FEd Fall 2001 Newsletter - Physics in the Elementary School

Spring 2001



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Physics in the Elementary School

Lewis E. Love

Preface, by James J. Wynne

As a youngster, I was very good in math and science and expected to be a physician when I grew up. But, during the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I became concerned that I would not be able to use my math ability if I became a physician. In just one week at the beginning of my senior year, my concerns were cast aside and I decided to become a physicist. My savior was Lewis E. Love, my high school physics teacher. His method of teaching science, featuring demonstrations, student experimentation, and problem solving, made it transparent to me that my math ability was perfectly matched to the study of physics. And his enthusiasm was contagious. I had a party all year long. The highlight of the year was planning out an experimental demonstration of Michelson's rotating mirror measurement of the speed of light. (Although I did not actually complete this experiment during high school, I was prepared to carry it out in college, when I was able to acquire some of the requisite equipment.) Another of my high school classmates, Carl Bender, also became a physicist, as have many others of Mr. Love's students. I brought Mr. Love, as my guest, to my 30th high school reunion. To my surprise and delight, my non-physicist high school classmates remembered him with great affection. He was soon surrounded by his old students who asked him if he still did some of his old demonstrations. My classmates actually envied me for having become a physicist, especially when I told them that it was as much fun as Mr. Love had made it seem in high school. Through these next forty years, I have stayed in touch with Mr. Love, and it is now my pleasure to introduce him to the readers of this FEd newsletter. Although he is formally retired from a long and illustrious career as a high school physics teacher and a science department chair, his love of teaching and his belief in science continue to be reflected in his second "career" as a teacher of elementary school teachers.

Jim Wynne is the administrator of the FEd home page. He helped form the APS Forum on Education and served as the Forum Councillor for the first eight years of its existence. He has worked for IBM Research since earning his
Ph. D. in physics in 1969.


Young children in our country are our most valuable natural resource. With the vast explosion of knowledge, technology, and problems induced by many factors, we need this group of wonderful young people to assist us when they reach their maturity. Their science and mathematical literacy is crucial to our survival. Science in the curriculum is more than just a subjectscience is a way of looking at the world around you. The teaching of science at the elementary school level is perhaps the most important step in developing the potential of human beings, because it provides the foundation, the tools, and the stimuli for enthusiastic young people in our care to learn and dream.

teenbysc.gif (2370 bytes)The exponential growth of scientific and technical knowledge makes it impossible for most citizens to keep themselves aware and knowledgeable of the increasing bounty of information that is presented to them on a daily basis. The Internet and the multimedia conglomerates have complicated things significantly, by providing an abundance of information that is not critiqued by qualified authorities and is therefore not necessarily accurate. Elementary school teachers have been asked to cope with this fantastic growth of information in science, mathematics, and technology, while continuing to address all their other responsibilities having to do with their students. Given the constraints of time and the myriad of competency examinations, standards, frameworks, and State Action Plans, elementary school teachers have been placed in an untenable situation, without being provided with mentors who can assist them in learning to handle their added responsibilities. Initial training and curriculum decisions at the university level in prior years have left these teachers without the background or training to cope with these demands, especially in science, mathematics and technology.

What can be done to solve this problem? One solution is to train the teachers and students together. This article presents an approach to this solution.

Keep It Simple Physics (KISP)

Physics is the basic science that is fundamental to all the other branches of science. Physics can be used very effectively to help students learn to think, read, write, use mathematics as a thought tool, and provide insight into our cultural heritage and social environment. But physics is an area of study, which brings intellectual fear into the hearts of those people who have not been introduced to its simplicity, beauty, logic, and its ability to help us understand the world around us.

I propose that many important concepts in physics can be effectively taught to 4th and 5th graders. I also propose that you can train the teachers of these students to effectively do this through an in-service program developed by any high school or university physics teacher, incorporating a hands-on curriculum that I have developed. I have been experimenting with this curriculum for many years with elementary school students, high school students, and elementary school teachers that I have instructed at Hofstra University and at The National Labor College of the George Meany Center for Labor Studies. I would now like to extend this curriculum to other students and teachers.

The program, Keep It Simple Physics, or KISP, is based on a program called Keep It Simple Science, or KISS. KISS incorporates a series of hands-on experiences in science, mathematics, and technology and requires only inexpensive equipment. These experiences are simple to execute, are fun to do, and provide the teacher with all the elements needed to develop a program for the present and one that will evolve into the future. KISP consists of demonstrations, hands-on experiences, and techniques that can be used with children to get them to understand, appreciate, and enjoy science.

When a teacher is involved with KISP activities, students will be provided with experiences that reinforce skills, abilities, and concept development in reading, writing, mathematics, alternative thinking, problem solving, and a wider view of the world. These factors are an important consideration to many urban schools, where funds, facilities, equipment and training are at a minimum. In fact, administrators might endorse and support this program for its dual potential as a viable, powerful and important academic component to the school program, as well as one that requires a minimal use of financial resources.

Some Proposed Activities

Cryptic titles such as "The Magic Spoons," "The Candle, the Egg, the Bottle," "Dancing Raisins," "The Maple Copter," "The Soda Bottle and the Diver," or "The New York Times and the Broken Board" provide a flavor of the activities that make up this curriculum.

