Archived Newsletters

Engineering Accreditation Changes: A Threat or an Opportunity for Physics Programs?

Paul Zitzewitz, Chair, Forum on Education

Do you and your physics colleagues provide a service course for an undergraduate engineering program? If you do you are certainly aware of the credit hours the required calculus-based physics courses generates. Nationally 50% of the student credit hours generated by physics departments come from engineering students. Thus any change in the requirements for an engineering degree is important for physics programs.

The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc., or ABET, is in the midst of a three-year migration to a new set of standards, Engineering Criteria 2000. These standards, which are being phased in over the next three years, are available at the ABET website. The new standards, which have been planned, discussed, and revised since 1996, are fundamentally different from the old. Their focus is on the educational objectives of engineering programs and on the way the programs determine whether or not the objectives are met. Thus rather than prescribing the number of hours of instruction, engineering programs must demonstrate that graduates have an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering, to analyze and interpret data, to function on multi­disciplinary teams, to communicate effectively, and to have an ability to engage in life­long learning. Evidence that may be used includes, but is not limited to the following: student portfolios, including design projects; nationally­normed subject content examinations; alumni surveys that document professional accomplishments and career development activities; employer surveys; and placement data of graduates.

The new criteria specify that "the course work must include at least one year of an appropriate combination of mathematics and basic sciences." ABET defines one year as the equivalent of 32 semester hours or 48 quarter hours. The Criteria 2000 document states that "The objective of the studies in basic sciences is to acquire fundamental knowledge about nature and its phenomena, including quantitative expression. These studies must include both general chemistry and calculus­based general physics at appropriate levels, with at least a two­semester (or equivalent) sequence of study in either area." There is no requirement that the mathematics or science courses must be taught outside of the engineering school.

While there is still room for 16 (semester) hours of mathematics and 8 each of chemistry and physics, if the physics and chemistry courses are 10 credit hours, engineering may decide to reduce the requirement in one of the sciences to one term only. There is also no room for the required upper-division courses.

The ABET accreditation criteria demand that "the overall curriculum must provide an integrated educational experience directed toward the development of the ability to apply pertinent knowledge to the identification and solution of practical problems in the designated area of engineering specialization." Do the traditional calculus courses taught in the mathematics department and the calculus-based physics course taught by physicists achieve this goal for the engineering student? A 1995 NSF report ("Restructuring Engineering Education: A Focus on Change," NWF Workshop on Engineering Education, National Science Foundation, April 1995, p 8) suggested that it is not "efficient" to teach mathematics and the sciences in isolation from their engineering applications. The report charged engineering faculty with taking leadership roles in integrating courses. The Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Drexel University, developed the ECE21 Curriculum that follows the Drexel E4 (Enhanced Educational Experience for Engineers) program. The ECE21 document states that students are introduced to science and mathematics "on a just-in-time basis, to solve real engineering problems." Their program includes a three-quarter long course, Mathematical and Physical Foundations of Engineering, that provides "an introduction to mathematics and physics, the foundation of engineering" in an integrated approach. Details of this course were presented at the 1996 ICUPE conference. (D. H. Thomas and T.S. Venkataraman, "Drexel University's Freshman Engineering Physics Course" in The Changing Role of Physics Departments in Modern Universities, E.F. Redish and J.S. Rigden, editors, AIP Conference Proceedings 399, 1997, pp 79ff) The primary physics content of the course is mechanics. Electromagnetic waves and heat are taught in a two-term engineering course on energy. In the third and fourth years there are additional interdisciplinary courses involving gravity, electricity, and quantum mechanics, traditional engineering topics, and economics.

Responding to another ABET-led initiative to shift program emphasis from engineering science to engineering design and practice, the "Engineering First" core curriculum at Northwestern University makes design an integral part of the curriculum, starting in the first year. But, they note that unless first-year students are exposed to engineering, their design projects will be very limited. They also believe that students will be better motivated by first year courses that have greater engineering content. Thus mechanics, previously taught in the first quarter of the year-long physics course, linear algebra, differential equations, and two engineering courses are integrated into a four-quarter course sequence Engineering Analysis, (EA). A year each of calculus and chemistry are taken concurrently with the first three quarters of EA. In the second year, the second and third quarters of the traditional physics course are taken in the Physics Department.

Not all engineering initiatives have produced integrated courses. The Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Carnegie Mellon University established a "Wipe the Slate Clean Committee" in 1989. Their new curriculum, used for the first time in 1991 increased the exposure of first-year students to engineering while still requiring a two-term sequence of basic physics and two upper-division math/science electives. 

Are these changes a threat or an opportunity for physics departments? If a department's "bread and butter" course is no longer required for engineering students, or if the school of engineering decides it can teach a more "relevant" physics course itself, the resulting drop in credit hour production could lead to less income, less flexibility to offer low-enrollment upper-division physics courses, or fewer graduate students or faculty; the regulations are a definite threat.

On the other hand, if the accreditation changes can lead to constructive dialog among the engineering, mathematics, chemistry, and physics faculty in a university over ways of making course material more relevant to all students then an improved university experience could result for all students. Physics departments might also try to emulate Northwestern's program and put "Physics First." How can we give our students a sense of the excitement of physics research, or enable them to conduct research projects early in their careers? Can our colleagues in industry and the national laboratories help? The Forum and its newsletter and website can serve as a means of further discussion on the effects on physics departments of the accreditation changes and creative responses that departments have made. Please communicate directly with me or with any of our newsletter editors.

Reform: Sputnik and Today, Stan Jones
In the fall of last year the National Academy of Sciences held a symposium prompted by the 40th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik. That launch gave impetus to a variety of "reforms" in science, math, and engineering education. I think it is fair to say that a great number of the members of this Forum were influenced in one way or another by the reforms of the 50's and 60's. For me, it was SMSG math, and PSSC physics. Included in this issue of the Newsletter are excerpts from some of the papers(1) at that symposium which analyzed the meaning of the post-Sputnik reform movement.

We find ourselves again in the midst of reform in science education, a reform prompted in part by the publication of "A Nation at Risk(2)." Indeed, one might say we have spent much of the last half of the century "reforming" science education. The paper presented by Rodger Bybee at the Sputnik Symposium begins by asking the pertinent question "Why is this educational reform different from all other reforms?" If past reforms "failed," how do we know the next one won't? Bybee goes on to answer that question, saying that, first, past reforms have not been total failures, only incomplete successes. We build on lessons learned from past efforts, adding what we have learned in the meantime.

One very important lesson learned over the years is that students are not all alike, and that we have a vast and diverse audience to serve. There is, therefore, no single way to best serve all students. We are asked to be aware of different modes of learning, and correspondingly, different ways of teaching, so that we might serve the students we face. We are asked to teach "Science for All Americans(3)," and also train the next generation of physicists. Not to mention the pre-meds.

Just as science is a process and not a book of facts, reform is an ongoing process. It is not an event that occurs once and is then finished, leaving the system in equilibrium for another generation. We are all the time re-examining our philosophy of education, our curriculum and techniques, and our standards; at least we should be doing this. In my local College of Education, the process is called being a reflective teacher. In reflecting on what we are doing, we revise, innovate, reject when we must, and thus continually reform our practices.

