Archived Newsletters

Editor's Corner

Samuel Bowen

This summer newsletter is the contribution of a new editor. I have just returned to university teaching after 10 years in the Division of Educational Programs at Argonne National Laboratory. While there I was very involved in DOE programs in support of science teaching, encouraging minority students to chose science careers, and telecommunications for pre-college teachers. This issue will express a number of my interests and experiences. Readers are invited to send reactions, corrections, suggestions, and contributions for future issues after reading this issue.

In this issue we continue to examine the ABET changes which will change the future for a number of physics departments. Robert Ehrlich reports on a survey of engineering deans and their concerns about physics courses for their students. A brief summary from the ABET web page lists the engineering disciplines which do not have physics listed as an explicit requirement. The fall AAPT/APS meeting to revitalize undergraduate physics teaching is profiled. Richard Hake re-iterates his findings on the impact of teaching introductory physics so that students are more fully engaged. Your editor has a fairly long and detailed analysis of the high school physics test which was given in 18 countries as a part of the TIMSS study. A collection of addresses and resources which represent some organizations working to improve pre-college education has been compiled for physicists who may not have looked at this area before. Two pre-college efforts from the past are reviewed and their current condition and futures are discussed. These are the Chicago Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science which was started by Leon Lederman and the TIMS (Teaching Integrated Math and Science) set of laboratory exercises which was created by Howard Goldberg. Your editor has assembled an introductory web-survey of the field of cognitive psychology and learning theory in which notions of "naive" physics (decidedly non-newtonian) are described briefly. Tom Rossing has another contribution of his browsing the literature. I hope you find the issue stimulating.

Message from the Forum Chair

Paul Zitzewitz

As you undoubtedly have heard by now, yet another study has provided documentation that students in secondary schools in the United States compare poorly with those in other countries. Last February, the last results of the 1995 Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) were released. They reported the results of tests in mathematics, general science, advanced mathematics, and physics taken by students in their last year of school. U.S. students, whether typical or top-level, ranked at or near the bottom in both science and math. One of the few bright spots was that the gender gap in U.S. 12th grade science was among the smallest of participating countries.

Although the scores of U.S. students on tests have improved since 1990, those of students in other countries have increased faster. Moreover, a smaller fraction of U.S. students now enroll in the last year of secondary school (75% versus 82% in the other countries involved in TIMMSS) and our student body is no more diverse, nor is its achievement more widely spread than those in other countries. Although our top students are closer to the international average, they are still below.

Studies of the test results have identified no clear cause of the poor performance of U.S. students. Our students watch no more television than those in other countries. While they work at after school jobs more than others, working hours are not correlated with poor performance. Our students do more homework and have a more positive attitude toward mathematics, physics, and chemistry than do those in other countries. Physics students report having more hours of instruction, more lab experiments, reasoning tasks, and a greater use of computers and calculators in class work. While reports of thefts of personal properties and threats to individuals show that the school environment is less than ideal, a poor environment is not correlated with poor performance.

There are certainly additional cultural factors. Many students don't believe that math and science is important to them; only 49% of college-bound high school seniors have taken four years of science. For many students there is less pressure to do well in school than to earn money or achieve in athletics. Others believe that there is no need to become serious students until they reach college. Such factors are obviously very hard to change.

According to a summary by Leland Cogan, at the TIMMSS research center at Michigan State, "magic bullets" to solve the problem, such as more homework, more emphasis on basics, greater instructional time, and earlier exposure to algebra are not supported by the study. Neither is a more centralized curriculum or decision making. He and Secretary of Education Richard Riley point out that U.S. curricula are have less rigor and depth and less focus on building understanding of major concepts. Mathematics and science instruction in the middle grades is highly repetitive and progresses little in terms of the demands it places on students. It continues to emphasize arithmetic while students in other countries have been introduced to more challenging concepts.

What can physicists in academic, governmental, and business environments do? The first is to become aware of the Study. Visit the websites (Trends in International Mathematics and Science and those listed in Sam Bowen's article) and read the summaries. Download or purchase the resource kit. Recognize that because decisions about curriculum and teaching are made at the local level, arguments made about the serious implications of this study should be made to local principals, superintendents, and school boards. Recognize that many primary and secondary science teachers have inadequate preparation for their important tasks. Work with local districts to expose students to the way math and science is used in the world; provide opportunities for high school teachers to deepen and update their knowledge, work with the APS program to . Finally, spread the word. If you are involved with a program that makes a difference, e-mail one of the Forum officers or newsletter editors so that your program can be featured in a future newsletter.

Cognitive Psychology and Learning Theory: A Web Tour

Samuel Bowen

As many of us in the physics community examine various indications that our traditional courses may not be effectively reaching many students, it is worthwhile asking if any other sources of study would be helpful. Since there have recently been a number of new developments in the areas of cognitive psychology, neurophysiology, and learning theory, I thought it timely to provide a web-based tour of some of these developments. The following tour makes no claims to completeness but is an opening to some possibly useful theories and disciplines.

Modern Current Cognitive Models
Most current cognitive models have essentially a three-part model, for example, as found in the information processing model These three parts are: a sensory register, a short-term memory, and a long term memory (LTM). The sensory register is the collection of sensory inputs with some small amount of processing. Signals from the sensory register or the LTM pass through the short term memory which has a capacity of 4 to 7 "chunks". Changes in the long term memory and increases in the speed of retrieval from it constitute learning. The question is how do these three elements operate and how are persistent and retrievable LTM items most efficiently created.

