that progress is only going to happen if we make sure that every child has mastered the basics...This is why 79 percent of all Americans support voluntary national tests according to the latest Wall Street Journal poll," he reminds us. Other needs, along with national tests in reading and math, are for "disciplined and drug-free schools, a greater investment in technology, and a growing recognition that taking the tough core courses pays off."