It is true, however, that certain ideas grab our attention and call for major shifts in our point of view. In this sense, the turn toward conceptual learning, toward science literacy for all students, and toward student centered (active) learning, constitute real changes in the way we view science education. Like the introduction of PSSC physics 40 years ago, the new ideas are generating considerable discussion. Unlike that reform, they are also generating (and being prompted by) substantive research. We cannot ignore this new movement, this new reform , which affects all who teach and who strive to continually improve their effectiveness as teachers.

Also in this issue are two interviews with physics educators on the subject of reform. They bring current reform efforts into focus, and also raise new issues that are just being recognized. The recently adopted national science standards are part of the current reform effort. In an article reprinted from the American Astronomical Society newsletter, Jay Pasachoff notes some significant oversights in these standards.

In the previous issue, I issued a challenge to the readers to give their views on proposals raised in this newsletter about broadening the spectrum of paths to a physics bachelor's degree. Several took up the challenge; their letters and an article from Illinois State are in this issue.

The Sputnik Era: Why is This Educational Reform Different From All Other Reforms?

Rodger W. Bybee
Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education
National Research Council

Editor's note: The following two articles are taken from talks presented at the symposium Reflecting on Sputnik: Linking the Past, Present, and Future of Educational Reform, hosted by the Center for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Education of the National Academy of Sciences. They have been edited in order to fit this newsletter, and are being reprinted here by permission of the National Academy of Sciences. The full text of the talks, along with others presented at the symposium, can be found online, to which the interested reader is encouraged to turn. In particular, the editor has taken the regrettable step of removing the references from these articles in order to save space. The extensive reference lists can of course also be found at the NAS website listed above.

At a recent meeting of science teachers, a colleague who was chairing the panel, asked me her favorite question about the current reform of science and mathematics education, "Why is this educational reform different from all other reforms?" October 4, 1997, the 40th anniversary of Sputnik, presents the opportunity for educators to ask how the Sputnik era was different from other reforms. In this essay I use the Sputnik era to illuminate aspects of educational reform that have implications for the contemporary period.

The educational reform of the 1950s and 1960s was already in progress when the Soviet Union placed Sputnik in orbit. However, Sputnik still played a significant role in educational reform. It has become a historical turning point. For the public, it symbolized a threat to American security, to our superiority in science and technology, and to our progress and political freedom. In short, the United States perceived itself as scientifically, technologically, militarily, and economically weak. As a result, educators, scientists, and mathematicians broadened and accelerated educational reform, the public understood and supported the effort, and the policy makers increased federal funding.

What is sometimes referred to as the "Golden Age" of science and mathematics education began in the 1950s with development of new programs that eventually became known by their acronyms. Science programs included the Physical Science Study Committee, known as PSSC Physics; the Chemical Education Materials Study, known as Chem Study; the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, known as BSCS biology; the Earth Sciences Curriculum Project, known as ESCP earth science. At the elementary level, there was the Elementary Science Study, known as ESS; the Science Curriculum Improvement Study, known as SCIS, and Science-A Process Approach, known as S-APA.

What was Education Like Before Sputnik?
After World War II, debate about the quality of American education escalated. Individuals such as Admiral Hyman Rickover, and most notably Arthur Bestor, became critics of John Dewey's ideas and the rhetoric of progressive education, especially the theme of life-adjustment. The dominant theme of the critics was BACK - back to fundamentals, back to basics, back to drill and memorization, and back to facts. Bestor called for a return to past practices and argued for a restoration of learning as the theme for reform. 

In The fall of 1957, the debate about American education reached a turning point. Sputnik resolved the debate in favor of those who recommended greater emphasis on higher academic standards, especially in science and mathematics. Sputnik made clear to the American public that it was in the national interest to change education, in particular the curriculum in mathematics and science. Although they had previously opposed federal aid to schools (on the grounds that federal aid would lead to federal control) the public required a change in American education. After Sputnik the public demand for a federal response was unusually high and Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958.

Curriculum reformers of the Sputnik era shared a common vision. Across disciplines and within the educational community, reformers generated enthusiasm for their initiatives. They would replace the current content of topics and information with a curriculum based on the conceptually fundamental ideas and the modes of scientific inquiry and mathematical problem solving. The reform would replace textbooks with instructional materials that included films, activities, and readings. No longer would schools' science and mathematics programs emphasize information, terms, and applied aspects of content. Rather, students would learn the structures and procedures of science and mathematics disciplines.

The reformers' vision of replacing the curriculum, combined with united political and economic support for educational improvement, stimulated the reform. The Eisenhower administration (1953-1961) provided initial economic support and the enthusiasm of the Kennedy administration (1961-1963) moved the nation forward on reform initiatives. While the Soviet Union had provided Sputnik as a symbol for the problem, President Kennedy provided manned flight to the moon as America's solution to the problem.

The reformers themselves represented senior scholars from prestigious institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), National Academy of Engineering (NAE), and American Mathematical Society (AMS). They had affiliations with Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, University of Illinois, University of Maryland, and University of California. In the public's and funders' views, the scientists, mathematicians, and engineers who led projects during this era gave credibility and confidence that we could really achieve a revolution in American education. In 1963 Frances Keppel, then U.S. Commissioner of Education commented that "more time, talent, and money than ever before in history have been invested in pushing outward the frontiers of educational knowledge, and in the next decade or two we may expect even more significant developments." Keppel may have been correct about the investment and the frontiers of educational knowledge; but, in the next decade, education witnessed significant developments that changed his optimistic projection of the Sputnik-based revolution in American education.

Just as social and political factors had initiated and supported the Sputnik era of educational reform, in the 1960s social and political factors also arose and acted as countervailing forces to the pursuit of excellence, high academic standards, and learning the conceptual and methodological basis of science and mathematics disciplines. I should also note that in the Sputnik era political, social, and economic support combined with the enthusiasm of scholars and a single focus on replacing curriculum programs omitted what I consider a necessary aspect of educational reform--establishing policies at the state and local levels that would sustain the innovative programs in the school system.

Was Curriculum Reform in the Sputnik Era a Failure?
Educational reform is not a pass or fail phenomenon. Every reform effort contributes to the overall development and continuous improvement of the educational system. The educational community and the public learn from the experience. It is also the case that many hold the misconception that a particular reform will, once and for all time, fix our educational problems. Reformers of the Sputnik era, therefore, did not fail. Although the reformers made mistakes and the programs had weaknesses, the approaches they used, the groups they formed, and the programs they developed have all had a positive and lasting influence on American education. Reports in the late 1970s indicated that the curriculum programs had broad impact. The new programs were being used extensively and commercial textbooks had incorporated these approaches. For example, in the academic year 1976/77 almost 60% of school districts were using one or more of the federally funded programs in grades 7 through 12; and 30% of school districts reported using at least one program in elementary schools. Reviews of the effect of science curricula on student performance indicated that the programs were successful, (i.e., student achievement was higher in Sputnik-era programs than with traditional curriculum) especially the BSCS programs.

Mathematics presented a different situation. Mathematicians criticized the new programs because the content was too abstract and neglected significant applications; teachers criticized the programs because they were too difficult to teach; and, parents criticized the new math because they worried that their children would not develop fundamental computational skills. Although 30% of districts reported using NSF supported mathematics programs in the early 1970s, only 9% reported using NSF programs in 1976/77. Most important, mathematics teachers supported this change from Sputnik era programs back to basic curricular.

Another often unrecognized outcome of the Sputnik era was the birth of educational groups that specialized in development of instructional materials. Some of the groups continue today, for example, Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, Lawrence Hall of Sciences, and Educational Development Center. Further, new groups that serve a similar educational function have emerged since the Sputnik era, for example the National Science Resources Center (NSRC) and Technical Education Resources Center (TERC).

