FEd Fall 2001 Newsletter - Understanding and Appreciating Physics from Pre-school On

Spring 2001



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Understanding and Appreciating Physics from Pre-school On (or The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe Should Start Here on Earth)

Wayne Snyder

Several years ago I had the privilege of giving the keynote address to New Hampshire Science Teachers. While preparing, I went searching for some readership numbers for the top selling newspapers in the U.S. With the aid of a helpful librarian I found them. Coming in at number three was the Sunday edition of the New York Times at 1.2 million readers. In second place was the Friday edition of USA Today at 1.8 million. And leading the way, with a whopping 4.4 million loyal readers, was The National Enquirer! And these are people who at least are reading. What about the masses of people who are glued to their television sets with rapt attention to every Talk Show of the Terminally Bizarre that comes on? Why do they not feel the same appreciation for the wonders of science, particularly for physics? When was the last time The Jerry Springer Show had a topic like "I know light is a particle, but my wife insists it is a wave"? Why are we excited that the percentage of high school graduates in this country who have taken a course in physics has risen above the 20% mark when the number should be 100%? And why, when one announces in a crowd that he or she teaches physics, the crowd moves away as if your popularity ranking rates somewhere between those of an incurable leper and a curable leper?

The seeds are planted in the child back through the primary grades. Research shows that the years of elementary and middle school determine the student's future participation and interest in science and math, and that the reputation of physics in particular is reinforced through high school and college as boring, elitist, and impossibly difficult.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Elementary children are fascinated by physics. No, they don't want to sit and memorize long words and spit out boring definitions or do seemingly random mathematical calculations. But give them the chance to experience physics and it is hard to tear them away. They are fascinated by magnets and magnifying lenses. They enjoy the process of studying sound and electricity. Physical science experiments can make other subjects such as math and reading come alive. Young students are naturally inquisitive and creative and observant, at least until they are socialized by the combination of society and system.

Is it a hopeless situation, as is so often trumpeted in the media and from the statehouses? The pathway for any reformation in science education must pass through the elementary classroom. So what are the hurdles faced by the education community? How can we get our elementary students out of the starting blocks and into the race to be scientifically literate citizens?


A great many elementary teachers are physics-phobic, and the students can instantly sense it. I readily observed this in a college physics classroom of students seeking elementary education certification. In this particular college, such certification includes content courses in both biological and in physical sciences. The future elementary teachers are almost all female, have accepted the mindset of their society, and will be key role models to all of their students, and even more so to the eager little girls they will teach. The stark reality of the first couple weeks: most of them hated that they were required to be in a physics course, almost half of them were not confident enough to light a match, and several were paranoid to even plug in an extension cord. What message will these teachers convey to their students if left unchanged themselves?

There is a happy ending to this example. Although a content course, the methodology is heavily inquiry based. The future teachers quickly learned that they can understand the physics concepts and that they enjoy it. Before long rumors were flying that the dorms were filled with flying Doppler bees, strange polymers that act like both liquids and solids, and homemade planetariums. The final exams demonstrated that the students had a comprehension of the terms and the concepts that was deep and will hold them in good stead when they themselves are leading their students down the path of scientific knowledge and appreciation.

College Course Work

teacher.gif (2213 bytes) There is more recognition now than ever before that science course work is as important for elementary teacher preparation as is course work in reading and math. However a requirement itself is not sufficient. The course must be tailored to the specific needs of the target group. It is not uncommon for a college to require nursing students, elementary education majors, and first year chemistry majors to all take the same introductory chemistry course, a course designed for the latter group. The result of such a requirement is the total turn-off to chemistry by the first two groups. It could be argued that the reverse would be more beneficial, that a rigorous course that led to a detailed conceptual understanding of the concepts would benefit all three groups. The science majors would have the foundation of understanding to better comprehend why they were doing all of those complex mathematical computations. A subject matter course for elementary teachers should be rigorous in expectations, should be heavily inquiry based, should be separate from the methods course they will take, should focus deeply on the conceptual understanding, and should cover appropriate topics to appropriate depth and at appropriate speed, these topics correlated to the "big ideas" from the National Standards.

In Service Training

One of the most successful teacher training projects that the NSF has funded is Operation Physics (OP). This project started in 1988, and is still active today in local efforts, as part of the Physics Teaching Resource Agent (PTRA) program, and in its 2.0 version now being funded by NSF, Operation Primary Physical Science (OPPS). The unique aspect of OP that pioneered new territory was that educators had to train and work together as a team, a team consisting of a college professor, a high school physics teacher, and an elementary or middle school teacher. This team brought very different experiences, knowledge bases, and paradigms together. Those teams that meshed had a great impact in training elementary and middle school teachers across the country. The program was based on existing research in science teaching and learning, used hands-on learning, and included a strong training component. A curriculum alone without training and support will seldom succeed. The OPPS program is updating much of the OP teacher training by bringing in more up-to-date understanding of education. Instead of a series of activities about a topic, the topic is developed in a spiral fashion that continually reinforces and builds on the key ideas.