An old model of the learning process viewed the long term memory as analogous to a warehouse into which items are moved and from which those items can be retrieved, independently of the context in which they were stored. Current models of the learning process make several distinctions:

  1. Memory storage is associative, items are stored by connections to previously stored memories and thus are strongly history-dependent.
  2. Items are stored by associations with past memories; contexts and actions. Many cognitive psychologists also argue that knowledge is stored in the memory in a fashion which depends integrally on the sensory mechanisms and contexts by which it was learned and retrieved. In other words, some are now arguing that there is no separate storage of information independent of the context and actions accompanying learning.. One implication of this distinction is that knowledge gained in an isolated context, and not well connected to well established earlier LTM items, will quickly decay and not be generalized to other contexts.
  3. The strength of an item is greater, in terms of recall and long term persistence, the larger the number of associations to previously-stored LTM items.

A more detailed model by Roger Shank of Northwestern University of the learning process suggests that placing new items in long term memory requires a sequence of three steps:

  1. Adopting a goal (wanting to understand or generalize something),
  2. Generating a question, and
  3. Developing an answer.

This view of learning asserts that effective long term storage of knowledge requires that the learning stage first be set by a question and that the answer be generated by the student actively asking and answering questions. Shank argues that our memories are most effectively constructed out of cases (memories and experiences) which we collect together and organize in generalizations arise out of the process of asking questions and developing answers.

Many of the current physics reform efforts are responsive to these new ideas of learning and long term memory. The Interactive-engagement methods are constructed around many of these ideas of how mental models are made and how items are stored in long term memory. The initial contact of many students with the tools and modes of thinking in physics appears to reflect a lack of previous experiences on which to build LTM. It seems possible to me that almost any method of instruction that is based on these emerging models of learning should be capable of effecting stable and useful long term memory processes and facts if we can make contact with the pre-existing memories. Our common goal should be to develop in our students the integrated memories from which they can learn and apply physics in a wide variety of contexts.

The Short Web Tour of Learning Theory
If you search the web under category of learning theory you will encounter three quite different types of sites: Education Colleges, Cognitive Psychology, and Artificial Intelligence Departments.

The colleges of education sites are primarily for practitioners of pre-college education and are not very strong on references and supporting data. A site at the University of Hawaii is a good example of a listing of practical principles. Also on this site is a learning inventory which attempts to allow students to classify the best way in which they learn. There are a number of such inventories and they deserve examination by physicists as we examine seriously how we can get our subject across to a wider variety of students, especially those who might be future pre-college teachers. Visit the site which contains a large collection of such learning style inventories and tests. Visit the general site that provides a brief description of more popular theories of learning. A similar site with more scholarly summaries is Theory into Practice Database. Also one of the best sites for my gaining a broad overview of learning theory or visit the similar site.

The most satisfying site for me and, I suspect, for other physicists, is the Cognitive Architecture site at the University of Michigan. Here, a group of students in a computational learning theory class has constructed a site that discusses all of the current computer-based models of learning. This website is a carefully constructed collection of documents from which one can gain not only a good understanding of computational learning theory models but also data on human learning and how these computer-based systems are designed to model human learning. The discourses in this site offer many explicit and detailed connections between theories and observations.

In this tradition is very valuable, but long, book on the web which has been written by Larry Shank at Northwestern University. This document provides a very detailed and closely argued model of human learning that is close to my introductory summary. The book is a focused argument for computer-based simulations as a powerful tool for learning (from the particular to the general), but his general presentation of modern learning theory is excellent.

A very different, but useful site is CogSci at UCSB. This site is operated by Francis F. Steen in the Department of English. He attempts to be together with the best of cognitive psychology as it applies to memory, learning, and imagery. Even though this site is primarily for non-scientists, much of its information could be extremely valuable. One section entitled "Talking about Memory" reviews two books in cognitive neuroscience by M.S. Gazzaniga, and by R. E. Cytowic on data showing that memories are stored inseparably with their sensory modality, action, and context. The site has an excellent bibliography and articles which contain sections on "naïve physics", "numeracy", and "folk biology". These sections especially contain descriptions of the intuitive notions (and decidedly non-Newtonian) that students bring to class from their experience of growing up.

Finally, there is another interesting area, the study of the formation of mental models, what many of us would identify as the "real physics". There was an excellent review paper by R. Koffijberg that appeared on the web. It reviewed the studies to distinguish the nature of mental models and their acquisition by computer simulations. The bibliography is an excellent introduction to this area.

While reviewing all of these and many other sites and sources, I was struck by the paucity of physics related references under the areas of mental models, learning, and problem solving. Much of this literature on problem solving was reviewed by David Maloney in the Fall Newsletter. In this web search there were many applications of these ideas in mathematics and computer science, but few physics applications. At the very least, there should be more involvement of scholars from the fields of cognitive psychology, learning theory, and allied fields in our physics education research and vice versa. If readers have further sources in this area, the editors would be pleased to learn about them.

Building Undergraduate Physics Programs for the 21st Century

The following is only a part of the material that can be found on the AAPT website.