A not insignificant influence from the Sputnik era is the many classroom activities and lessons that infuse science and mathematics education. For example, the ESS program produced activities on "Batteries and Bulbs" and "Mystery Powders." These, and many other are used in classrooms, undergraduate teacher education, and professional development workshops. Though not as nationally prominent as achievement scores, we did affect some changes in the teaching and learning of science and mathematics.

I think it is quite significant that senior scientists, mathematicians, and engineers worked along with teachers and other educators in this reform. They set a precedent for current and future reforms of education. It is also significant that many educators, for example, those responsible for teacher education, were not directly involved in the reform and were slow to support it through revision of programs for certification and licensure, professional workshops for teachers, and undergraduate courses for future teachers.

The Sputnik era continued into the early 1970s. If I had to indicate an end of the era, it would be 1976. Man-A Course of Study (MACOS), an anthropology program developed with NSF funds, came under scrutiny and wide spread attack from conservative critics who objected to the subject matter. The combined forces of House subcommittee hearings, NSF internal review, and the Government Accounting Office investigation of the financial relationships between NSF and the developers, signaled the end of the MACOS program and symbolized the end of an era of curriculum reform.

What Have We Learned?
Examination of the Sputnik era reveals that it had both similarities and differences from other educational reforms. Some observations are worth noting for reform minded individuals and groups. Following are several lessons that we can draw from the experience.

First, replacement of school science and mathematics programs is difficult at best, and probably impossible. Although leaders in the Sputnik era used terms like "revision" and "reform" the intention was to replace school science and mathematics programs. Their zeal and confidence was great. In some sense they approached the reform as a "field of dreams." That is, if they built good curriculum materials then science teachers would adopt them, thus replacing traditional programs. Such an approach, however, confronts pervasive institutional resistance, raises the personal concerns of teachers, and alarms the public. The need to understand what happened in the Sputnik era contributed to research on curriculum implementation, concerns of teachers, and educational change.

The lesson here is the importance of using our knowledge about educational change. Not only are new programs important, other components of the educational system must themselves change and provide support for the implementation of educational innovations. Those components include peer teachers, administration, school boards, the community, and a variety of local, state, and national policies.

Second, reluctance of teachers increases as the innovations vary from current programs and practices and they lack political, social, and educational support. Teachers had difficulty with the content and pedagogy of new programs such as PSSC, BSCS, CHEM Study, SCIS, and ESS. Lacking educational support within their system and experiencing political criticism from outside of education, they sought security by staying with or returning to the traditional programs.

The educational lesson here centers on the importance of both initial and ongoing professional development and support for the new programs and practices. In addition, educational reformers have to recognize that changes in social and political forces has an effect on school programs.

Third, exclusion of those in the larger science and mathematics education community, e.g., teacher educators, science education researchers, and the public contributed to the slow acceptance and implementation of the programs, reduced understanding by those entering the profession, and afforded less than adequate professional development for teachers in the classroom.

Here we learned to involve more than teachers. Education is a system consisting of many different components. One important component consists of those who have some responsibility for teacher preparation, workshops and professional development, and the implementation of school science and mathematics programs. It is best to work from a perspective that attempts to unify and coordinate efforts among teachers, educators, and scientists all of whom have strengths and weaknesses in their respective contribution to reform efforts.

Fourth, realities of state and local school districts went unrecognized. Support from federal agencies and national foundations freed developers from the political and educational constraints of state and local agencies and the power and influence of commercial publishers.

This lesson directs attention to a broader, more systemic, view of education, one that includes a variety of policies. One view of education suggests it involves polices, programs, and practices. Usually, individuals, organizations, and agencies contribute in various ways in the formulation of policy, development of programs, or the implementation of practices, however, there must be coordination and consistency among the various efforts. Designing and developing new programs, such as we did in the Sputnik era, without attending to a larger educational context to support those programs and changing classroom practices to align with the innovative program surely marginalizes the success of the initiative.

Fifth, restricting initiatives to curriculum for specific groups of students, i.e., science and mathematically prone and college-bound students, resulted in criticism of Sputnik-era reforms as inappropriate for other students such as the average and the disadvantaged. To the degree school systems implemented the new programs teachers found that the materials were inappropriate for some populations of students and too difficult for others. Restricting policies or targeting programs opens the door to criticism on the grounds of equity. Proposing initiatives for ALL students also often results in criticism from both those who maintain there is a need for a specific program for those inclined toward science and mathematics and those who argue that programs for all discriminate against the disadvantaged.

Examining the nature and lessons of Sputnik era reforms, as well as those that came before and after, clearly demonstrates that educational reforms differ. Although this may seem obvious, we have not always paid attention to some of the common themes and general lessons that may benefit the steady work of improving science, mathematics, and technology education. Stated succinctly, those lessons are: use what we know about educational change; include all the key players in the educational community; align policies, programs, and practices with the stated purposes of education; work on improving education for all students; and, attend to the support and continuous professional development of classroom teachers, since they are the most essential resource in the system of science and mathematics education.

What We Have Learned And Where We Are Headed: Lessons From the Sputnik Era

George E. DeBoer, Colgate University

Introduction and Historical

Forty years ago, the Soviet Union launched the earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik, an event that energized a reform movement in science and mathematics education that had actually begun several years earlier. In the mid 1950s the National Research Council (NRC) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), as well as various professional organizations in science and mathematics, sponsored meetings and conferences to discuss ways to revise the science and mathematics curriculum. The interest in reform was stimulated by two related concerns. First, World War II raised questions about the adequacy of our technical expertise, especially vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in the postwar years, and it raised questions about the quality of our educational system for preparing individuals for work in technical fields. Second, progressive education, which had enjoyed the support of the educational community for most of the first half of the 20th century, was being mercilessly attacked during the late 1940s and early 1950s for being anti-intellectual and for having failed to transmit the cultural heritage to the youth of this country.

According to the critics, science and mathematics content was badly out of date and tended to be presented in an encyclopedic format, as bits and pieces of information to be memorized, or computational skills to be mastered, without developing a sense of the relationships between broader ideas. The subjects were not presented as coherent, integrated, conceptual wholes but as collections of fragments. A second concern was that the older courses misrepresented the nature of science and mathematics by failing to portray the essential character of rational inquiry in generating knowledge. These subjects were treated as sets of stable facts and principles, and adequate attention was not given to the historical development of the subject or the human dimension of scientific and mathematical inquiry. Finally, the connections that were made between scientific principles and social and technological applications in the name of personal and social relevance were seen as trivial and were thought to diminish the intellectual quality of the courses.

What We Have Learned
We believe now that it is possible for education to be both rigorous and student-centered at the same time. Curriculum reformers of the 1960s were responding to a barrage of conservative criticism of progressive, child-centered education. Unfortunately, learning the structure of mathematics or chemistry or physics meant learning the discipline the way that scientists understood the subject. Today curriculum reformers present a logically organized outline of the disciplines, but they also take a much more student-centered approach to teaching and learning. The image is of students and teachers working together in setting goals, planning instruction, designing and managing the learning environment, and assessing the learning outcomes

Our ideas about inquiry have also changed since the term was so prominently used during the curriculum reform movement of the 1960s. At that time the word "inquiry" was used to describe both a significant aspect of the nature of science as well as a specific approach to teaching. In this latter sense, inquiry was synonymous with "discovery" and "inductive" approaches to teaching and learning. During the reform movement of the 1960s there was the tendency to define inquiry quite precisely in terms of a set of process skills, often with the implication that these skills could be learned independently of the content of science. Today, inquiry still receives serious attention in the NRC's National Standards but it is presented as a much more general process of investigation, both as conducted by scientists and by students in the classroom. Inquiry means asking questions and attempting to answer them through various means of investigation.

