FEd April 1999 Newsletter - Browsing the Journals

April 1999



Previous Newsletters

Current Issue

Contact the Editor

Browsing the Journals

Thomas D. Rossing

"Long live the lecture" is the title of a lecture given by Pedro Goldman at the annual congress of the Canadian Association of Physicists and reprinted in the December issue of Physics World. Although many teachers insist that lectures are an antiquated method of teaching, he expresses the contrarian view that the traditional, straight-forward lecture remains both valuable and important. Some of his colleagues must agree, since they awarded him the association's medal for excellence in teaching.

"The biggest misconception about the lecture is that its main role is to deliver information to students." Students can obtain information from books. Two of the most important justifications for lectures are that they help to motivate and to inspire students. "Our primary role as teachers, after all, to communicate our enthusiasm for physics to our students." His guidelines for a successful lecture include respect for the students, flexibility, and a sense of humor.

A thought-provoking paper by Gerald Holton entitled "1948: The New Imperative for Science Literacy," presented at the 1998 annual meeting of AAAS, is reprinted in the December/January issue of Journal of College Science Teaching. In keeping with the theme of the session at which it was presented "Advocating Science Literacy: A History of the Future," Holton traces the imperative for scientific literacy from Plato to the present. In medieval universities, he reminds us, the curriculum had seven components, three of which were in mathematics and the sciences (arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy), and in the best private nineteenth-century colleges, science could take up to a third or more of the total curriculum. In that golden age, science was still thought to be part of culture, and the imperative for teaching it at all levels was part of the effort to shape the person into a cultivated citizen, regardless of the future career path.

That changed in the twentieth century, however, as scientists turned their attention to the education of future scientists and engineers. The GI Bill of Rights brought more than two million veterans of World War II into schools of higher education, and about a third did their studies in scientific fields. The average American had a positive attitude toward science and was eager to read science news. Educational leaders, such as James Conant, president of Harvard, championed general education, including natural science, for all students. Scientific literacy, in Conant's view, would not consist merely of knowing some facts or laws, but understand what he called the "tactics and strategy of science," an understanding of science that could best be acquired by studying examples of science in the making.

"Physics at the breakfast tableor waking up to physics" is the title of the 1998 Klopsteg Memorial Lecture by Sidney R. Nagel, printed in the January issue of American Journal of Physics. The Klopsteg lecture, honoring one of the pioneer physics teachers in the United States, is given at summer AAPT meetings. Nagel discusses such familiar things as coffee stains, flow of granular materials (such as sugar and salt), and the behavior of liquid droplets.

The number of PhDs in science and engineering granted by U.S. institutions fell from 27,230 in 1996 to 26,847 in 1997, according to the NSF's annual Survey of Earned Doctorates (www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/srs99406/start.cfm). Both the number and percentage of women are going up, however; they received almost 33% of the total in 1997 compared to 27% in 1996. The female share of engineering PhDs has plateaued at around 12%, while the number in science increases. The number of non-U.S. citizens receiving PhDs, which peaked at 10,542 in 1994, fell to 9202 in 1997.

An editorial entitled "Industry/Education Partnerships" in the October issue of THE (Technological Horizons in Education) Journal mentions several examples of successful partnerships, including Western Governors University (launched by grants from 18 states plus AT&T, Microsoft, Novell, IBM, Cisco, and others) and US West/National Education Association Teacher Network. Several other partnerships were aimed at supplying computing equipment to school districts in Ohio and New York.

A series of three editorials on Newton's laws by Cliff Swartz appear in the October, November and December issues of The Physics Teacher. The October editorial asserts that the role of Newton's first law is to establish a reference frame in which the second and third laws are consistent. The November editorial worries about Newton's second law and proposes methods of defining mass and setting up a force scale. The December editorial considers the third law, and reminds us that it is best characterized as being equivalent to the conservation of momentum, rather than to say that action equals reaction.

"Science under siege" is the title of an interesting Guest Comment by Hans Christian van Beyer in the November issue of American Journal of Physics. At the close of the most scientific of centuries, scientists have reason to feel a little like the hapless citizens of medieval Istanbul. Between the years 600 and 1100, it was successively besieged by the Persians, the Bulgars, and the Russians. However, today's science community is beset by three enemies at once: the combined forces of antiscience, pseudoscience and indifference to science. Of the three, he feels that indifference to science, which characterizes the attitude of nearly 100% of the population, is the most ominous. Although science affects the life of every human being, it does so indirectly. Science cannot command the kind of passion aroused by a soccer team, a dictator, or a rock group, because it is too abstract and cerebral to compete for attention in the modern world. In order to reach the public, he asserts, we must engage its feelings and passions by exposing our own. Contrary to everything we have been taught about scientific discourse, we must learn to express our feelings if we are to communicate more effectively with the public.