Physics Departments are invited to send a team of two or three physics faculty members to participate in the conference "Building Undergraduate Physics Programs for the 21st Century," to be held October 2-4, 1998 at the DoubleTree Hotel in Arlington, VA. The conference is being organized by the American Association of Physics Teachers with co-sponsorship from the American Institute of Physics, the American Physical Society, and Project Kaleidoscope. Building on the successful (and oversubscribed) May, 1997, Physics Department Chairs Conference, which focused on undergraduate physics, the October conference will bring together teams from physics departments across the country to:

  • learn about physics departments that have successfully revitalized their undergraduate physics programs with innovative introductory physics courses and multi-track majors programs,
  • discuss directly with engineers (for example, from ABET) and life scientists how physics programs can better serve their students,
  • hear from leaders in business and industry how departments can help prepare their majors for the diverse careers pursued by physics majors,
  • learn about ways that physics departments can fulfill their responsibilities in training pre-service K-12 teachers,
  • work with the other conference participants
    • to articulate the goals of a revitalized undergraduate physics program,
    • to identify resources needed for revitalizing a department's program,
    • to develop guidelines and recommendations for a major funding program for collaborative efforts among physics departments in carrying out enhancements of their undergraduate programs,
    • to develop a set of revitalization efforts that can be carried out without substantial external funding.
  • develop plans for your department to begin an undergraduate physics revitalization program.

The conference registration fee will be $195 per person (covering all conference meals, breaks, and materials) for teams registering before 1 September 1998. After that date, the fee will be $300 per person. A registration form is enclosed. You can find further information about the conference, along with an on-line registration form and background documents at the AAPT website.

The impetus behind the movement is expressed by a vision of the future of physics education, entitled, "A Vision for Undergraduate Education in Physics Circa 2005 "

A Vision for Undergraduate Education in Physics Circa 2005
The following is only a part of this document which can be found on the AAPT website.

As outlined in Physics at the Crossroads, the physics community now faces several challenges in undergraduate education.

  • The number of physics bachelors' degrees awarded each year is at a 37-year low with the decline expected to continue for at least several years.3
  • Many students in introductory physics courses find physics irrelevant to their careers and their lives. More than 97% of them never take another physics course and they are often not satisfied with the courses they do take.
  • Physics departments have come to realize that their undergraduate programs are not well designed to serve the majority of their majors, those who do not go on to graduate school in physics.

Although these are serious and difficult problems, we believe that solutions to these problems exist. With a broad-based effort in the physics community we believe that we can substantially improve undergraduate physics for all students. With such an effort, our goal is to characterize undergraduate physics by the year 2005 as follows:

  • Physics departments offer flexible majors' (and minors') programs that prepare students for
    1. a wide variety of entry-level positions in business, industry, and public service.
    2. further study in professional schools.
    3. graduate study in physics, other sciences, engineering and in cross-disciplinary fields such as materials physics, geophysics, and biophysics.
  • Physics majors graduate with a solid preparation in solving experimental, computational and theoretical problems.
  • Businesses, the public sector, industries, and professional schools actively recruit physics majors recognizing the flexible skills they possess.
  • All physics courses are based solidly on the results of physics education research. Students completing those courses can demonstrate conceptual understanding, problem solving skills, and flexibility and experience in applying their knowledge and skills to new areas.
  • Introductory physics courses are perceived by students from all majors as challenging, but exciting experiences with relevance to their lives and future careers.
  • The courses for future K-12 teachers provide a solid core of physics content and the techniques and attitudes necessary to present physics comfortably and enthusiastically to their students.
  • Faculty involved in research take an active interest in the undergraduate curriculum, helping to ensure that materials presented are current and that the program provides appropriate opportunities for student involvement in research.
  • They take the lead in integrating research and teaching. Excellent departments have strong commitments to both activities and have a reward structure that recognizes both.
  • Physics education researchers comprise an active and respected segment of the physics community.
  • An easily-accessible communications infrastructure keeps all faculty members informed of the latest results in curriculum development, physics education research and the latest examples of best practice in undergraduate physics teaching. The system provides multiple mechanisms for faculty members to share their experiences and curricular materials.
  • Summaries of the results of physics education research are available in a form readily accessible and immediately useful to all those who teach physics.
  • The physics community recognizes the value of contributions by physicists in a wide range of industrial, government, and academic positions. The curriculum provides the training needed for students to follow a wide range of career paths. All physicists applaud the interesting and diverse careers pursued by physics students and design programs to provide the breadth of training valued by their future employers.
Much more detail of plans to achieve this vision in local physics departments is contained on the website and will be covered at the conference.

Browsing Through the Journals

Thomas D. Rossing

"Few gold stars for precollege education" by Constantine Anagnostopoulos and Lauren Williams in the April issue of IEEE Spectrum is another article on the sad state of technical literacy in the United States. In 1957 the USSR jolted us out of our complacency by sending the first ever space satellite into orbit. Great efforts to improve K-12 education got under way, but to little avail. Now in the first international comparisons made among nationalities in the 15 years after Sputnik, U. S. Students fared among the worst on mathematics and science tests. U.S. 12th grade students are again at the back of the pack, surpassing only Cyprus and South Africa. Long ago, the goal of public education was to prepare a few individuals-future leaders, managers, engineers, physicians, lawyers, and other professionals-to use their minds well. For most schools, the goal was to teach basic citizenship plus the limited skills needed in an economy that demanded more willing hands than active minds. To join today's workforce, on the other hand, all young people must develop the capacity to think critically, solve problems creatively, work in teams, and use technology effectively.