Equity issues are also prominent in the 1990s approach to curriculum reform in a way that they were not in the 1960s. In the postwar years, gifted education was thought of as a way to solve the problem of shortages of qualified personnel in technical fields. Giftedness was seen as a valuable national resource that was being underutilized. Today, however, there seems to be a genuine interest in providing a high quality education with explicitly high standards for everyone. In keeping with this equity orientation, the National Science Education Standards does not differentiate goals for differing ability students. A common criticism of the curriculum reformers of the 1960s is that they did not sufficiently consider the need to postpone abstract learning until the student was capable of dealing with such intellectual complexity. Today, given the influence of Piagetian ideas, stages of intellectual development and readiness for learning are given much more attention.

Even though there are significant differences in the way we look at science, mathematics, and technology education today compared with 40 years ago, many of the ideas that were important then are still important today. One is the idea that "less is more." Numerous attempts were made during this century to organize content into conceptually integrated packages that could be studied in depth so as to avoid the fragmentation that results when facts and information are presented in encyclopedic fashion.

A second idea that was prominent both in the 1960s and today is that leaning is an active process. During the first half of the century, activity-based education tended toward the solution of practical and socially relevant problems that were of interest to the students. During the period of NSF-reform, students were expected to practice the kinds of activities that scientists engaged in because this was seen as an effective way for them to master content and because it would provide them with an accurate view of the process of scientific investigation.

Where are we headed?
In many ways it seems that we are very much on track in our thinking about science, mathematics, and technology education. Educational leaders have taken the best ideas of the progressive era and the Sputnik era and modified them to produce statements about education that speak to a rigorous engagement with organized content within a context that is sympathetic to issues of personal and social relevance and to student interest. But more needs to be done. In the space remaining I would like to point to some areas of science, mathematics, and technology education that still need improvement and how we might achieve our goals.

In the August, 1997 issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Bill Kyle addresses the need to improve undergraduate science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education at the postsecondary level. He refers to two recent reports: one is the NRC's (1996) From analysis to action: Undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology, and the other is the NSF's (1996) Shaping the future: New expectations for undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. Both reports note the critical but unmet need for all college students to acquire "literacy in these subjects by direct experience with the methods and processes of inquiry".

Our failure to achieve the important goal of scientific literacy and to impart functional knowledge to our students is as important now as it has ever been. There is today a very significant anti-science attitude in this country and a growing belief in the claims of pseudo-science.

The impact we are having in developing an understanding of the nature and role of science in our world is extremely limited. Neither schools, nor the mass media, nor the scientific community itself has been able to present science so that it is understood and appreciated by the general citizenry. I would like to make four suggestions, each of which point to what I will call a more humanistic approach to science, mathematics, and technology education. I propose a humanistic approach because I believe it is the only way to genuinely engage students in the study of science, mathematics, and technology so that they become knowledgeable about their importance in our world.

  1. The study of science, mathematics, and technology must be made more enjoyable and interesting.
    Science, mathematics, and technology education must be made much more enjoyable and interesting if we are to have any success at all in our efforts at scientific literacy. Science is perceived by many to be distasteful and hard to learn. I believe it is distasteful to many people because the approach of science is to analyze our experience with the world into parts and particles that have very little meaning for the way we actually live our lives. Thus, science is often criticized as being coldly analytical and objective, and without passion. Science, mathematics, and technology must be presented in ways that make sense to people and connect with the actual lives they live.

  2. Science, mathematics, and technology education should be used for personal intellectual development and not to accomplish the society's political goals.
    Instead of using the educational system to accomplish specific instrumental goals of the society, a humanistic approach maximizes personal intellectual development. Prominent political goals in this country have included the desire to achieve military and economic supremacy in the world and to be first on international tests of science and mathematics knowledge.

    It is one thing for a free democratic society to compel its students to attend school in order to give them a broad general education that will help them to engage with the world in an intelligent way, to recognize their responsibilities to each other and to the maintenance of the natural world, and even to learn what we think it means to lead a virtuous life. But it is something very different for that society to educate these students to achieve specific nationalistic aims. Regardless of our personal ambitions for national supremacy or for global democracy, we must always keep in mind that the only legitimate goal that we can have for our students is their own personal growth as it relates to the world in which they live. Their autonomous development is what will make them true citizens in a free society.

  3. Teachers and local school districts should have the autonomy to interpret broadly stated aims of education in terms of local conditions and the cultural norms of the community.
    Education in the United States grew up around a rational, technical, management model of curriculum and instruction whose purpose was the efficient transformation of society. Since the early years of the 20th century, educators have attempted to specify in great detail what is important to know and how to get students to learn it so that societal goals can be met. Teachers are asked to take on the role of educational technicians whose responsibility is to present the curriculum package and to measure its outcomes. When expected learning outcomes are not achieved, teachers are blamed for not delivering the curriculum to the students or for not demanding more of the students. There are two problems with this approach to teaching and learning. The first is that it restricts the choices that students can make. If everything is specified and "essential," there is little room for choice on their part. The second is that it fails to make adequate use of the knowledge and expertise of individual teachers by limiting their autonomy to act as responsible professionals.

    We have let go of a lot of what we consider essential knowledge in recent years, but we need to let go of even more. There is simply too much to choose from. There are hundreds of versions of science courses that could be taught in high school, each with a different approach and focus, but each legitimate in its own way. We must take the "less is more" philosophy seriously and get to the place where only the broadest outlines of the subjects are considered essential. Individual teachers and school districts should then have the freedom to address these broad goals in the way that they feel is most suitable for their own students.

  4. We should make greater use of student-directed learning.
    With respect to students' participation in their own learning, the NRC's Standards discusses at considerable length a model of shared responsibility for teaching and learning in their chapter on "Science Teaching Standards." According to this model, teachers begin with the questions that students have and build instruction around these questions jointly with them. This will insure intellectual engagement in a way that coercion never will. At all levels of education, students represent a rich resource of life experiences that they can share as well as creative ideas about how teaching and learning can effectively occur. Given responsibility for organizing the classroom, they can devise strategies that work for them. Student-directed learning is more than student-centered learning. It gives students, in cooperation with the teacher, the freedom to organize the classroom and to decide on the content that they are to learn.

    In summary, a humanistic approach to science education grants students and teachers the freedom they need to grow together toward a deeper understanding of the role of science in our contemporary world. It offers an awareness of the methods of science, a sense of the enormous influence that science and technology have had on the physical and intellectual landscape of the modem world, an understanding of some of the major theories that have been offered to explain the phenomena that we observe in the natural world, and an appreciation for the limits as well as the power of scientific thinking to describe human experience. A humanistic approach to science education presents a particular way of thinking and the knowledge that has been generated by those methods. It is not fragmented. It is holistic and it is organic. It always comes back to the big questions. It is humanistic because its primary interest is in how studying the natural world and the developments that have come from it affect all of humanity.

