FEd November 1994 Newsletter - Missionary Field Notes

November 1994



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Missionary Field Notes

Clifford Swartz

Your call has come. Perhaps you have a child in the class. Perhaps your college is forming an alliance with the local schools. Perhaps your company is making a goodwill gesture to the community. For some such reason, you have been invited to speak about physics to students in high school or elementary school. Now what?

You'd better make sure of what the school expects, and see if there's an overlap with what you expect. It may be that you've been invited to fill the opening in the assembly schedule because the village magician had to cancel. Can you bring your bed of nails? Are you being invited for show-and-tell, or to describe your specialty which is outside the standard curriculum, or to be a substitute teacher on some standard topic?

There's some justification for a little razzle-dazzle show-and-tell. The only scientist I ever met before college produced dry ice in my glove by flooding it with CO2 gas. I thought that was pretty neat, although I was only eight years old and didn't understand the science involved. I doubt that it had anything to do with my future interest in physics. Still, a lot of our colleagues take science shows on the road and apparently spark great interest in their school audiences. Unless the scientist dresses up like Dr. Wizard, the kids can find out that not all scientists are mad and can get a sense of the excitement and fun of science.

Even when entertainment is the chief ingredient of the visit, the students should be brought into the act. They can be the foils. The long- haired girl (or boy) can hold onto the Van de Graaff; the tallest student can drop two objects at the same time; the strongest student can try to pull apart the Magdeburg hemispheres. No matter what the purpose for your visit, don't lecture non-stop. The younger the audience, the shorter their attention span. On the other hand, don't require continual student activity. Get them out of their seats, and then get them back for awhile.

A lot of physics demonstrations are portable, safe, and entertaining. Before settling on just entertainment, however, consider the point of your visit. What does the teacher expect to happen, and what do you expect to accomplish? Never mind what the students expect. Students do not think of school activities as being any of their business.

A safe rule for any one teaching session, whether for young or old, is that only one idea can be explored. You must leave time at the beginning to describe that idea explicitly, then demonstrate the idea, and then leave time at the end to tell the audience what you have demonstrated. If the main idea is to show students that physics can be fun, then plan your activities so that both you and they have fun. However, you are in a school during school time and there should be more substantial results than just fun and games during one hour. Is your point that professional physicists are human and have fun? That might be a valuable moral, but not many of these students will be professional physicists, no matter how much fun you have had. Is your point that the students will have fun studying more science--perhaps enrolling in physics? Better talk this over with the science teachers. Their courses may be no fun at all. If your visit is intended to be a recruiting drive, you should be very familiar with what you are selling, and then make the pitch explicitly.

Perhaps your visit is intended to supplement the regular syllabus because your specialty is related to the topic the students have been studying. Now lots of prior consultation is called for. The teacher should tell you in detail what the class has been doing. Read their textbook on the subject. You will want to use symbols familiar to them, and take only small steps beyond what they have already learned. Find out in advance if the teacher or book have been dogmatic about explanations with which you may not agree, and where you must use some diplomacy. (Another way to view this is ...).

If you really intend that your visit should be for teaching, then the elements of teaching must be in place. The students must prepare, they must interact, they must study, they must demonstrate that they have learned. In the early days of Brookhaven Laboratory, one of the local schools exploited the fact that many parents worked at the Lab. About half of the fifth and sixth grade science classes consisted of week-long projects involving a lab visit. First, a father-or-mother-scientist would visit the class after prior discussion with the teacher. There would be a combination of show-and-tell and student activity, leading to a question or problem for the students to read about and talk about. Then there was a visit to a particular activity at the Lab (not a general sight-seeing expedition!). The problem was further demonstrated or explored, now with real world equipment. For the next few days after the visit the class discussed what they had seen, made models, wrote reports, and usually had a test. This many-faceted activity took more effort on the part of everyone, but we thought that the students learned more. They certainly worked harder. They also had more fun.

There's another stricture about missionary effort. You not only have to know your gospel; you have to know the heathen. There is no need for you to be familiar with the current and local fads of the students. You are an outsider and they will not expect it. But you should be aware of the more universal characteristics of children and their learning possibilities. Consider how you would teach six-month children to walk. You would not lecture, or demonstrate, or give multiple-choice exams. Even beating the kids will do no good. The only thing to do is to let them mull it over for six months and then they will walk. Even as there are obvious developmental stages in physical abilities, so too are there stages of concept development. The nature of these was explored and described by Jean Piaget and they are known by his name, though to a large extent they are part of the common wisdom of dealing with children. A century and a half ago, Joseph Henry described the stages and the implications for science instruction. For our purposes, the most important stage involves the ability of students to use symbolic reasoning, such as algebra. Our school culture assumes that students develop this ability during early adolescence, but probably two-thirds of a standard population cannot understand algebra by the time they are eighteen. On the other hand, some of these may be very good at hearing and producing complicat- ed music, or in artistic expression, or in dealing with words. Nevertheless, for teaching our science lessons we must be aware of these stages and the age groups with which we can employ various logical methods. Most third graders cannot understand analogies; most sixth graders have no sense of sizes (or historical times) beyond their own tangible experiences; most ninth graders do not understand functional dependence of one variable on another; most twelfth graders cannot easily use power-of-ten notation. Of course, I am not talking about your children or mine, all of whom are precocious.

So you have been elected? You are to be visiting scientist for an hour. Find out what the teacher expects. Search your conscience and decide what one thing you want to accomplish. Take the time to learn about your audience. Get them out of their seats and let them measure something. Tell them what one thing they have learned. Try to arrange a follow-up, for you and for them. When you're all done, ask yourself: did they learn anything? Did you learn anything? Did you and they have fun? Be careful. Teaching can be addictive.

Clifford Swartz is Professor of Physics at State University of New York in Stony Brook, NY. He was awarded the Oersted Medal in 1987, and he has served as editor of The Physics Teacher for many years.