Uri Haber-Schaim, one of the developers of the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) course in physics in the 1950s, compares the reform movements in physics then and now in a thought-provoking article "Reform in Science Education: Then and Now" in the May issue of The Physics Teacher. His recollections of meetings during 1956 and 1957 are supported by notes taken by Laura Fermi, who was invited to attend as an educated lay person. The results of these early meetings were not intended to become public documents on what should be done, he points out, but rather to serve as guidelines for what was going to be done. In contrast, the national reports and the State Frameworks of today are statements of what should be done and contain most everything that has been said before. "There is no evidence in the National Standards that the time needed to learn the suggested content was ever considered." The PSSC project, he reminds us, was a joint effort of university and high-school teachers. It took physicists with a thorough command of the field to develop a new structure and new approaches; it took competent teachers to test the materials in the classroom and to report back the results. To date, on the other hand, the National Standards and State Frameworks leave the development of curriculum as "an exercise for the reader." This is not an oversight; there is currently a disdain for a national curriculum. The best way to avoid poor science instruction, he suggest, is to define a core science program which will allow a reasonable amount of material to be added. All students should be tested on the core topics, and schools would be given the choice of optional areas for which suitable tests are available.

Separated by Sex: A Critical Look at Single-Sex Education for Girls, a report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), is reviewed in the May/June issue of NSTA Reports. The report, which summarizes a roundtable discussion held at AAUW, can be ordered for $12.95 by calling 800-225-9998. Most contributors seem to agree that girls excel more often in science and math in girls-only schools than in coeducational schools. However, part of the difference may be due to the fact that attending a single-sex school constitutes a commitment to learning. This increases the chances for success, especially for disadvantaged students.

The Institute of Physics (UK) is conducting a radical rethink of physics for 16-19 year olds to attract more young people to the subject, according to an article "Attracting teenagers to physics" in the February issue of Physics World. To make physics courses more attractive to students, curricula must be updated; courses must give a better picture of how physics is used in the real world (communications, materials science, engineering and medicine, for example). More than a hundred physicists are now involved in working groups on varies aspects of the initiative.

A guest editorial "The Science Wars" by Roger Newton in the April issue of American Journal of Physics warns us about the danger to science from the social contructivists, because those they teach "will become future teachers of our young, legislators who write laws and dispense funds touching on science, voters who will elect them, and jury members who may have to make life or death decisions by judging scientific evidence." The active pursuers of the constructivist program are mostly sociologists and philosophers who make it their business to study the practice of science.

"Small Group Instruction in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology" is the title of an article by James Cooper and Pamela Robinson in the May issue of Journal of College Science Teaching. Although more research is clearly needed, preliminary evidence indicated that cooperative, small group procedures can enhance achievement, liking of science and math, critical thinking, and retention. This technique may be particularly effective for women and minority students. There is also evidence that cooperative techniques may increase the likelihood that bright students who historically avoid science, math, and technology courses may be attracted to cooperatively taught courses. A survey of 340 NSF project directors indicated that of 13 possible innovations in undergraduate teaching, students working in teams was ranked the highest.

Many physicists will change direction several times during their working lives or even transform their careers completely. Stephen Rosen examines why some people are better equipped than others to make a move in an article "How healthy is your career?" in the May issue of Physics World. Rosen mentions several "career-change champions, " such as Nathan Myrhvold who began with a PhD in theoretical physics, worked in cosmology with Stephen Hawking and is now chief technology officer at Microsoft. On the other hand, sociologist , economist, and author Thorstein Veblen noticed that the more advanced education we receive, the more unable we are to achieve practical results and the less versatile we become. Veblen called this "trained incapacity." Among the hallmarks of career-change champions: they work hard and play hard; they enjoy stretching their talents; they believe that the harder they work, the luckier they get; they lead full and balanced lives. The author includes a 13-item career well-being inventory in the article.

TAMS: A Success Story of Increased Student Competence Through Teacher Training

In Chicago, the Teachers Academy of Mathematics and Science, TAMS, has been operating for almost 8 years to improve the teaching and learning of science and mathematics. The Academy was created through the impetus of Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman, Priscilla and Henry Frisch of the University of Chicago, Gordon Berry of Argonne National Laboratory, Correta McFerren,a community educational activist, and many others. This group and a large number of educators from Chicago-area universities, museums, national laboratory staff, teachers and parents all came together to create a plan for improving the teaching of mathematics and science in Chicago.

The initial set of meetings were held to work out mechanisms and organizational relations in order to create a proposal to the Department of Energy to start the Academy. This proposal had actually been requested by the Secretary of Energy, Admiral Watkins, and the Department of Energy provided the start-up funding for the organization. A key early decision was to create the Academy as an independent, separate entity from the Chicago Public Schools. While this allowed the Academy to be innovative, it created a separation between the Academy and its target which continues to this day. A second tactical decision was to start with the elementary (K-8) schools and not work with the high schools.

The first set of K-8 schools applied to participate in the training programs and these applications had to be made by the school principals and their local school councils. The requirements for participation implied that all of the faculty who would be involved in mathematics and science education would need to attend the training sessions. The training of the teachers used two existing programs that had been developed in the Chicago area. The mathematics program was the University of Chicago Mathematics Program (UCSMP) and the science program was Teaching Integrated Mathematics and Science (TIMS) and was developed by a physicist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Howard Goldberg as described above. Every teacher in the building was involved in at least one semester each of mathematics and science training.