Developing and Sustaining Leadership in Science, Mathematics and Technology Education
How can we build leadership to accomplish an agenda like this? There is a tendency when speaking of leadership in education to interpret it as the ability to implement reform, to educate teachers and administrators concerning some new program and the program's philosophy so that it can be effectively delivered to students. Staff development, organizational development, involvement of parents and other community members, and the reform of teacher preparation programs are cited as the tasks of educational leaders. Although these are important skills for leaders in education to possess, I believe there are additional qualities that should characterize educational leaders as well.

  1. Leaders in science, mathematics, and technology education should be broadly and liberally educated.
  2. Leaders in science, mathematics, and technology education should be critical and skeptical in their own work and model these attitudes for others.
  3. Leaders in science, mathematics, and technology education should think of education as a life long pursuit, both for themselves and those they are trying to lead.

The Sputnik era was a distinctive period in the history of science education in the United States. It is often considered a time of conservative reform because of its emphasis on rigor and discipline as opposed to the more progressive child-centered approaches that both preceded and followed it. It is reminiscent of the science education reforms of the 1890s that were led by Harvard President and chemist, Charles Eliot, and which culminated in the report of the Committee of Ten. It also bears similarity to the spirit of reform of the early 1980s, particularly the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk. Although we can easily point to lessons that were learned during the Sputnik era, it is difficult to say how long those lessons will be remembered. Attitudes in science education seem to oscillate over time between those that favor the mastery of content as it is understood and organized by the adult mind and those that favor adapting the content of the curriculum to the particular interests of individual students. Without a clearer and more fundamental sense of what we are trying to accomplish, there is little reason to think that movement between these two distinctive ideologies will not continue in the future.

Science, mathematics, and technology educators will not achieve the success they desire until they can clearly identify the educational goals and purposes that are suitable within a free democratic society and successfully communicate that vision to teachers, administrators, and parents. I have argued here that the personal development of autonomous individuals should be the goal of educators within a democratic society. All students should receive a broad general education that will help them to engage with the world in an intelligent way and to recognize their responsibilities to each other and to the maintenance of their physical world. Our goal should be the personal development of free, rational, and independent individuals in ways that allow them to live more fully and intelligently in the world they experience and to engage thoughtfully and critically with the most important issues facing us.

Science Education Reform: Interviews with Ramon Lopez and Dean Zollman

There has been much discussion about science education "reform" the past several years, some of it prompted by well-publicized studies such as "A Nation at Risk;" this discussion and subsequent action has led to equally familiar publications such as "Science for all Americans" and "Shaping the Future." International exams such as TIMSS warn us that our students are not learning math and science in grades K-12. Studies of conceptual learning in college physics courses tell us that students are missing most of what we think we are teaching them.

We recently passed the 40th anniversary of the launching of sputnik, an event which has been perceived as the trigger for educational reform of the 60s. It offers us an occasion to reflect on reforms of the past and of the present, and to ask what is different about the present reform. With this in mind, the FEd Editor interviewed two leaders in science education to get their observations on reform and the future of science-and especially physics-education.

Ramon Lopez is Director of the APS Education Department.

What, in your view, is meant by the term "reform" (in this context)?
"Reform" means lots of things to different people. To me it means moving toward a philosophy of science education where children learn by doing. In an institutional sense, reform means that a school system redefines how students do science. A lot of this comes down to budget line items. Real reform means institutional and administrative changes that support what goes on in the classroom.

Is science education reform now occurring in this country?
Yes. It is spasmodic, but it is there. The current reform builds on the last wave of reform generated by Sputnik. The fundamental difference between this and the sputnik reform was that the earlier reform focused on the "best and brightest", in order to develop a cadre of scientists and engineers to counteract the perceived defense threat. Now we work from the premise that all children need to be scientifically literate. Physicists have played a major role in both reforms, from Jerrold Zacharias to Lillian McDermott.

What do you see as the principal goals of science education reform?
The principal goal is scientific literacy for all. The reform itself is based on activities and inquiry in science education. There has been a general tendency for children to start losing interest in science in the elementary grades, but research has shown that when children have been doing hands-on science, they stay interested.

How will this reform be different from past reforms?
Institutionalization is the big difference. The sputnik-inspired reforms generated high quality hands-on teaching materials but did not pay enough attention to institutionalizing the reforms. Institutionalizing means developing a materials support infrastructure, providing ongoing professional development for teachers, aligning assessment with instruction, and assuring ongoing community and administrative support.

What do you see as the major obstacles to reform?
I see lack of will - "benign neglect" - as the major obstacle. Communities need to decide that science is as important as, say, athletics. Parents need to understand the importance of science education in helping their children prepare to get better jobs. 

Is reform taking place at the college level? In Physics?
College-level reform is especially taking place in physics. Research has been built up over the last 15 years to support reform. People like Lillian McDermott have shown the ineffectiveness of traditional methods for teaching conceptual understanding, and have developed new materials and practices which have been shown to be effective. I am especially excited about the way the University of Illinois has redefined its courses along these lines in what I could call a systemic reform. There are many other examples of reform, among which I would mention Eric Mazur's work on peer instruction, and Jack Wilson's studio physics approach. 

How can faculty be encouraged to "buy in" to reform... how can they become engaged in it?
Faculty concerns are legitimate. A lot is known about the sociology of instituting change. It cannot be too burdensome, or it won't work. Departments have to provide support structures so that it is as easy as possible for faculty members to make changes. They shouldn't have to reinvent the materials and techniques themselves. The technology they are to use must work and be supported. Faculty must have the right materials, in ready-to-teach form. Training is also vital. These issues must be considered carefully if we are to effect systemic change. Not just faculty, but also TAs must be included. The whole issue of faculty development is a key one.

At the K-8 level, how can reform become systemic?
Systemic change means that in the end you have the same budget as before the reform, but you are doing things differently. But there is a one-time cost of implementing change. New materials and initial training are new costs. Parents must be prepared to support this.

What are the major trends in reform of high school physics?
There are efforts to improve instruction and materials. Not much thought has been given to structural changes in the way physics is taught. For example, block scheduling, where a class would meet for two hours a day rather than the one hour (or less) in the traditional schedule, would provide the time needed for inquiry-based learning.

Do you have any other observations you wish to share with me?
The recent changes in the ABET standards, which would allow Colleges of Engineering to teach physics (and other sciences) themselves, pose a huge and potentially serious challenge to Physics departments. This year the APS is organizing a pilot Strategic Planning Institute for Improving Undergraduate Physics Education. The goals of the institutes would be for teams from participating colleges to prepare a draft strategic plan for systemic change to take back to their institution, and to build a network of institutions implementing similar approaches. AAPT is also very active in promoting change in undergraduate physics education. I think that over the next few years physics department will rise to the challenges before them and better serve their students as a result.

Broadening the Physics Degree: A New Bachelor's Degree in Computational Physics at Illinois State University

Richard Martin and Shang-Fen Ren

A decade ago the physics department at Illinois State University, realizing the increasingly important role computation was playing in our discipline, began a systematic effort to incorporate computational exercises into all our physics major classes. The response from students over the years has been quite positive, to the extent that many reported back after graduation that they wished they'd had even more computational experience. Partly in response to such input, we have developed a new Bachelor of Science degree sequence in Computational Physics. The degree is targeted at students aiming for employment as computational scientists and engineers, as well as those bound for graduate study in a computationally intensive field. Already, in its first year of existence, the program has attracted a large group of students including some converts from our traditional physics degree, but also several from our "3-2" physics-engineering double degree program with the University of Illinois. Apparently, these students see the program as a good compromise between a full engineering degree (which requires at least one extra year of school) and the traditional physics degree, which is perceived as being less useful for immediate post-baccalaureate employment. Moreover, we are investigating several recently developed computational science and engineering graduate programs, for which our degree could serve as a feeder program. We see the program as a potentially useful recruiting tool, which we will take advantage of in the near future. Besides in-house support, the program has been supported by an NSF/ILI-LLD grant, and has received two awards from the DOE Computational Science and Engineering program.