I have done impromptu surveys, asking a roomful of adults how many of them have read a textbook for enjoyment in the past few months. Is it a loaded question? Of course it is. So the better question is why is it a loaded question? The answer is that all adults instinctively consider that science textbooks are boring and uninteresting and filled with hundreds of dry definitions to be memorized or hundreds of pages of derivations of mathematical formulas to be ignored. Furthermore, an analysis of a typical textbook shows that there is so much information shoved into the book, even many teachers cannot determine what is very important, what is less important, and what is actually unimportant. If a key idea is important enough to be covered, then it should be covered in a depth appropriate enough to have meaning and relevance, and the bridges should be evident to both the teacher and the learner.

Yet even as the publishing industry grows ever more profitable and the glossy pictures grow ever glossier, the actual philosophical format of the textbooks remains rooted in a continual cycle of repetitious failure. Standardized test scores have dropped steadily with the decades of use of traditional texts and straight lecture. But unfortunately, in today's era of Legislated Excellence, the publishers have developed more political power than ever before. In many states they have more power to dictate curriculum and pedagogy than professional science and science education organizations.

That said, it should be noted that I have an elementary teacher friend who borrowed my copy of Paul Hewitt's Conceptual Physics, and I finally had to buy her a copy of her own to read for enjoyment or risk losing mine forever. Textbooks can be extremely valuable resources. The written page has been a primary resource since the invention of the printing press, and it will continue to be so even with the growth of the electronic information era. The reading resource, the textbook, should be something that the student wants to read, and it should be appropriate reading in style, in objectives, in content. The education community, from the classroom teachers to the practicing scientists need to push for what is best for the students, and that includes more properly developed reading resources.

Emphasis on Reading


girl_reader.gif (3191 bytes) One major issue in elementary science today is the emphasis on reading scores. The emphasis itself is not bad, particularly when and where students are not meeting minimum requirements. But it is becoming commonplace for principals to give ultimatums that "all instruction up through lunch will be reading and after lunch you can do everything else like science and history and math and the arts." My immediate response is "what are they reading?" Why not use "everything else like science and history and math and the arts" to help the students become better readers and writers? Why not use graphic organizers to help the students understand the scientific passage at the same time they are improving their reading skills?

Ironically, science represents one of the areas that most emphasizes writing and reading. Scientists keep journals. They read and evaluate articles. They write papers. They give presentations. In the CAPSI model (Caltech Precollege Science Initiative), journals and reading have been an essential component since the beginning. The combination of inquiry based science (using nationally available quality kits such as STC, Insights, or FOSS.) with the keeping of scientific notebooks or journals has had a noticeable affect. One area it is especially powerful is with non-English speaking students. They can concentrate on learning the science by recording in their primary language, and can then take the time to focus on the language translation. In one study soon to be published, the El Centro School District in California has found a direct correlation between student reading test scores and their number of years doing inquiry science and keeping science notebooks (as determined by which teachers the student has had).


The most abused part of education today is assessment. Assessment should be used as a tool to ensure that all students have equal opportunities for their future. Instead assessment is being used to determine which students have what opportunities in life. Based on test scores that may or may not have much relevance to what they are used for, students are classified, excluded, and tracked based on these scores. Standardizing expectations and assessment has many benefits, as can be witnessed by the concept of the driver license tests across the nation. But what makes the driving assessment work (except maybe for that occasional idiot on the freeway)? It must include specific objectives and expectations, explain exactly what the test will assess, give opportunity to practice and prepare, assess by both written and performance assessment, and give formative feedback for improvement. Some assessment programs today are striving to go in that direction, but there remains a long way to go, especially with the standardized tests presently being rushed in as some type of religious salvation.


So with all of these hurdles, is there hope? Of course there is. One has only to get into the classrooms to see examples of quality teacher training, quality teaching, and quality learning. But it will not happen by itself. It is like the second law of thermodynamics. Everything is moving towards greater entropy, and it takes a great expenditure of energy to prevent this deterioration. It takes only a little more energy to progress. So the secret is to continue to progress, to improve, to grow. And this applies to all of the players listed in the National Standards, from the preparers of teachers to the teachers to the educational systems. Thomas Jefferson argued that American democracy cannot survive unless all Americans have a quality education. We must provide all of our students a quality science educational experience that opens opportunities and opens the mind. And that experience must start in the earliest years, progress throughout formalized schooling, and extend into the realm of life-long learning.

Wayne Snyder is Assistant Director of the Caltech Precollege Science Initiative (CAPSI), and is specifically involved with the development of science curriculum, assessment, and teacher development. Certified in physics, chemistry, and biology, he primarily taught high school physics for 20 years. For much of that time, he was also an adjunct college instructor teaching physics content to elementary and middle school teachers. He has been active in various programs such as Operation Physics and AAPT Physics Teaching Resource Agent and has served on the AP Physics Test Development Committee.