In Chicago, there are several different sets of standardized tests that all students are required to take. At the state level, a test called the IGAP is given each year in mathematics to elementary grades 3and 6 and in other subjects and grades. In recent years the IGAP exams have included tests in science also After TAMS' first five years an analysis was made of the IGAP scores in mathematics for both the third grades and the sixth grades. At first, analyzing the averages of the successive third grades for each of the schools involved in the Academy did not show a significant change over the time period. There is a very large variation in the abilities and experiences of successive groups of students and these differences made any trend difficult to see. However, because these schools have been in the Academy program for over three years, it was possible to compare the same students with themselves three years later when they took the next level of the test in sixth grade. The IGAP test scores are normed for each class to the same scale and it was possible to compare differences between the average third-grade scores for a whole school and the average sixth-grade score for the same cohort three years later. This difference could be called the "value added" and should be a crude measure of whether these students increased in their achievement. It turned out that there were about 12 schools that had been in the Academy's program for the 5 years and about 14 schools that had just joined the Academy in the last year or so. Both sets of schools were very similar, being elementary schools in the Chicago Public School system. When the "value-added" scores, the difference between sixth grade and third grade (from three years earlier), were compared the schools who had been in the Academy for five years showed a large statistically significant difference, while the control group showed a difference that was very small and not statistically significant. Much of this data can be seen at the website of the Academy (

It is important that the scores being compared were averages for each grade within a particular school building. This difference in the scores for whole buildings represented a significant change from the other schools in Chicago in that time period. It is actually a remarkable result because most educational interventions, which involve teacher training and no direct student contact, do not usually show a statistically significant building-wide student response. The major intervention on these schools during this time had been the training of the teachers in the process of using mathematics and analysis tools for science that were included in the TIMS materials.

Since that initial analysis of the Academy schools and their "value-added" scores on the IGAP mathematics tests, a very large number of other comparisons have been studied. The impact of the Academy program on schools has continued to be significant. The Academy schools have continued to have greater gains on IGAP scores than have comparable subsets of the Chicago Public Schools as a whole. These Academy schools are not special as regards socio-economic level or other characteristics in comparison with the other schools in Chicago. In fact, many of these schools represent low-income populations. More thorough evaluation studies will soon be submitted to various journals and should be available on the Academy website in the near future.

What has been the nature of the academy program?
The process involves several phases after an initial application. The first phase (Readiness) of the process involves a school self-assessment and an introduction of the school community to the basic ideas of mathematics and science education reform and the new and existing standards. In the second phase (Instruction) all teachers participate in two years of training in math and science in which both the content and process of doing each are learned. The major characteristic of the instruction is that teachers are given a chance to build strong foundations of understanding, skills, and confidence in doing mathematics and science. The last two phases (Implementation and Follow-up) have Academy staff working in the classrooms with the teachers to implement their learning and to bring all the aspects of the school (parents and staff) into an effort to reform the science and math education in the school. The overall program takes three years in which teachers cover both science and mathematics training and work collectively to coordinate the various classes and activities of the school. The Follow-up phase can last several years if the school chooses to support the cost. The subject matter training for each teacher lasts for 70 hours with 25 hours of classroom support. Teachers also spend 40 hours in collaborative curriculum planning and at least 6 hours of computer training. School leadership teams (administrators and parent leaders) spend an equivalent amount of time in similar activities. 

What have been the lessons learned by the Academy?
The major lesson is that teachers responsible for mathematics and science at the elementary and primary levels are not usually comfortable with either of these subjects and also not terribly skilled in either. Providing them with extensive experience and background in these subjects in a way that can be translated to classroom teaching appears to make a measurable difference in student achievement. An extensive in-school effort to assist teachers to adopt new practices is undoubtedly of critical importance. 

Physicists can make a difference, but not by acting alone and not without great difficulty. The natural first approximation to a solution, enhancing the competence of the teachers, is probably the correct step, but even carrying out this approach is not easy. The teachers of elementary and primary students did not enter their professions with subject matter concerns upper most in their minds. It is not possible or effective simply to put these teachers into graduate or adult level courses in mathematics and science. What seems to work best is to provide the teachers with practice and experience with tools that they can actually use in the classroom, but which involve the processes of doing science and applying mathematics so that continued use can enhance the teacher's level of competence. The TIMS program is a very good example of such a program. 

Finally, securing funds for the continuing operation is a significant challenge, especially if the institution is to be separate from the local school district. Under the direction the current director of TAMS, Lourdes Monteguido, this organization has made an almost complete transition from federal support to State and local funding. The costs of this effective effort are still large compared to the usual expenditures for teacher training and development. The average cost is about $4000 per teacher per year. The Academy continues to work with Chicago schools and is working to enable similar academics in other sites in Illinois. 

Whatever Happened to…? A Look at Educational Programs From the Recent Past

Sam Bowen

An interesting historical exercise would be to look up the September 1991 Physics Today and read some of the articles on the state of science, and especially physics, education in the country at the beginning of the 90's. This issue reflects a time in which the federal government was actively involved in supporting educational programs to improve science and mathematics education. In particular, Clifford Swartz' historical article is revealing. This column will examine two very effective programs invented by physicists and discuss some of the lessons which have been learned in these two, somewhat related programs. In the following Howard Goldberg's TIMS (Not TIMSS) Teaching Integrated Math and Science curriculum and Leon Lederman's Teacher's Academy for Math and Science (TAMS) will be examined.

TIMS: a Physicist's Solution for Teaching Math and Science in Elementary Schools
In the mid-80's Howard Goldberg at the University of Illinois at Chicago started to design a science and mathematics program which was particularly effective for urban students. This program was called TIMS (for Teaching Integrated Math and Science) and was based on the twin foundations that "Science is Experimental" and "The Language of Science is Mathematics". A set of over 57 laboratory exercises was invented (for grades 1 through 8) which gave elementary students a structured experience studying very accessible problems.

