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Re: [Phys-l] Physics First Revisited

I think the post by Larry Woolf is very correct and very important. Among other things he said "Where the positioning of physics in the high school curriculum escalates to the level of a philosophical battle, it may indicate that opportunity has already been missed." This is right on target.

I've been through nine different academic deans at Bluffton University, and every one of them has asked me at one time or another why science teachers can't get their act together like math teachers or English teachers. Much of the background for this type of question comes from the statistics the deans see of how students are less afraid of taking math and English courses in college, and average students can get average grades in math and English, while almost all average HS graduates think college science is too hard, and they continually bulk at having to fulfill the science requirements in college.

It is clear to me I can't easily fix this problem by attacking it just at the college level, nor can I fix it just at the high-school level. The physics cliff that Ken Ford mentioned truly exists. The missed opportunity Larry Woolf mentioned has truly been missed.

Teaching bits of a topic in grade K, then hitting those topics at a higher level in grade 1 while adding a few more new topics, then yet another higher level and more topics in grade 2, and so forth, is sometimes described as "the spiral approach." Well... duh...! Why is this spiral approach happening fairly well in math and English, but not in science?

This spiral approach is actually in the state-mandated standards for science in grades K-12, but it's not happening. I do a lot of science workshops for in-service teachers in grades K-9, and most of them tell me they don't teach much science, and many say they skip science entirely. When I tell them that state standards exist, and they are required to teach science, some say there isn't enough time because reading and math are more important and they have to spend their time on those subjects. Some will admit they don't understand science or they don't like science and that's why they don't teach it. I would assert that those who say math and reading are more important are also really telling me they don't understand and/or don't like science.

The question for us as scientists is how to fix this problem. I believe we have a big chicken and egg problem. It's going to be difficult to get elementary and junior-high teachers to do a reasonable job of teaching science at the appropriate levels in grades K-9 if these teachers don't understand and feel comfortable with science in the same way they feel reasonably comfortable with math and English. But pre-service K-9 teachers actively fight science requirements in college because they see college science courses as big cliffs to climb, and they are often supported in this belief and in their fight against science requirements by college education departments. Indeed the science cliff in college is often a pretty high cliff because most students heading into K-9 teaching never took chemistry or physics in high school. They come to college with science preparation that is no better than junior-high level.

I just got done struggling with our education department, and our college dean, and our faculty "academic affairs committee" over the science requirements for our middle-school-science-licensure students. In Ohio, middle-school-licensure is for grades 5 through 9, and students have to specialize in any two of science, math, language arts, or social science. We have students who say they want to teach middle-school science, but they say our freshman-level science courses are too difficult, and the students (and the education department) wanted to water down the science licensure requirements by substituting some very easy non-lab general-education science courses for the current requirements of college-freshman-level regular science courses. This means they wanted students who would eventually be licensed to teach ninth-grade science to take "the physical world" (essentially non-lab physics for poets) rather than a general physics course with lab. They wanted to take "the biological world" (essentially non-lab biology for poets) instead of botany and invertebrate zoology. They wanted to take "the chemistry of everything" (essentially non-lab chemistry for poets) instead of general chemistry.

So here we physicists are arguing whether to teach physics in 9th grade, while the education department that prepares the 9th-grade science teachers is saying that the only physics the 9th-grade teacher is going to take in college is one semester of physics for poets without even having a lab.

Our general-physics course that is currently required for middle-school-science licensure is only a slight notch higher than high-school physics. Our middle-school-science licensure students are scared to death of general physics. Our general-chemistry course that is currently required for middle-school-science licensure is only a slight notch higher than high-school chemistry. Our middle-school-science licensure students are scared to death of general chemistry. Why is this? Well, almost none of them took high-school chemistry, and pretty much none of them took high-school physics. They were too afraid to take chemistry and physics in high school, yet they say they want to teach middle-school science.

What's gong on here? How can students who say they want to teach science in grade 5-9 be so afraid of taking college-level science courses? Here is part of the picture... (1) Many college students who say they like science and want to teach middle-school science really mean they like biology and they want to teach middle-school biology. Never mind that the middle-school state mandated curriculum includes a lot of physics and chemistry standards. If these "science teachers" who really like only biology actually become teachers, either they won't teach the physical science they're required to teach (and they admit this), or they won't teach it well. (2) Many college students who say they want to teach middle-school science have only chosen that area of concentration because they know that is the area of middle-school where there is the largest demand for teachers. (3) And here is the is the most insidious reason: What they really want to do is coach. But to be a public school coach you have to be a teacher and you have to get hired as a teacher. Okay, I can increase my chances of getting hired by getting a license to teach middle-school science, and then I can do what I really want to do... coach.

Students aren't even devious about this. They will sit in my office and proudly tell me how they have it all mapped out. They come right out and tell me this is their game plan. Wake up people. We are putting teachers into grades K-9 who are required to teach science, or even specially licensed to teach science, but they actually don't like science, and the level of preparation in science is typically at a lower level than the average high-school chemistry and physics courses.

What are you doing about this? I am doing two things. (1) I conduct workshops for in-service K-9 teachers who think they don't like science, but who are at least willing to attend a workshop. Maybe I can get them to teach a little more science a little better. (2) I fought the education department against watering down the science requirements for middle-school science teachers, and at least at my institution it looks like I succeeded. The education department, the dean, and the science department have come to consensus on a science curriculum for middle-school science teachers that is appropriate and not watered down. We now have to submit it to the state department of education for approval. I sure hope they approve it because it was a struggle to get it approved within my own institution. There were strong pressures to water it down in order to increase enrollments.

Michael D. Edmiston, Ph.D.
Professor of Chemistry and Physics
Bluffton University
1 University Drive
Bluffton, OH 45817