Science education gets turned upside down

Physics comes first, as a foundation for biology

Last year, the San Diego school system got some bleak news about its science program.

A review showed that only 32 percent of the district's 143,000 students were eligible for the University of California system - in part because most were taking only two science classes. At the same time, a university research group discovered that the district's high school students thought school was too easy.

Those dismal results prompted city educators to take action. The science graduation requirement was increased to three years. In addition, the order of science classes was reversed.

The goal was to improve the science skills essential to kids in an age when stem cells and missile defense are daily topics.

"This is simply a matter of us stepping up to the plate and saying we have to get science in order in such a way that our students can move on to the university system," says Kim Bess, director of science for the school district. "Our approach is: Science education is for everybody; we're not going to have have and have-not students anymore. Whether it's an inner-city school or a coastal high school, we want everyone to have the same high-quality opportunities."

But the move sparked more than a few protests over lowered standards.

Traditionally, high-schoolers have taken biology as freshmen, chemistry as sophomores, physics as juniors. But some researchers concluded that freshmen now lack the prerequisites in physics and chemistry needed to navigate through a modern biology curriculum.

So San Diego flip-flopped the progression: freshman physics, sophomore chemistry, and junior biology.

That created its own domino effect. The physics class had to be redesigned so that all students, rather than an elite 20 percent, could master it. Much of the hard-core trigonometry and calculus was removed.

At the same time, the system needed more physics teachers, who are as elusive as neutrinos. University coursework had to be developed that allows San Diego science teachers without a degree in the field to become certified physics teachers. Teachers newly assigned to the freshman physics course will receive two weeks of training provided by outside experts.

San Diego also hopes to make learning experiential and relevant. A typical course of study will involve students choosing a sport they enjoy and exploring the physics involved - the rules of friction, the laws of gravity - and then defending their results before the class.

But some district physics teachers decried the "dumbing down" of the freshman physics course, and local residents made their objections known at school board meetings, on talk shows, and in letters to the editor.

In the latter half of the 1990s, especially, science education has received considerable national attention and study. At least until this year, flush federal and state budgets have allowed for adequate, if not increased, funding.

"Science education is probably getting more attention right now than it ever has," says Harold Pratt, president of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and a 45-year veteran of in the field. "We're making more strides ... we're learning more than we ever have in the history of science education."

Yet science test scores, as measured by one global indicator, were largely stagnant from 1996 to 2000. While some argue that the scores show recent reforms have been ineffectual, others equate the past five years of effort to a revving engine that has yet to slip into gear.

That troubles those who say the leading edge of science is moving quickly away from the public's largely static base of scientific knowledge, producing a disturbing gap that schools should be filling.

"In this day and age, with the decisions that we have to make personally - about our own lifestyles, our impact on the environment - as well as collectively, through legislation and policymaking, we all need a firm grounding in scientific understanding," Mr. Pratt says. "The majority of decisions made in Congress have a science and technology dimension to them.... As citizens we need to understand those issues."

Reformers who support the San Diego effort say traditional science education does little to address that need.

"Today, science education in the public schools is still very much focused on memorizing facts, vocabulary, and formulas, rather than really trying to understand both what we know about how the world works and how we know it," says George Nelson, director of Project 2061, a science- and math-reform group named after the year Halley's Comet will return, and a space-shuttle mission specialist.

"Students sit there being bombarded with bits and pieces of data, but there's no opportunity to generate their own and try to make sense of it," says James Stewart, co-director of the National Center for Improving Student Learning and Achievement in Mathematics and Science, based at the University of Wisconsin. Student participation in experimentation, a technique sometimes referred to as "hands-on, minds-on," is more in tune with "what makes science so exciting to scientists," he says.

The great teacher shortage in science has exacerbated the problem. In turn, inadequately trained teachers come to rely heavily on their textbooks. An analysis in recent years of some California textbooks showed them to contain many errors.

"An outstanding science teacher might be able to overcome a deficient textbook, but a teacher not sufficiently trained in science, teaching from a science book with too many topics and too many undeveloped concepts, just does not work," says Paul Kimmelman, a former Chicago-area school district superintendent, now an executive director of an education laboratory.

Although NSTA's Pratt sees the right elements in place for long-term science-education reform, he believes conditions may get worse before they get better. "We may actually see the quality of teaching go down, not because we're not doing the right things or that we don't know what to do, but because we're diluting the teaching ranks with unqualified teachers."

Mr. Nelson says that past patterns won't provide students with what they will need as adults. "In this century we'll see a rate of change that's unprecedented. Most of those changes will be driven by engineering and technology that in turn are being driven by science," he says.

"Science will play a much more central role in everybody's life than it has in the past," he adds. "None of us can afford to stand still."

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