The goal of each TIMS experiment is to find the relationship between two primary variables. There were four types of experiments: classification, frequency distribution, weak correlation, and strong correlation. As the children progressed through the grades the experiments shifted from classification and simple frequency distributions to more complicated frequency distributions and on to weak and strong correlation between the variables. Each laboratory study was structured in the same way but was designed to fit each age group of students.

Student participation in the experiments was built around four steps:

  1. Drawing and labeling a picture of the experiment and study.
  2. Seting up a data table for the two primary variables.
  3. Graphing the data
  4. Asking and answering questions based on the experiment and possibly designing another.

The complete set of experiments were organized under the following categories: Classification, Frequency Distribution, Length, Area, Volume, Mass, Velocity and Acceleration, Inertia & Balanced Forces & Newton's Laws, and Work & Energy & Simple Machines. All of the experiments had captivating titles and were anticipated by the students. A typical experiment took about five, forty-minute periods, typically carried out over one week. Teachers were to do at least one experiment per month each academic year.

In contrast to many other curricular efforts, these laboratory exercises could stand alone without an additional textbook and the students learned scientific and mathematical thinking by carrying out the process listed above.

How successful was this program?
The success of the program depended critically on the teacher becoming well trained in the use of the materials and the mathematical and scientific background of the experiments. The program was tested in 13 schools over a four year period. Initially, a long and careful inservice training program in all of the experiments was given to the lead teachers from each school. These lead teachers were then to train their colleagues in their schools. When the data were collected during each year of the project the results were very positive. Doing the experiments increased the ability of the students to understand and solve mathematics problems. The improvement from year to year scaled linearly with the number of experiments done in the preceding year. The program seemed to have been effective for both low and high reading skill children. Compared to control groups the students who did larger numbers of experiments showed significant gains. The program demonstrated itself to be highly effective. Why is it not more widely adopted today?

What were the major problems encountered by the program?
The major problem encountered by the program was the amazingly large turnover of teaching and administrative staff in the schools and the even greater attrition of students in these urban area schools. The first problem was that the lead teachers who had received significant training in the math and science of these laboratories were soon regarded as mathematics and science experts and received better job offers at other schools. After four years of the program only half of the initial lead teachers remained. Similarly, only three of the original principals who had promised to support the program remained at the end of the four years. Among the other teachers in each building, the turnover of teachers who had been trained by the lead teachers also was large.

More striking was the turnover of students in these mostly urban schools. Over 25% of the students left the classroom each year. Out of the original 2835 students who took the first examination, only 837 completed all four years of the assessment examinations. Attempts to find these missing students in other schools were not productive because of the state of student records.

A second, more subtle problem became apparent as the program continued. School administrators and other teachers classified TIMS as a mathematics program and not a science program since there were no lists of new terms and topics covered. Their major complaint was that there was no identifiable science content in the experiments. In other words, they could not list the topics covered in what they regarded as a science. The pressure from this quarter to adopt more traditional science curricula was great.

This narrow classification of TIMS as a mathematics program was also adopted by the staff at the federal funding agencies. They would not fund the continuation of the program as an integrated math and science program but would support it only as a mathematics curriculum. Because of this decision, the program evolved into a mathematics program with much of the same approach. The excellent, resulting curriculum is called Math TrailBlazers and is available from Kendall Hunt, (see below).

TIMS was used as a major part of the science training of teachers in schools by Leon Lederman's Teachers Academy of Math and Science. That application led to those schools showing significant building-wide average score increases in the state of Illinois standardized tests. It seems that these experiments are an effective way of providing teachers and students with practice using the tools of science.

The complete set of the TIMS experiments and supporting documents are available on a CD from Kendall Hunt Publishers, which can be ordered at 1-800-542-6657 or examined on the publisher's website.

The TIMS story has a number of lessons for physicists who would work in the schools and make a lasting change. Even with a curricular package of high quality and demonstrable effectiveness, the lack of knowledge of the nature of science by teachers and administrators can reduce the effectiveness of the program. Turnover and transience among staff and students require a long term plan and recurring training of new staff for any effective educational program.

TIMSS - An Analysis of the International High School Physics Test

Sam Bowen

What is the TIMSS Study?
TIMSS is the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. It is an attempt to compare the science learning and competence of students from up to 40 countries around the world. It has recently been announced in the news that US students begin elementary school with enthusiasm and high levels of accomplishment, but that by junior high and high school have lower scores on standardized tests than most other countries. Recently results of a physics test given to students in their last year of high school has shown that U.S. students rank very close to the bottom of the 18 countries.

What was the design of the study and what did it seek to determine?
There were three major aspects of the TIMSS study of the educational systems of the participating countries:

  1. A study of the teaching materials, the official curriculum, and teacher training in each country.
  2. Several written science and math examinations administered to a comparably sized samples of students in each country at the same age (9 or 13 years) or placement in school (last year of high school).
  3. An observational comparative study of junior high classrooms of Japan, Germany, and the US.

For each country there were three populations of students:

  • Population 1: A sample of 9 year olds, representing grades 3 and 4.
  • Population 2: A sample of 13 year old students in grades 7 and 8.
  • Population 3: A sample of students in 12th or last high school year taking mathematics and science.

