Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Summer 2006 Newsletter



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Online Physics Education Resources from the American Museum of Natural History

Robert V. Steiner

The need to strengthen science education in general - and teacher content knowledge in the physical sciences in particular - has received considerable national attention [1]. One important aspect of this challenge is the need to provide teachers with authentic scientific resources and to deepen their understanding of the process of scientific inquiry. In this article, we briefly describe the efforts of one informal science institution to utilize the Web to connect scientists and scientific resources to current and future teachers across the United States in an innovative and engaging manner.

Since 1869, the American Museum of Natural History, located in New York City, has been dedicated to the discovery, interpretation and dissemination of science.   Generations of students have walked the hallowed halls of the Museum, taking in dioramas of Asian and African mammals, gems and planetary landscapes.  However, far more than a mere exhibit hall, the Museum is also a vibrant enterprise of scientific research, including more than 200 scientists in major divisions of zoology, anthropology, paleontology and, of particular interest here, Earth science, astrophysics and cosmology.

The Museum's National Center for Science Literacy, Education and Technology, founded in 1998, utilizes a cadre of educators, professional developers and educational technologists to leverage the Museum's research, collections and exhibitions in order to create powerful web-based resources for teachers, students and the general public.  It has also led a major R&D effort in online science professional development.  We briefly describe each of these efforts below, focusing in particular on areas of interest to physics educators.  (Each of these projects can be accessed by scrolling to the bottom of the Museum's home page at

Science Bulletins: Current Research and Recent Discoveries

Science Bulletins ( presents the latest developments in the fields of astrophysics, Earth science, and conservation biology through features that highlight scientists in the field, cutting-edge data visualizations of Earth and the cosmos, and news snapshots of the natural world. Discussion questions and links to other Web resources offer effective uses for the compelling videos, high-quality data visualizations and interactive simulations to kindle students' interest in science, stimulate inquiry, and support in-depth student research projects. A guide for teachers suggests specific ways to incorporate Science Bulletins into their science curriculum in ways that correlate with the National Science Education Standards.

Recent Science Bulletins stories have highlighted the Sloan Digital Sky Survey; the protective effects of the Earth's magnetic field from the solar wind; the tracking of near-Earth asteroids; gravitational wave detection; colliding galaxies; and extrasolar planet detection. These stories typically utilize high-performance computing and visualization to model effects such as the solar wind's interaction with the Earth or the collision between galaxies. They also incorporate game strategies, for example, in asking participants to find an asteroid amidst a starry background or to confirm the presence of a gravitational wave.

For those teaching Earth science, the many resources include a tsunami simulation, a profile of melting glaciers, current earthquake and volcano activity, the North Atlantic Oscillation and research on the early evolution of the Earth's atmosphere.


Ology ( (from the Greek, "the study of") introduces the excitement of scientific discovery to children ages 7 and up. Stories, images, interactives and activities in many scientific disciplines are provided. On their own private area, kids can collect online cards (akin to baseball cards) highlighting different sciences - and can even design their own.

Among the many Ology topics are gravity as "the Universe's main attraction," thought experiments on the speed of light, the life of Albert Einstein, the Hubble Space Telescope, cosmology and the laboratory study of rocks. Student activities include making rock candy, making a compass and dropping fruit into Jell-O to better understand the curvature of space.

Ology and Science Bulletins each has its own special guide for educators.

Resources for Learning

Resources for Learning ( is a searchable database of educational resources - typically related to Museum research, exhibits or education projects - for K-12 teachers, which can be sorted by grade, subject matter and other categories. It includes resources from Science Bulletins and Ology. There are approximately 1,000 resources in the collection, which include websites or downloadable files involving content or activities. Each resource is accompanied by a digital "index card" that summarizes the resource. The physics-related resources include astronomy (including the universe, galaxies, planets, history, etc.) as well as Earth science (including the atmosphere, geologic time, minerals, volcanism, etc.). Many of the resources found in the other websites described here can also be quickly retrieved from the Resources for Learning site.

Seminars on Science

Seminars on Science ( provides online graduate courses to K-12 teachers across the United States. There are currently eight courses in the life, earth and physical sciences. Each course is co-taught by an experienced educator and a Museum scientist and lasts six weeks. The courses include original essays by Museum scientists, compelling imagery and video, interactive simulations, links to other websites and rich asynchronous discussion that engage educators in both scientific content and classroom application. The courses provide teachers with a unique opportunity to deepen their content knowledge, to learn authentic science, to interact with working scientists and to gain valuable classroom resources. Through partnerships with eight institutions of higher education, the courses are providing graduate credit and serving the needs of current and future teachers on a national basis.

Courses in the physical sciences include "The Ocean System," , "Earth: Inside and Out", and "Space, Time and Motion."   The latter course, for example, provides a broad introduction to special and general relativity, quantum mechanics and theories of everything, using materials developed for the landmark Einstein exhibit launched at the Museum in 2002. Participants grapple with the Michelson-Morley experiment, time dilation, the photon hypothesis, the Equivalence Principle and the social responsibility of scientists.Sample essays, videos and interactives for this and other courses can be viewed at

Online courses provide accessible professional development that fits into the busy schedules of working teachers. Particularly in combination with face-to-face experiences (including laboratory work), such courses also provide remarkable opportunities for both curricular and pedagogical innovation. Those interested in partnering with the American Museum of Natural History in offering Seminars on Science courses through institutions of higher education, school districts or other entities are encouraged to contact the author at

Closing Thoughts

These projects are but a small sampling of the range of exciting Web-based efforts in science education that are taking place in various institutions across the United States and around the world. The Museum's experience in this realm has taught us the value of forging connections - between formal and informal science institutions, between face-to-face and online efforts and between K-12 and higher education. Our experience has also highlighted the need to place scientific content in a context that is useful for teachers. Both the connections and the context are essential if we are to provide effective support to educators and, ultimately, their students.

steiner1.jpg (12457 bytes) steiner2.jpg (10517 bytes)
Coverage of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, from Science Bulletins Frames of Reference Interactive from the online course Space, time and Motion.


1.  See, for example, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing American for a Brighter Economic Future (National Academies Press, 2006) and Before It’s Too Late: A Report to the Nation from The National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century (U.S Dept. of Education, 2000).

Robert V. Steiner is the Project Director of Seminars on Science, the online professional development program of the American Museum of Natural History. He is a member of the adjunct faculty of the Department of Physics at Queens College, City University of New York and also within the Program in Science Education at Columbia University's Teachers College. His professional interests include experimental elementary particle physics, undergraduate physics labs and online learning. He is currently completing a book on mathematics for physics students, which will be published by McGraw-Hill in 2007.



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