E.g. In "Dracula's Experiment," the candlelight is polarized when reflected from a glass plate. By holding a Polaroid filter 57o from the vertical, and rotating it in the proper direction, the image in the glass plate will disappear. Vampires don't produce images!!

It is important for students to be involved in experiences that require creative and alternative thinking. Accordingly, the KISP program incorporates additional intellectual challenges derived from mathematical topics such as algorithms and cryptography.

KISP activities naturally lead students and teachers to make the necessary connections between facts, concepts, and principles they have learned to help them explain and interpret the world around them, as well as to appreciate alternative ways of viewing a solution to a problem. There are many activities, all of which have been field tested, that provide a broad scope of experiences.

This program could operate on a four-week cycle, with periodic evaluation and anxiety reduction sessions. The teachers would meet once a week to discuss what they have accomplished, what works and what doesn't. At the end of the first four-week cycle, the teachers would begin to create a handbook, namely a compilation of curriculum materials that could be used by other teachers. Teachers would naturally incorporate new material into the handbook after successive four-week cycles. The teachers would have a sense of ownership and a vested interest in the making of these activities and techniques into viable and successful curriculum.

There have been two useful modes to carrying out the KISP program. The major portion of the program has each student, or pairs of students, using the hands-on activity structure to explore ideas in physics. The other mode features a directed discussion using demonstrations and discovery learning situations with the whole group of students.

Peer Teaching

I have trained talented and patient high school students to assist me in the implementation of the program. Any school district can follow the same procedure by identifying a cooperating physics class taught by a capable high school physics teacher. Initially, the elementary students and their teachers visit the high school where they work with the high school students on laboratory experiences and other activities. When the high school students have developed sufficient skill and confidence, the program moves to the elementary school, where the high school students continue to be supervised by the elementary school teacher and their physics teacher. When the teachers feel that the high school students can successfully and effectively operate on their own, these students continue without their physics teacher's supervision, under the guidance of the elementary school teacher.

What makes this component of the plan particularly interesting and exciting is the combined and positive community effort. The elementary school and the high school become a single instructional unit. Having the elementary school students visit the high school, making it possible for the high school students to mentor and bond with the elementary school students, creates a very powerful sociological experience for both groups of students. The benefits to the high school students go well beyond the very powerful enhancement of their own self-image through community service. Their understanding of the concepts of physics is strengthened. What better technique is there to achieving mastery than teaching what you have learned to others?

Important Ideas of Science

Many important physical concepts can be developed from this curriculum, e.g.:"The universe is regular and predictable;" "Energy always evolves from more useful to less useful forms;" "Electricity and magnetism are two aspects of the same force;" "Everything: particles, energy, the rate of electron spin comes in discrete units and you can't measure most things without changing them;" "The surface of the Earth is constantly changing; no feature on the Earth is permanent."

The complete list, compiled by Robert Hazen and James Trefil, authors of The Physical Sciences: An Integrated Approach (Wiley, 1996, ISBN: 0-471-15440-7), is not "etched in stone." You, the reader, may have ideas as to what should be added or removed from the list and may even wish to modify the language of the statements. The purpose of the list is to get you thinking about these ideas in relation to the world around you.

Some Anticipated Outcomes

For teachers:

Enrich the science and cultural background of the elementary school and high school teachers and create a closer education bond between the two groups that provides for mutual respect and purpose

Provide a reservoir of experiences that provide a viable instructional program for the students

Reduce anxiety about the teaching of science, and demonstrate how interesting and exciting the experience can be for elementary school teachers

For students:

Provide many opportunities to grasp abstractions and apply them

Enable them to explain and understand the world around them and appreciate how things function

Facilitate the use mathematics as a thought tool

Learn to follow directions intelligently and to read with understanding

Learn to gather and organize data in an experimental mode and make connections

Develop the skills needed for solving problems, be alternative thinkers, recognize patterns

Provide a stimulus for some students to pursue careers in science


KISP enlists the cooperation of the elementary school and the high school to provide a valuable educational experience for all children. The teachers in both schools will appreciate the role that they play in the education of their students. The inevitable development of mutual respect and understanding provides the school district with a stronger academic program for the young children and young adults. High school students have an opportunity to see teaching as a very important and fascinating intellectual activity that could lead to a very exciting career choice. The processes of science make it possible to understand and interpret, to some degree, what is happening in the environment, where you are an important component. The knowledge derived makes it possible for the individual to make decisions, protect and conserve health, provide for the basic needs of life, and to extend the intellectual and moral potential for all human beings. KISP is a program that uses physics and its related ideas to initiate our youth into the scientific process.

Lewis E. Love has been teaching science for 50 years. He taught high school physics in the Great Neck, NY public schools from 1959 until his retirement in 1997. He now spends much of his time teaching elementary school teachers how to teach physics to 4th and 5th graders. He welcomes questions about his KISP program to explain the nature of any of the activities, the materials needed, how to perform the activity, and suggest the appropriate questions to ask, possible applications, and assessments you may wish to use.