Not all of the original 40 countries were involved in all parts of the study. In particular, the physics test was taken by 18 countries and did not include any Asian country. Each of the populations of students were subjected to a written examination with the same questions on half of the exam and one of three different sets of questions on the other half. The results of the studies for the first two populations (1 and 2) are now available as published books by Kluwer Academic Publishers. Visit the main site for newsletters and press releases about the study. The major report on the TIMSS study is also on the U.S. Department of Education website. It appears that much of the detailed data from the studies is available only in the books which are being published. The Boston College site seems to have the best data on the physical examination and has some of the physics test items and score distributions available for download. 

Visit the Website

What were the differences between the curricular materials and the educational systems of the different countries compared to the US?
The major difference mentioned in the reports is that the U.S. curricular materials are "a mile wide and an inch deep". By this is meant that the curricula in the U.S. presents many topics, but no subject is covered in any depth and there is very little difference in the emphasis between subjects. Because the study was able to look at students in both 7th and 8th grades, it was possible to see if there are any gains in subject matter competency between these grades. In several countries, students showed gains in some subjects, mostly those that had been covered in some depth in their schools. In the U.S., by contrast, no subjects showed a gain in knowledge and skill.

One other insight is possible by looking at the different subject matter areas where U.S. 13 year olds knowledge was compared with others. (The subject matter titles are from the Pop. 2 TIMSS study. ) The US students were near the top in only one subject: Life Cycles and Genetics. They were in the high middle range for Earth Processes, Earth in the Universe, and Structure of Matter. Our students were near the bottom in Physical Changes, Forces and Motion, and Properties and Classification of Matter.

What was the nature of the High School Physics examination?
The written examination on which the U.S. students were ranked so low was a combination of 66 problems (items) in three forms: (a) multiple choice, (b) essay, drawing, or graphing, and (c ) algebraic or numerical manipulation. The non-multiple-choice items had a very detailed grading procedure covering all possible answer responses. The distribution of responses for all questions can be downloaded from the Boston College site. A set of 37 questions from the physics examination has also been made public and can also be obtained from the web site at Boston College ( I would encourage the reader to examine the problems and the response distributions as well.

Let us begin with a characterization of the exam problems that have been released. I classified the 37 examples by types: Conceptual (21), Formula (4), Graphical or Drawing (8) and Numerical (4). Conceptual problems could present either a multiple choice or an essay about a point of physics which required no numerical evaluation, but which tested the ability of the students to apply old results to new situations. Formula problems required a straightforward, one step, manipulation of a formula (a large number of equations were given at the beginning of the exam). Graphical problems required the reading or construction of a graph, and the Numerical problems required a simple calculation. (All necessary physical constants were given at the beginning of the exam.) Each released problem was listed with the fraction of all students who solved it successfully. The formats of the released problems were: multiple choice (20), drawings (3), essay (10), and numerical evaluation (4).

The distribution of answers to all 66 questions in the physics exam can be downloaded from the Boston College site along with a one line description of the questions. The lowest average percentage (for all students) was 9% on an essay problem asking for the pattern of water flowing out from holes in the side of a vertical cylinder of fluid as a function of the height of the holes. The highest percentage (65%) on a released item was a multiple choice question asking why steam has more volume than water. Another not-yet-released question labeled, "Circuit in box" had an average percent correct of 86% for all students.

In the following is tabulated the average percentage of participants who answered correctly various types of questions for the TIMSS items.

Type of Problem US (TIMMS) All Countries (TIMSS)
Overall Average 24% 35%
Average for E&M Problems (16) 19% 32%
Average for Mechanics (16) 22% 33%
Average for Modern Physics (14) 24% 34%
Average for Thermodynamics 29% 39%
Average for Waves and Light (11) 34% 44%

The numbers in parentheses in the first column are the number of problems of each subject on the TIMSS exam.

In order to learn more about source of the deficiencies of the US students, I examined the 33 lowest scoring items on the test. I tested whether some one of the five subject areas appeared more in the bottom half than the upper half. For both the U.S. and the all country categories, each of the subjects appeared about half of the time in each group. So, it would appear that the low scores of the U.S. students is not because of a knowledge deficit in one of the five categories listed above.

What kinds of questions are primarily missed by the U.S. students?
Twenty-four of the 33 lowest scoring questions were open-ended, graphical or essay questions. Only 9 of these questions were multiple choice. When I further examined those multiple choice questions (which have been released), it was clear that almost all 9 required a number of steps and relationships, and often the use of a symbolic representation (equations), to generate a correct answer. By contrast the questions which were answered by the largest fractions of U.S. students were predominantly multiple choice and single step or single concept questions.

In the following table are items on which less than 10% of the U.S. students gave fully correct answers.

Item Subject %Correct All %Correct US Item description
f16 E&M 11.8 0.1 period of charged particle in B field
f15 modern 12.3 0.4 photoelectric effect and different metals
f14 E&M 16.8 0.4 magnitude of E field strength
g19 E&M 13.2 0.6 Lenz's law and falling aluminum ring
h18 modern 13.7 0.8 television as particle accelerator
f17b mech 8.7 1.44 acceleration expt/measurement error
h16 E&M 21.9 1.5 speed of el in crossed E and B fields
g18 modern 10 1.8 alpha particles passing through gold
h14 heat 13 2 effect of density on freezing of water
16g mech 8.5 3.5 effect of pressure on water leaking from a bottle
f12 heat 12.3 4.6 Temperature of a system
g14 modern 25 4.6 paths of alpha, beta and gamma in electric field
g11 heat 13.4 5.2 effect of ice melting on water level in aquarium
h15 modern 23.3 6.6 de Broglie wavelength of moving electron
15g mech 15.7 6.7 direction of acceleration on bouncing ball
h13 mech 35 6.9 interpretation of a force vs distance graph
f17a mech 32.3 8.3 acceleration expt/value of gravity
h19a waves 18.3 8.9 speed of sound expt/outline
f02 mech 18.9 9 force on connected springs

All of these items except the last one were open-ended, multiple-concept, multiple-step problems. The last problem was a multiple-choice problem. The fourth column is the percent of U.S. students who were able to answer that question correctly. For these open-ended problems students could have been given a partially correct answer, but such answers are not being counted in this comparison.