The new sequence, leading to a B.S. in Computational Physics, parallels the standard Physics degree for the first two years, requiring all the same introductory and intermediate physics and math courses as well a Computer Programming for Scientists class. In the Junior year students in the new program begin taking more computationally intensive classes (along with a reduced load of advanced physics classes): Hardware and Software Concepts, Methods of Computational Science, Advanced Computational Physics (a team-taught projects course), and Computational Research in Physics (a senior capstone semester project). A variety of senior electives are offered, including two computationally oriented courses: Molecular Dynamics and Nonlinear Science. Thus, the computational physics students obtain a strong foundation in physics as well as a solid introduction to computational methods, modeling, and analysis, preparing them with the flexible skills required for today's competitive employment environment. In particular, the programming skills obtained through the program open up a much wider array of immediate employment opportunities.

The Department of Physics at Illinois State University has thirteen full time faculty and about 100 physics majors. Two-thirds of the faulty are active in research involving computational physics. Our computational curricular development over the past decade is a natural exploitation of this departmental strength, in the best teacher-scholar tradition. A side benefit is that students are offered a wide array of opportunities for active involvement in computationally oriented research. With their improved computational skills, majors in the computational physics program can become useful contributors to research projects, and gain invaluable experience and self-confidence in the process. We hope this education-research synergy will expand both programs in to the next century.

Further Information

The authors are from the Department of Physics, Illinois State University, Campus Box 4560, Normal, IL 61790-4560.

Astronomy and the New National Science Education Standards: Some Disturbing News and an Opportunity

Jay Pasachoff

The National Research Council's "National Standards in Science Education," released in January 1996, is the latest and most comprehensive set of national standards for science education in grades K-12. Required by the adoption of national educational goals through President Bush's America 2000 and President Clinton's Goals 2000 programs, voluntary national standards are a relatively new strategy for improving the quality of education in the United States. National standards in social studies, mathematics, and science have already been published. Receiving major funding from the Department of Education and the NSF, the National Research Council, at the request of the National Science Teacher's Association, organized the creation of "National Standards for Science Education."

Previous science education standards outlined in Project 2061's "Science for All Americans" and "Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy" and in the NSTA's "The Content Core" have concentrated on defining the specific knowledge needed for scientific literacy. The new NRC standards include not only content requirements defining scientific literacy, but also standards for student assessment, teaching, teacher development, and program and system performance. But while the aims, breadth, and general quality of the new standards are impressive, the standards are seriously flawed with respect to their treatment of astronomy education. Their greatest shortcomings are the shallow, empirical treatment of astronomical topics and the categorization of all such subject matter under one discipline called "Earth and Space Science."

Briefly, the only content standard requirements relevant to astronomy (topics that should be taught at each grade level) in the new standards are as follows:

Astronomy Standards (From Table 6.4, "Earth and Space Science Standards")

  • K-4 Objects in the Sky, Changes in the Sky
  • 5-8 Earth's History, Earth in the Solar System
  • 9-12 Origin/Evolution of the Earth System, Origin/Evolution of Universe

Note that no astronomy outside the solar system is listed for grades 5-8 and even the mention of the solar system minimizes the astronomy point of view. Apparently even the idea that stars shine from nuclear energy was deemed too abstract to teach before the 9th grade.

Furthermore, stars as they exist are not explicitly mentioned. Other content standard categories in the new Standards include "Science as Inquiry," "Physical Science," "Life Science," "Science and Technology," "Science in the Social and Personal Perspectives," and the "History and Nature of Science." Perceiving that the fundamental concepts of astronomy were not appropriately integrated into the standards of physical AND earth/space science, an AAS focus group recommended in 1995 that additional topics be added to these minimal requirements under the heading "Physical Science." The focus group was Chaired by Mary Kay Hemenway, AAS Education Officer, and consisted of members of the AAS Education Advisory Board, the AAS Education Policy Board, and the three AASTRA site directors.

The AAS focus group's 1995 recommendations and requests for change were basically to redefine the standards as follows, in order to put some physical thought and some modern topics in the listings:

Astronomy Standards (From Recommended "Physical Science" Standards)

  • K-4 Motion of sun, moon, planets
  • 5-8 Stars and how they shine
  • 9-12 Nature of Galaxies/Universe

Astronomy Standards (From Recommended "Earth and Space Science" Standards)

  • K-4 Objects in the Sky, Changes in the Sky
  • 5-8 Earth's History, (Earth and) The Solar System
  • 9-12 Origin/Evolution of Earth System

Some specific suggestions from the AAS focus group's content recommendations were:

  • K-4: Add the relation of light and stars; comparison of motions of terrestrial and celestial objects.
  • 5-8: Add stars as sources of energy, heat and light; role of gravity in guiding solar system motions; Geological properties of earth compared with other planets.
  • 9-12: Leaping to origin of universe in context of earth sciences/planetary systems is shallow; in physical sciences, add role of gravity in driving evolution of physical universe and concepts of gravitational, kinetic and radiant energy.

In General: The astronomy standards lack any mention of how astronomers gather data and infer the nature of objects which cannot be touched directly.

Unfortunately, as the first chart shows, none of the major recommendations made by the focus group were incorporated into the final draft of Standards. There were no re-classifications of astronomy subject matter under "Physical Science," nor were any new topics added. Some minor changes, such as including professional scientists and labs in lists of teaching resources for the general public, were made. Finally, there was considerable objection by the focus group to the way in which an important standard for the inclusion/exclusion of material was left undefined. In this case, the focus group requested clarification of a sentence in the introduction praising teachers who make science "relevant" to their students -- as opposed to those whose courses are "simply. . . preparation for another school science course" (p. 12). Without defining what "relevant" should mean, the focus group feared this phrase might allow teachers to exclude certain subject matter from science curricula on the basis of their personal concept of what was "relevant" to a student's life -- and one could argue for the "irrelevance" of many aspects of astronomy.

All in all, the astronomical community has much to regret in these standards. The minimal content standards for astronomy could lead to large amounts of material being left out not only from curricula but from textbooks, too. The appeal of astronomy to the imagination has not been used to draw students to the physical sciences. The intimate relationship between physics, chemistry, math, and astronomy has not been stressed. Now that the standards are promulgated, it is up to us as astronomers and educators to provide interesting material in various forms so that teachers choose to teach it under the rubrics adopted. We must now make the most of our opportunities.

The National Science Education Standards are available for sale from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Avenue, NW, Box 285, Washington, DC 20055. Call 800-624-6242 or 202-334-3313.

This is a longer version of the content standards that apply to astronomy, aside from the straightforward physics ones (like gravity):

Grades K-4
Objects in the Sky -- The sun, moon, stars, clouds, birds, planes have observable, describable motions & properties. The sun provides the light and heat necessary to maintain the earth's temperature.

