FEd Fall 2001 Newsletter - Serendipity Times Two

Spring 2001



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Serendipity Times Two

John L. Hubisz

I'm firmly convinced that the key to scientific literacy in this country lies in the Middle Schools (called "Jr. High" in some places.) Part of the problem with the poor textbooks and the poor preparation of teachers at this level lies with us, and we have to do something about it. Let me suggest something from my own experience.

Many years ago I got a frantic call from a mother whose 5th grader was having trouble in school. Apparently he was very bright and extremely advanced in science and mathematics, but didn't want to do anything in his other subjects. He was very disruptive in school and the teachers didn't know what to do with him. I suggested that she bring him out to the college after school on Mondays and Wednesdays and leave him with me in my laboratory and pick him up by 8:45. I kept him busy with puzzles and problems and books and got him to help setting up and taking down labs. He enjoyed talking and working with my students. He even served as a good lab assistant. He certainly wasn't a bother and his troubles at school disappeared.

Sometime later his mother told me that she was taking both boys to San Francisco for a week while her husband attended a conference and wanted to know where she might take them. I immediately recommended the Exploratorium. I suggested other places if she could get them away from the Exploratorium. She couldn't and didn't. On returning the first thing that she wanted to know was how we could get a hands-on museum for Galveston. She did the work. She got board members from all the right places, got the Rosenberg Library to donate space for a monthly lecture series, and arranged for incorporation of "Science, Inc." Besides the lecture series (always packed even for Saturday morning talks), we had summer programs for children (so oversubscribed that even with extra sessions added we couldn't handle all those who wanted to take part). We also got the high school science fairs started again after a lapse of many years. We got small grants to build hands-on equipment from Exploratorium plans that were then cycled through the schools and we even got a building for a year, but that's another story.

Some time later I was attending a meeting in a building that was the #1 tourist attraction (next to the beach itself) on the Island. During the break I took advantage of the "free admission" to wander about the building. I passed by a room where another group was meeting and could hear that they were talking about education. I slipped in. The attendees were almost all women and they were principals and assistant principals for the most part. At that point the discussion was about inviting speakers to the elementary schools. One woman expressed concern that they wouldn't be able to get scientists to come to elementary schools. I got the moderator's attention and pointed out that I had been running the lecture series at the Rosenberg Library for some time now and no scientist had ever refused to come and talk. Scientists love to talk about their work and it allows them to sit back and think about their work in a wider context. I mentioned that I had talked to kindergartners, Cub Scouts, service organizations, and just about every grade level about physics. I said that I would be glad to help get speakers and left my card with the moderator and went back to my meeting.

Two weeks later I got a call from a school principal who had heard that I would be willing to help improve science and mathematics in elementary schools and would I come out to her school. Not quite what I had said I would be willing to do, but I agreed. Apparently the school board was concerned that while the school scored 2-3 grades above the national average in recent tests in most subjects they were 2-3 grades below the national average in science and mathematics. She wanted help in science and mathematics at all grade levels (K-6). I didn't know what to do so I started rummaging around storage spaces, talking to teachers, talking to classes about what they were doing, and so on. Requests for me to talk to classes increased so much that the principal had to set up a sign-up sheet for teachers to make specific requests. Each Wednesday I would get a call listing the classes that I would visit on Friday and the topic that the class was studying. It was a lot of fun and the students had great questions. I opened boxes of science equipment that I had found at the school and did demonstrations or more often got the students to do experiments. Realizing that there were no competitions in either mathematics or science like the ones that they had in most of their other subjects I designed a Physics Faire for students in grades K-6.

I made up simple rules and discussed them in all the classes. I trained judges in techniques for asking questions and made certain that parents and others were not allowed in the area while judging was going on and two of the questions had to be "How much help did you have?" and "What question were you trying to answer with your experiment? "Physics (capital "P") was defined as "natural philosophy" and there were four categories for entrants to choose from: biology, chemistry, geology, and physics (small "p"). The first Faire was very successful. The librarian declared that the library had never been used so much. A nearby elementary school asked to be included for the next year and they were and we had our first inter-school Faire held for the winners at all grade levels. Within three years we had 23 schools including home-schoolers (slightly modified rules) and over 300 entrants taking part in the countywide Physics Faire.

Within four years the original school scored 2.5-3 grade levels above the national average in science and mathematics in the same tests that started the project. I met many of the students over the nine years that I was directly involved with the Faire who credited their interest in science with the Faire. It continues with a former assistant of mine who went on to get a master's degree in physics and who is now a high school physics teacher.

None of this was planned. We can't tell what efforts might be rewarded, but we have to try. Become aware of the materials that can help Middle School teachers (e.g., Powerful Ideas in Physical Science from the AAPT and Enhanced Science Helper CD from the Learning Team.) Donate a CD or a set of PIPS materials through your local PTA. Visit your local Middle School. Volunteer.

John L. Hubisz is President of the AAPT.
He is on the faculty of the Physics Department, North Carolina State University, Raleigh NC 27695-8202.