What are the characteristics of these most poorly answered questions? They all attempt to measure fairly clear concepts that are fundamental to physics. They almost all require a symbolic representation of the problem and a manipulation of variables. None of these questions are memorization or single step problems.

If one examines the questions which were answered by the largest fractions of the U.S. students, it is easy to see that these are dominated by single fact, one-step items. It is worth noting that the U.S. students have a higher percentage of correct answers than the international average on only 5 items. An Excel file of all the items can be obtained from my home page.

In my opinion, the questions for this examination appear to be of high quality which do probe whether students understand the principles of physics. Since all of the needed physical constants and a number of equations are presented with the examination, it appears that the examination did not require a significant level of memorization instead of understanding.

Are there other characteristics of the study that indicate the weakness of the US system?
In conversations with Dr. Senta Raizen of NCISE, who is one of the authors of the data analysis team for the TIMSS project, several important points came up that are not fully emphasized in the study reports. The major characteristic of the U.S. curricula is that they cover a very large number of topics and are primarily focused on vocabulary. Current U.S. students have been exposed to a very large number of topics, but do not have experience in depth on many. The various measures of student interest seem to continually drop with grade level in the U.S. Many other countries exhibit an increase in interest in science around the eighth grade where students go into some depth with various subjects. In the U.S. there is a more or less steady decrease in interest as the number of topics covered continues to increase.

A second surprising difficulty with the study was that the TIMSS researchers from the U.S. had very serious difficulties finding enough students who were taking physics and advanced mathematics in 12th grade so that the sample size of the US students would be comparable to that of other countries. Most other countries were able to find adequate numbers of large enough classes to make up the required sample sizes in physics and advanced mathematics because the fraction of their students taking these subjects were larger than in U.S. schools.

The comparison between the eighth grade classrooms in Japan, Germany, and the U.S. also showed that the types of questions and concern that is present in US classrooms are much more fact related and only involve very simple conceptual processes. The classrooms in Japan and Germany seem to provide students with greater understanding of processes and applications of mathematics than is present in this country.

There is one revealing anomaly among the U.S. schools involved in the TIMSS examinations. It has been reported that the "First in The World Consortium" of schools did perform better than the world average. This group of quality schools have very strong preparation in Junior High, requires all teachers in high school to have a major or minor in the subjects which they teach, and provides significant training for all teachers. Seventy percent of the students in these schools are in advanced mathematics programs. Also large numbers of students take physics. The web page for this consortium is (, but at the time this newsletter went to press the confirming data was not on these web pages.

What can interested physicists do?
A first step would be to read some of the comparative books that are being produced from the TIMSS study. The book, "Characterizing Pedagogical Flow", reports data about classrooms, teachers, materials, and curriculum for 9 and 13 year olds in the following countries: France, Japan, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States. The book, "A Splintered Vision," is a thorough study of the unfocussed nature of the United States curriculum. This book may provide one of the best pictures of the weakness of the current system. The international study of science curriculum is presented in the book, "Many Visions, Many Aims, Vol. 2," Another study of interest is a volume, "Examining the Examinations", which compares what examinations students heading for college must survive in seven different countries. Other volumes which provide detail about the high school population of the study will be available in the near future.

One possible response would be to create yet another curriculum. It is not clear that the most immediate need is for a new curriculum. The problem is that science teaching has been taken over by a new profession, (the science education specialist in curriculum and instruction), most of whom have never carried out scientific research, at least in the physical sciences. A far more likely root of the problem may lie with the level of understanding of physics by the teachers of high school physics. Most of the standards for teachers to teach physics have their foundation in the initial non-calculus physics courses which students take in college. Typically teachers are supposed to take other courses beyond the first year, but many teachers end up teaching physics with only the single year of (non-calculus) physics.

The major hurdles for making a change are largely local and political. Each state legislature, state board of education and state department of education has determined, along with the help of many interest groups, the educational and skill requirements for physics and other science teachers. These requirements do not usually require much depth in physics. Changes in these requirements will be slow and time consuming. It will require a process of meeting and working with a number of governmental and local groups. The education colleges will not regard physicists as very serious unless they see that we are taking some effort to provide the course work and support for teachers in our subject. There are some state resources available (Eisenhower funds) for improving physics and science education, but it will take a considerable amount of time and effort to convince those who manage these that physicists are a good investment.

My Opinion of the Timss Message for the Physics Community
My opinion of the TIMSS message for the physics community is that we need to take responsibility for pre-college physics and science teachers. We need to give them a better training in physics. I think the TIMSS results reflect the same effects as measured by the Force Concept Inventory in introductory mechanics classes. We are not generally giving students an understanding of physics which supports generalization and manipulation of concepts in new contexts. The understanding of physics by the bulk of pre-college physics teachers in this country is primarily at the level assessed by the Force Concept Inventory at the end of their the first-year introductory physics course. Many other countries require much more physics exposure and mastery, including undergraduate research. A large fraction of existing high school teachers will soon be retiring; the physics community has a great opportunity.