FEd December 1997 Newsletter - Browsing Through the Journals

December 1997



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Browsing Through the Journals

Thomas D. Rossing

Elementary school students in the United States do well in science in the lower grades, but their achievements drop off sharply in later grades, according to a note in the 13 June issue of Science. These findings, from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), have led science educators to conclude that the good performance of students in the lower grades is due more to what happens outside the classroom than inside. Educational television, science magazines for young readers, and science museums may be giving U.S. children a boost over their international peers. While the fourth grade science curriculum in the U.S. looks similar to those in other countries, says William Schmidt of Michigan State University, by eighth grade they look quite different. While most of the rest of the world studies algebra and geometry, many U.S. students are still reviewing arithmetic.

U.S. scientists can perhaps take some comfort from the fact that research budgets are suffering in the rest of the world as well. In an effort to eliminate an $18.5 billion budget deficit, the Russian government announced that it will slash the budget of the Russian Foundation for Basic Research by 55%, according to another article in the 13 June issue of Science. The budget of the Russian academy of Sciences will be cut by 25%, a smaller amount because much of its spending is on salaries. Elsewhere in this same issue is the news that Japan's Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto wants to pare the budget deficit by cutting spending. The council's recommendation is to raise the science promotion fund by only 5% (as compared to 8% this year), while many nonscience areas are targeted for budget cuts of up to 10%. How different the approach is to deficit cutting in Russia, Japan, and the United States!

A baseball that clocks itself is being marketed by the Rawlings Sporting Goods Co., according to a note in the September 1997 issue of IEEE Spectrum. Called the Radar Ball, the ball incorporates an omnidirectional accelerometer, which starts a timer upon release from the pitcher's throwing arm and shuts it off when the ball hits the catcher's mitt. One model is set for standard pitching distance, 60.5 feet, and another for Little League pitching distance, 46 feet. The Radar Ball is not recommended for game use. Although the internal components can withstand the impact of a bat, it is not likely that the liquid-crystal display would hold up if struck directly.

The title of an article in the May issue of Journal of College Teaching "The 'Old Dogs' Project" attracted my attention, since I certainly qualify for that category. The arcane title of the project, the work of 7 experienced teachers at George Mason University, supports the notion that "old dogs" (teachers with many years of experience), can learn new tricks. Some of these "new tricks" which are a part of modern pedagogy are the use of student projects, Socratic dialogues, at-home experiments, electronic mail, computer software, role playing, and cooperative learning. However, the authors caution us that "in our desire to utilize the latest pedagogical approaches, we may overlook some of the simpler techniques that have become almost second nature to many experienced teachers." One of the most underutilized methods of improving teaching effectiveness is faculty-peer evaluation. In the "old dogs" project, the seven experienced (tenured) teachers from different disciplines agreed to attend one week's worth of classes in their colleagues' courses to evaluate and criticize each other in a systematic and "no holds barred" manner. Apparently the participants judged the project to be very successful.

An interesting report on the International Conference on Undergraduate Physics Education (ICUPE), held at College Park, Md., July 31-August 3, 1997, appears in the April 1997 issue of the International Newsletter on Physics Education. The conference, attended by approximately 280 physicists from 28 countries, was organized around three themes: The undergraduate physics major as a passport to the workplace; Physics in the service of science and engineering students; and the preparation of school teachers.

While the numbers vary from nation to nation, it is generally true that only a small fraction of the students who take the calculus-level introductory physics course go on to major in physics and only a small fraction of the students who major in physics go on to earn a PhD in physics (in the United States, the numbers are 1 of 33 and 1 of 7, respectively). The report reminds us that the needs of the majority of students who enter the workplace with their physics baccalaureate are often not explicitly considered in either course or curricular design.

Representatives from many countries reported dropping enrollments in physics, coinciding with a changing social environment to which physics must adapt. A change in attitude about what a physicist is and what a physicist does is needed. Pedagogical changes are also called for. Research into the learning process points out the effectiveness of active teaching/learning, which anticipate the work environment that most physics majors will enter upon graduation. Proceedings of the ICUPE will be published.

"Computers in Education: A Brief History" by Andrew Molnar, former Applications of Advanced Technologies Director at NSF, appears in the June 1997 issue of Technological Horizons in Education. Although computers appeared on the scene more than 50 years ago, the era of computers in education is little more than 35 years old, dating from the PLATO project at the University of Illinois in 1959. In 1963, John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz (Dartmouth) transformed the role of computers in education from primarily a research activity to an academic one by developing an easy-to-use language called BASIC. In the late 1960s, NSF supported the development of 30 regional computing networks which included 300 institutions of higher education and some secondary schools. The economy, science, technology, and education are highly interrelated, the author concludes. Competitiveness depends not only on the discovery of new innovations but the speed at which that knowledge is transmitted through our educational systems

Another article in the June issue of THE looks to the future. Alfred Bork writes about "The Future of Computers and Learning." A major problem today is the increasing tendency to confuse information with learning, the author cautions. This is particularly a problem with the use of the World Wide Web in learning. It is information, not problem solving and creativity, that is most easily tested. A strong push with technology in education is toward more and more equipment. The author, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of developing highly interactive technology. The conversation between and the computer must be in English or another natural language; the widespread use of pointing has led to less interactive software than we had 20 years ago. Furthermore, the computer must maintain information about each student over long periods of time, even when students move around from country to country. Materials to be used by millions (or billions) of students can be inexpensive even though development costs are high (he suggests a cost of $25,000 per hour of learning material).

Students are turning from the sciences to the arts because they want to achieve personal fulfilment rather than develop a career according to sociologists at the Social Research Institute in Denmark. A survey of students 16-18 years of age found that only 15% of science students strongly subscribed to the idea that science has cultural value while 34% subscribed to a literary cultural ideal, according to a note in the August 1997 issue of Physics World.

Software teaching packages that include simulations are discussed in "Simulations for students" in the July issue of Physics World. Among the products discussed are Albert (Germany and UK), CUPLE (USA), CUPS (USA and UK), PEARLS (USA) and StoMP (UK). Although some people worry that with the introduction of computer-based teaching materials, "external forces may be conspiring to produce an education system with limited human contact," the authors are convinced that these forces will not prevail.

The Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, planned for Needham, Mass. By the year 2001, will have a new education philosophy based on the research and curriculum promoted by NSF, according to an article in the August 1997 issue of Institute, a news supplement to IEEE Spectrum. "The U.S. loses 40 percent of freshman admits by the end of their sophomore year, not because they can't handle the material but because they experience little or no engineering project work and become discouraged," according to NSF Acting Deputy Director and IEEE President-Elect Joseph Bordogna. Olin Foundation President Lawrence Milas agrees. "Engineers general get trained in too narrow a specialty," he said. The Olin Foundation has designated $200 million to build the new engineering college.

According to new plans for restructuring of ministries, Japan will create a single Ministry for Culture, Education, Science and Technology, according to an article in Nature, 28 August 1997. The new ministry merges the present Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture with the Science and Technology Agency (STA). Some observers fear that because the education ministry's preoccupation with school education, integrating the STA into the ministry of education could overshadow science and technology. Others see the merger making science and technology policy in Japan more efficient and effective.