Changes in the Earth and Sky -- Objects in the sky have patterns of change/movement; ex. solar motion, lunar motion and phases.

Grades 5-8
Earth's History -- Earth history is occasionally affected by asteroid/comet collisions.

Earth in the Solar System -- Solar system has nine planets, their moons, asteroids, comets; sun, an average star, is central. Solar system objects are in regular, predictable motion; motions explain the day, year, phases of moon, seasons, and eclipses. Gravity keeps planets in orbit around sun; gravity holds us to earth and causes tides. Sun is major source of energy for phenomena on earth's surface; cause of seasons.

Grades 9-12
The Origin and Evolution of the Earth System -- Solar system formed from disk of gas/dust 4.6 billion years ago.

The Origin and Evolution of the Universe -- Basics of big bang theory. Light elements clumped into stars; galaxies are gravitationally bound clusters of stars, form most of visible mass in universe. Stars produce energy from nuclear reactions, primarily fusion. Processes in stars lead to formation of all elements.

Jay M. Pasachoff is Professor and Chair of the Department of Astronomy, Williams College, Williamstown, MA 01267. This article was taken from a presentation made at the APS meeting in April, 1997. It has also appeared in the Newsletter of the American Astronomical Society

Interview with a Forum Fellow: Dean Zollman

Dean Zollman is Professor of Physics at Kansas State University. He was recently elected a Fellow of the APS for his work in physics education. This interview was conducted via email from Germany, where Professor Zollman is currently on sabbatical.

First, I wonder if you have any observations about your recent election to Fellowship?
Certainly I feel pleased to have received such an honor. The election of the people whose primary research as been in the teaching and learning of physics indicates to us that our work is valued by the Society and that APS considers this type of effort important for physicists to be doing.

What in your view, is meant by the term "reform" (in the context of science education)?
As the word is generally used it should mean to improve the quality of teaching and learning science. If that is a correct meaning then reform is what we should always be doing in any endeavor. At present reform in science education should mean an acceleration in the process of improvement by applying recent research on how students learn science and by modifying our approach so that a much larger cross section of the society finds science learnable, interesting and enjoyable.

Is science education reform now occurring in this country?
Yes, over the past ten years we have learned a lot about how students learn and some about why they do not learn science. These results are being applied to the teaching and learning of science. As a result many people are changing the way that they help students learn. That process is reform.

What do you see as the principal goals of science education reform?
There are a range of goals; some are related to content and others to social issues. Certainly, as teachers we wish to feel that our students are learning to their maximum potential, and that they are learning the content well. Most of us think that we can do better, so that is certainly a goal. More important is the realization that we need to create an environment in which all types of students feel that science can be accessible to them and that careers in science are not just for a very narrow part of the spectrum of people in the U.S. However, we cannot just focus on those who wish to have careers in science and technology. We need to help create a scientifically literate society. That is a very difficult one to reach but extremely important.

How will this reform be different from past reforms (e.g., sputnik-inspired)?
The difference is spelled out rather specifically in the NSF report Shaping the Future. Present changes in the teaching and learning of science is aimed at all students. The Sputnik era changes had the goal of increasing the number of scientists and engineers. It was aimed at those of us who were likely to make science and technology our careers. Today, we realize that a technologically literate society is extremely important. Therefore, we must help all students learn some science and help them understand what science is.

Another important difference is the changing view of how teaching and learning relate. In the past the emphasis was mostly on teaching. By that I mean that teachers presented information and we assumed that students absorbed it. Now, we realize that students must learn and we need to help that process happen. The focus is shifting from the subject matter and the teacher to the student and the process of learning. The change is far from complete, but I see it happening even in some advanced physics courses.

Is reform taking place at the college level? In physics?
Yes and no. Certainly some colleges, including two-year colleges, and universities have made significant changes in the way that they teach the introductory physics course. Only a few have changed the upper division or graduate courses. While many of the changes have been effective in reaching the goals set for them, few have been adopted at other institutions. So, the changes are happening and are having a positive effect, but the rate of propagation of the changes is rather low.

How can faculty be encouraged to "buy in" to reform…how can they become engaged in it?
There are probably as many different answers to this as there are faculty. Each person needs to have a personal commitment to change. However, some general ideas do apply. First, a faculty member needs to be aware of the research literature on student learning of physics. Usually, the first response is something "but my students are not like the one in this paper." However, even without repeating the experiment in any of the physics education research papers, one becomes more sensitive to the issues addressed in the research just by learning about the research. I find that I hear my students making statements similar to the ones discussed in the research. Even without repeating a carefully designed experiment, I can come to understand that difficulties can be organized and classified. This realization gives a reason to consider reform.

Further, we each need to examine carefully our goals for any course. Looking at the goals and asking ourselves why we teach the way that we do or the topics that we do can lead to an examination of the teaching/learning process.

To buy into a reform effort the faculty member needs to have a personal commitment to making a change and a good reason for wanting to do it.

We also need to allow for failure. Throughout the history of physics, experiments and theories which did not "work" have been a very important part of our progress. Yet, we seem to be in a position of expecting all changes in teaching to be successful and to show improvements in student learning. If a carefully thought out change in teaching fails to meet its goals, we should examine it to learn why. The process of learning why something failed and communicating that information to others should be valued more highly. If faculty realize that not all reform needs to succeed immediately, more are likely to try to make changes.

Do you have any other observations you wish to share with me?
When we look at our we teach and how we might change that teaching, we need to keep in mind that education is a very complex process. In any educational situation interactions are occurring among the teacher, the students, the subject matter and the instructional materials. What works for me in one course may not work in another. Each of us needs to constantly examine how we are teaching and what our goals are. We must also be constantly listening to our students and trying to understand their difficulties. We must be analyzing what the students say and why they are saying it then apply our analysis to our own teaching. That process in itself will lead to significant reform and will make physics more enjoyable for our students and for us.

Browsing Through the Journals

Thomas D. Rossing

A thought-provoking guest comment by Alan Cromer in the December issue of American Journal of Physics raises some critical issues about what he calls the "science standards mania." He cites the Massachusetts Science and Technology Curriculum Framework (1995) as well as the National Research Council's National Science Education Standards (1995). The National standards, he reminds us, started out from the decidedly antiscience position that the standards would reflect the "postmodernist view of science" that "questions the objectivity of observations and the truth of scientific knowledge." He concludes that "the development of fanciful standards and frameworks unconstrained by consideration of time or sequencing has been a major disservice to science education."

Also in the December issue of American Journal of Physics is the lecture given by Millikan Medalist David Griffiths entitled "Is there a text in this class?" The author, a noted writer of physics textbooks, warns us that "a book, at best, is static and one dimensional, but a good lecture exploits the much richer resources afforded by the temporal domain." Although he acknowledges that students at his own Reed College, as well as elsewhere, show only slight improvement in their performance on such tests as the Hestenes Force Concept Inventory, he questions whether these results should be paramount in the current reform movement and "what we are (perhaps inadvertently) sacrificing when we teach to the Force Concept Inventory." He reminds us that most persons learn by the "spiral" approach, in which the same subject recurs again and again, and one's comprehension deepens with every pass.

