FEd Spring 2002 Newsletter - Browsing Through the Journals

Spring 2002



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Browsing Through the Journals

Thomas D. Rossing

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• In a guest comment entitled “Format and content in introductory physics” in the January issue of American Journal of Physics, Peter Lindenfeld reminds us that physics is a subject of insights and ideas. He suggests that we may be spending too much time trying to improve the mathematical facility of our students. Which aspects of physics do we think is most important: Physics is beautiful? Physics is useful? Physics is fundamental to chemistry, biology, and engineering? Physics teaches problem solving? Physics is an essential component of the knowledge of an effective citizen? Let’s do our best, he challenges us, to see that students remember the wonder, the connections, the excitement of discovery, and the poetry of the universe.

• An article “Does Class Size Matter” in the November issue of Scientific American discusses the results of several recent efforts to reduce class size in elementary schools. Although fewer students in a classroom seems to translate into less noise and disruptive behavior, most of the studies examining whether smaller classes really do improve academic performance have been inconclusive, the authors conclude. This includes a large project in California in which more than $5 billion has already been invested. On the other hand, Wisconsin’s project SAGE and Tennessee’s project STAR appear to demonstrate performance benefit, especially for minority pupils. A scientific paper by the same authors is in Psychological Science in the Public Interest 2(2), 1-30 (May 2001).

• During much of the 1970s, more than one in three physics students at two of China’s top universities was a woman. Today the number has plummeted to fewer than one in 10. This is prompting concern among many academics, according to an article in the 11 January issue of Science. “It’s a backward movement that must be checked,” commented Wu Ling’an, a senior physicist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Wu is helping to plan international conference on women in physics next March in Paris.

• “How do we know if we are doing a good job in physics teaching?” is the title of a paper in the January issue of American Journal of Physics that is based on a talk by Robert Ehrlich upon receiving the 2001 AAPT Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. The author believes that we need to consider what effect we are having on our students, both in terms of their understanding of the subject and their attitudes toward it. Two examples of unfavorable student attitudes are that physics is primarily about “memorizing and using formulas” and that physics is “unrelated to experiences outside the classroom.” Physics teachers who try to assess their own competence face the same problem as professionals in any field: Incompetent people generally are quite unaware of the depths of their incompetence, whereas highly competent people are highly critical of their own performance and are continually seeking ways to improve.

• According to a note in the January 11 issue of Science, a new $160 million NSF program to improve math and science education in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools will build on the latest buzzword in science education: partnerships. The intended partnerships are between university scientists and local school districts. According to Judith Ramaley, who head’s the NSF education directorate, “It’s going to take years and years, and there are no magic bullets.” Goals of the new program are to “reduce the number of teachers teaching out of field (without the appropriate degree), increase the availability of material that engages students, and raise the number of students taking courses that prepare them for college.”

• Stanford economist Paul Romer argues that U.S. universities deliberately underproduce science and engineering graduates because they are so expensive to train, according to a note in the 21 December issue of Science. The solution is to pay universities to turn out more scientists and engineers. Romer asserts that “Most schools will do the right thing if you make it worth their while.” His ideas have already formed the basis for new legislation, the Technology Talent Bill (S. 1549 and H.R. 3130) that would create a competitive grants program at NSF for universities that promise to boost the number of undergraduates majoring in science, mathematics, and engineering. Congress gave the NSF $5 million to start a pilot project to test the thesis even before it took up the authorizing legislation. Romer’s argument rests on two assumptions that many educators question: There is a large reservoir of qualified students interested in majoring in science and engineering, and U.S. universities have excess capacity to handle such an influx.

• The largest environmental problem reported in a 1995 survey of U.S. schools by the General Accounting Office was “acoustics for noise control,” according to an editorial in the January 21 issue of Sound & Communications. Fortunately something is being done about it. A draft standard for classroom acoustics has been submitted for review to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The standard establishes minimum requirements for sound isolation and provides limits for reverberation and noise in the classroom.

• A new general education curriculum for undergraduates at the University of Arizona eliminates the laboratory science requirement, according to an article in the December/January issue of Journal of College Science Teaching. Instead, faculty are now required to provide students with hands-on, inquiry-based experiences directly in the classroom. To assist faculty with the new course design, an undergraduate peer teaching program was introduced. Peer teachers, called “preceptors,” lead group discussions and provide fellow students assistance with writing and problem solving.

• Science teacher Gail Green has an unusual problem that most teachers would be happy to have, according to a story in the January 16 Chicago Tribune, The 7th and 8th grade girls in her after-school math and science club are complaining that they’re not getting enough math problems. Green leads a Girls in Engineering and Math (GEMS) group each week. The club is just for girls because “girls tend to do better when they are with all girls.” Club activities include listening to guest speakers, solving problems, group projects, and an occasional field trip.

Thomas D. Rossing is Professor of Physics at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL. He has been an editor of the Forum Newsletter for six years.