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[Phys-l] science education goals and strategies

1) As several people have wisely and accurately pointed out, the
integrated "spiral" approach is obviously best for the students.

Making it happen will be somewhat disruptive, but no more disruptive
than "physics first" or similar proposals that are on the table.
Therefore those proposals are Pareto-inferior and not deserving of
further attention.

2) I would go even further and say that that to my ears, the
"physics first" debate sounds like two people shouting at
each other
A: You said 2+2=1
B: You said 2+2=7
A: You're wrong.
B: No, you're wrong.
A: You're totally wrong and I can prove it.
B: No, you're totally wrong and ................

This is literally worse than the proverbial holy war between
the big-endians and the little-endians! That's because when
it comes to eggs, _either_ end will do. But here we have a
holy war involving proposals _neither_ of which will do.

There's more I could say about this, but I forebear. But
please let's not revisit "physics first" anymore. It's an
embarrassment to the entire community.

3) I was surprised and amused by the exhortation for physics
to get its act together like "math and English".

The math guys are not paragons or role models. Google gives
me 27,000 hits for "math wars" but less than 1000 for
"physics wars". The "new math" war has been going on for
forty years!

4) A couple of people started to take a general view of the
problem, but the discussion got sucked back into a discussion
of high-school teachers and in particular high-school science
teachers. Sure, unqualified HS science teachers are a problem
worth worrying about, but that is only the tip of the iceberg.
As much as anything else, it is a _symptom_ of deeper problems.
As others have said, a goodly part of the battle has been lost
before we get to that stage.

The moose on the table is a wide and deep phobia about math
and science among the grade-school teachers.

I know one elementary school teacher (now retired) who is not
a rocket scientist by any means. She majored in English. But
when in college she actually took some science classes ... not
"earth-science-for-poets" but actual geology-for-geology-majors
and suchlike.

As a consequence she has some clue what science is about. From
time to time she got me to make "kits" for her, containing
things like block-and-tackle, spring scales, lenses, prisms,
batteries, beepers, reed switches, magnets, iron filings ...
just stuff you could do things with. It is a good lesson to
have a tug-of-war where one team has a 4:1 mechanical disadvantage.

Every year she would decalcify an egg, suck it into a bottle,
and then recalcify it. That's not rocket science, but it does
have several bits of nifty chemistry and physics in it.

Now the point of my story is that each year, out of a dozen
professionals in the school, with occasional exceptions, usually
the others had no clue about science. No clue at all.

All this was in a supposedly "above average" school district.

This wide and deep phobia should not come as any surprise. There
is a system, a veritable pipeline that produces this result.

People who fear math and science are advised to go into primary
education. And why not? From the advisees' point of view, it
is good advice. Teaching is a more respectable job than flipping
burgers. And as of today, they can get and hold the job without
ever burdening themselves with any of those nasty science classes.

That's true, but it's not the whole story. The easy path for
the phobic teachers is not what's best for their students, and
not what's best for the society as a whole.

Others aptly compared long-delayed science training to a steep
cliff that some people can't get over. I love the "cliff" image.
But rather than climbers, I visualize an airplane with limited
rate-of-climb flying toward the base of a cliff. The only way
to solve the problem is to start climbing early! Flying along,
getting closer and closer to the cliff /without/ climbing just
makes a bad situation worse.

How to fix this? The short answer is I don't know. It won't
be easy. The brute force approach won't work. You can't fix
it by imposing a new policy or a new test or a new text. You
can't solve it by picking a fight with the existing primary
school teachers; if you try that they will fight back and you
will lose.

The US Marines have a saying, "Every Marine a Rifleman" which
means that if you are a helicopter mechanic or even a clerk
in a headquarters company, you are issued a rifle and are
expected to know how to use it well.

In that spirit, ideally it would be nice for everybody (not
just teachers) to have some basic competence in math, science,
and technology. I might be willing to make exceptions in
maybe 10% of the cases; some people are just not cut out to
be techies, and maybe they'll be happy flipping burgers.

But I'm not willing to make exceptions for teachers. Seriously,
these days even a music teacher needs to know how to use a

I hesitate even in a backhanded way to say anything good about
the present economic situation, but as a macabre form of silver
lining it can be used as a rationale for raising standards:
You can say to the students "if you want to hold a job in this
economy you need to be very well qualified".

I would not be happy about "science" courses being taught by
the education department. (Presumably somewhere somebody is
doing that in a reasonable way, but I reckon that is the
flukiest of flukes.) I say let the education students take
real science courses just like everybody else.

The students complain "Oooh, what if it's hard. Oooh, what
if it ruins my GPA." I say that's too bad. I took the music
theory & composition course with a bunch of music majors.
Yeah, it was hard. Really hard. I got a C. I also took
French with a bunch of linguistics majors. That was hard,
too. As teachers they will have some C students in their
classes. It might do them good to learn a little compassion
and respect for people who work hard.

Some students say "Oooh, I can't take that; I don't have the
prerequisites." I don't make light of that. I say it means
they have *two* problems that need solving. They can take
remedial math in summer school, and then be in a position to
take the science course on time in September.
If they say they already have plans to spend all summer
on the Lido, I tell 'em it's their choice. They can
either go to the Lido a year later than planned, or
graduate a year later than planned.

The standards should be even higher for middle-school teachers,
and higher still for high-school teachers *including* non-
science teachers. At one point I tangled with a HS English
teacher who was teaching kids to write "persuasively" using
formal logic. The problem was, when she explained what a
syllogism was, she mixed in a couple of invalid ones along
with the valid ones. She thought they were all valid. She
was not just confident, she was adamant that they were all
valid. Ouch.

If we get serious now about high standards for all teachers,
it will take a decade or two before the effects become
really significant, i.e. before we can expect the typical
student to have good steady training in science.

It will take a decade or two, but that is all the more
reason why we should get started now.