"US women drop out of research more often than men, so that by the time they reach the end of the 'leaky pipeline'-from undergraduates through to faculty appointments-they are substantially under-represented. By contrast, ethnic minorities-African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians-tend not even to begin science studies, science writer Potter Wickware comments in the November 27 issue of Nature. According to NSF statistics, women account for only 22 per cent of scientists and engineers in the US labor force, while African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians (who collectively amount to more than a quarter of the population) account for only 6 per cent. Given the PhD glut, static levels of undergraduate enrollments and Federal research support, why should science be concerned about opening up a larger pool of applicants? The all-important reason says Caroline Kane, a Berkeley biochemist, is diversity of ideas. "People's life experiences and cultural antecedents are different, sometimes radically so, and these will affect choice of research problems. The result will be an expansion of creative breadth."

"Science Literacy and the U.S.Congress" is the title of a guest editorial in the Journal of College Science Teaching by Vernon J. Ehlers, U.S.Representative from Michigan and the first research physicist elected to Congress. He feels that "some aspects of our science education system provide excellent service to the students. Our graduate education programs mirror the preeminence of our academic research, although I am concerned that so many of our graduate students come from other countries. At the undergraduate level, we are not succeeding as well; this is particularly true for those not majoring in math, science , or engineering." Ehlers feels that we should focus our reform efforts on teacher preparation and teacher enhancement. "With over half of our K-12 teachers ready to retire in the next decade, we have a great opportunity to accelerate top-to-bottom reform of our education system." We need to have more undergraduate science courses that meet the needs of future K-12 teachers, he feels. Finally, he points out that scientists can have a positive influence by being involved in political life at the local and national levels. "I have been pleased by the efforts of many in the science community to become more involved, and there is evidence that Congress has an increasing appreciation of what is at stake as we strive for a technically literate society."

An editorial by Bernard Khoury in the December issue of AAPT's Announcer discusses the question "Physics: Content or Process?" "Ask a group of physicists to identify how best to improve physics education and they are likely to answer something like, 'Employ more teachers who know more physics.' Ask a similar question of a group ;of educationists and you are likely to hear something like, 'Employ more teachers who understand how students learn, inquiry based instruction, collaborative learning, constructivism, and authentic assessment." One group, he points out, feels that content is more important than process, while the other group feels that an undue focus on content overwhelms most students and that we need to pay more attention to how students learn.

A paper by John L. Koprowski on "Sharpening the Craft of Scientific Writing" in that same journal addresses another problem: how to improve student scientific writing. The author, in the Dept. Of Biology at Willamette University, has made his junior-senior course in general ecology a writing-intensive course. Early in the semester, the students write a laboratory manuscript in the standard scientific format (introduction, methods, results, discussion, and literature cited) based on data collected during a laboratory session. A second such manuscript is "peer reviewed" in double-blind fashion. Students evaluated two papers each and received points for each review. Koprowski acts as an editor, reviewing and commenting on the manuscript and also evaluating the quality of the reviews, responding to misleading comments, and finally supplying a grade on the manuscript and the review. Students had the option of rewriting the manuscript to incorporate the comments of the "editor" and the student reviewers.

The November/December issue of the U.S.Department of Education's Community Update has excerpts from the speech "What Really Matters in American Education" by U. S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley at the National Press Club in Washington. "The American people recognize that progress is only going to happen if we make sure that every child has mastered the basics...This is why 79 percent of all Americans support voluntary national tests according to the latest Wall Street Journal poll," he reminds us. Other needs, along with national tests in reading and math, are for "disciplined and drug-free schools, a greater investment in technology, and a growing recognition that taking the tough core courses pays off."


To the Editor,

In response to your Editor's Challenge:

Change is great. Yes, the physics community will need to continue to diversify by pursuing non-traditional areas of research and non traditional job opportunities. However, do we need to change our curriculum to bring this about? I would say no.

I look around at my fellow graduate and undergraduate physics majors and I find very successful people with diverse jobs; PRL editor, NIST researcher, faculty member, academic dean, industrial physicist, etc. We all have one thing in common, we majored in Physics. Why fix something that is not broke? Yes, the world is changing and will continue to change. Isn't the physics major well suited to deal with the changing world? Let us as Physicists continue: to teach problem solving, to teach students to question, to teach classes with high expectations, and to teach students to try different solutions.

Yes, let us continue to develop new curriculum for K - 12 and for the non science majors. Let us continue to develop and change our Introductory Physics sequence. Let us continue to reach out into the community in new ways. Let us recruit more Physics majors. But let us be careful when we start changing the undergraduate and graduate physics major. Physics majors are dynamic individuals able to adapt in this ever changing world we live in.

Jeff Williams
Assistant Professor of Physics
Wheeling Jesuit University
Wheeling, WV 26003

To the Editor,

This is a response to point (1) of your "challenge" on p.3 of Fall 1997 issue of FORUM ON EDUCATION.

One simple formal change that could revitalize the graduate physics curriculum by broadening its scientific horizons is to introduce a weekly reading seminar (perhaps 2 hrs./week) focused on the journal NATURE, with brief forays into SCIENCE, etc. The success of such a venture would depend upon the active and enthusiastic (built up over time?) participation of most faculty, post-docs and graduate students in a department. I believe this exposure should be required (with credit?) for perhaps a year for each graduate student, including a personal subscription to NATURE (currently $85/yr. for graduate students). For that group it would serve as an introduction into a wide range of fields that they might encounter while job-hunting : A familiarity with terminology and current problems may look good at an interview.

I choose NATURE because I find (1) the writing style refreshing, (2)the choice of books reviewed stimulating, (3)the political coverage more global, (4) the coverage of physical science vs. biological science a bit more balanced than in SCIENCE.

Such a seminar, in which many topics might find no local experts, would be a leveling experience, in which students could find themselves able to contribute, through youthful imagination, equally with the more senior researchers, while also observing the ways in which members of the latter group approach unfamiliar topics. E.g. it could be fun to dissect the weekly brainstorming Daedalus column.

It would be desirable to cover a number of topics each week. For some topics of wide interest, but general ignorance, outside informants could be invited. At the time of Newton the regular meetings of the Royal Society dealt with a wide range of topics. I believe the idea presented here is an update of the Royal Society meetings incorporating the advantages of modern media coverage and rapid communication.

I am interested in your opinion of this idea--when and if you would like to voice one.

Sincerely yours,

Harvey Kaplan
Professor Emeritus,
Syracuse University;
Visiting Professor,
College of the City of New York.

Professor Kaplan:

Here is the opinion you asked for. I think this is a superb idea. I think it is healthy for us to remember from time to time that we are scientists, not just physicists. A passing familiarity with hot ideas in other fields can be stimulating, broadening, and informative. Just occasionally a new research idea will come from a session such as you propose, but even if not, students' thinking skills will have been stretched. And as you say, such a familiarity can only help during that job search.

The Editor

To the Editor,

I'm a retired member of APS, not reading as much literature as I once did, or as active, but I joined the Forum on Education when two Forums were available for the price of one, about a year and a half ago.

I'm a Federal/Postal Retiree, and have been for the past 20 years, with not great accomplishments to my name.

I now volunteer in a bi-lingual kindergarten and as we went to the English speaking kindergarten one day, the teacher asked the students what big people (around 6 years old) did. One said they could play ball, another tie his shoes, another eat by himself. But one little boy stunned me by saying "well, you perform an experiment."

I think if our elementary and secondary school children were given more good exposure to physics they may indeed follow it as a subject in college to major in or a career.

Good luck,

Michael C. Thuesen

Mr. Thuesen: I would say that what you are doing is a great accomplishment indeed. And I too hope that more and more of our children will look forward to being able to perform experiments.