Re: [asa] science education

From: Merv Bitikofer <>
Date: Mon Jun 01 2009 - 07:41:15 EDT

I'm off to a busy summer writing curricula plans for some of the very
courses we're talking about here (sort of like being a young boy turned
loose in a toy store), so I don't have the time to give as much in depth
response to many of these posts as they deserve. Nevertheless I think I
can respond to most major points in yours here, Cameron.

Cameron Wybrow wrote:
> 2. I'm not sure what you mean by having students in a science class for
> three years instead of one -- you'll have to explain the system where you
> are teaching.
Sorry --that wasn't a calculated "three years", but a bit of flippant
hyperbole to make a point; although in fact, it probably wouldn't be
all that far off! By this "explosion" of a standard one-year course
like physics into three years, I meant to convey how "time expensive"
exploratory style science teaching can be. In other words I take issue
(in part) with Bill Powers' suggestion that students not cover the "same
old" questions that great thinkers in the past have already asked and
resolved. I agree with him that when a students ask their own
questions, design their own experiments to address those questions,
write their own lab reports (not canned ones that are fill in the blank
out of a disposable book) --- I agree that this is an excellent way to
practice and learn the scientific process. This is an investment of
many classroom days. You may respond that the students should be doing
most of this outside of class. Agreed again. But that time comes at a
premium too, competing with other classes, extra-curricular activities,
in some cases unfortunately: jobs. I already make big demands on
their out-of-class work just learning classical physics. Labs have a
habit of not going in anticipated directions (even the pre-planned ones
in which we are re-treading old ground). Remember, these students are
in a learning phase, not in a mastery phase doing graduate-student level
work. I'm moving away from canned lab activities to ones in which the
students construct and write their own reports because that is much more
valuable, but I still provide the guideline parameters such as the
objective for the activity in the first place. Again: free-range
students asking their own questions and making their own objectives can
be (is) a valuable learning experience, but it has the narrowing
disadvantage of teaching *only* the scientific method and constructing
/writing effective lab reports; which is a big accomplishment, yes
--and that's what science fairs are for. But when it comes to
standardized testing; knowing which color bird feeder attracted the most
birds is useless information. Having a solid grasp of the "cute"
experiment of whether heavier balls drop faster than lighter ones: that
is much more necessary to a basic understanding of physics. So why not
concentrate on the labs that accomplish all of the former things and
have the added advantage of reinforcing concepts the students are
actually expected to know.

(This last paragraph was addressed more to Bill --but I trust you follow
my vein of thought, Cameron. I think we agree about much of this.)

> In Ontario, where I live, two years of general science --
> Grades 9 and 10 -- are compulsory for a high school diploma, as they have
> been for ages. In my day, each year of science in Grade 9 and 10 was
> split
> three ways -- chemistry, physics, biology. Now they split it four ways,
> throwing some "earth and space science" into the mix. Currently the
> biology
> section in Grade 9 is cell biology (including a tad of genetics), and the
> biology in Grade 10 is exclusively ecology. Students have to take one
> more
> science credit beyond Grade 10; it can be a chemistry, a biology, a
> physics,
> or an earth and space science. (Actually, for science-hating students, I
> think there is a way out of that, by substituting something else, but
> never
> mind that.) Of course, any student heading on for science and/or
> engineering at university will have to take both Chemistry and Physics in
> Grades 11 and 12, and a ton of Math (one in Grade 11 and two or three
> more
> in Grade 12), and, depending on interest, maybe Biology in Grades 11
> and 12
> as well.
Here students also get a physical science (usually a smorgasbord of
earth science, meteorology, chemistry, physics) in their early
highschool years, followed by a year of biology, a year of chemistry,
and a year of physics. In my particular school they can graduate with
only three years of science although four is recommended for college
preparatory purposes. And that is fine with me as I don't want my
physics course to become required for everybody. (having weaker or
less scientifically enthusiastic students in a course will also have the
effect of slowing it down, unless the teacher mercilessly plows on
leaving part of the class behind and burned out.)

> 3. In case anyone here is dying to know, NO evolutionary theory is
> taught
> in Grade 9 or 10 biology in this province. In fact, the Grade 10 ecology
> textbook that one of my kids used, where I expected to find lots of
> references to evolution, didn't even mention evolution, natural
> selection,
> etc. in the Index! The book was about food chains, carbon cycles,
> nitrogen
> cycles, water cycles, etc. Why no evolution? There's no big
> religious deal
> about teaching evolution in the schools here, so that's not the main
> reason.
> They've just decided to teach evolution in the upper grades of biology
> instead. A few years ago it was introduced only in Grade 12. I think
> now
> they may be teaching it in Grade 11.
THAT is quite a thought! Since I teach in a private school (Christian,
no less), state standards don't have the same mandatory impact on us.
There is some flurry of polarized thought here in Kansas that if
students aren't saturated with evolution early on, that suddenly (for
reasons I have yet to hear lucidly explained) they won't be able to
become competent doctors, etc. (As if even the most staunch of YECs
can't learn and accept what they need to know about the evolution of
viruses, etc. to do their job well.) Anyway, I suspect the REAL reason
it is such a political hot button here is that we are over-sensitive
about our national reputation as "backward Kansas" and so we feel a need
to frantically prove ourselves, that we too are academically respectible
and can get our junior-high tots to regurgitate all the intellectually
respectible answers to evolutionary questions. And all this despite
the fact that our ACT scores are higher than the national average and
have been for quite some time. (Sorry, Keith --- I suspect Keith feels
differently than I do on this; and he would probably call this "running
away from the issue".)

Anyway, I think your situation in Canada provides the good counter-point
that we don't need to fearfully inculcate all our young. BUT I do think
that it may be uniquely valuable in our own polarized climate to address
the issue of how we do and do not do science on a wider scale than just
for the advanced science students. Here we do have errors of YEC-ism
style of thought with its attendant "love-hate" relationship to science
and pseudo-science, that need to be, if possible, rectified. And that
is a big job for science teachers here that perhaps you don't have. I
guess this probably addresses your paragraph below here as well. So
I'll just wrap it up and respond right here to your last paragraph at
the bottom: I agree that relativity and QM are more expendable at the
high school level than classical physics. But I'll also add that those
topics are also most exciting to some students and also present a great
opportunity to show how science works in terms of newer theories needing
to explain a wider range of phenomena while still retaining the
effectiveness of explaining the old. And even though we high school
teachers are not competent to delve into the intacracies of QM, particle
physics, etc., we can still host introductory discussions to whet the
appetite, and students, if they haven't already figured it out, can see
how we've just begun to scratch the surface of science at the high
school level. All of this can add to valuable experience. So I still
leave these hopefully in at the end of my years curriculum.


> Just think what a practical solution Ontario has to offer for the
> American situation! If you took
> evolution out of Grade 9 science, i.e., ninth grade, and moved it back
> to a
> higher grade, then the only students who would be studying evolution
> in high
> school would be those who have voluntarily chosen to study biology beyond
> the minimum science requirement. That would mean that evolution was not
> being forced down any student's (or parent's) throat. So no one could
> complain about having to learn it, any more than they could complain
> about
> being made to learn Spanish or accounting or any other elective subject.
> Also, parents are a little less protective of 17-year-olds than they
> are of
> 14-year-olds, so if you deferred the evolutionary stuff until twelfth
> grade,
> you would get less resistance on that score. With such a system, the
> Dover
> debacle would never have taken place! Think about it! Why are your
> state
> educational authorities so fixated on the idea that evolution must be
> taught
> *in ninth grade*? It just *isn't necessary* to teach evolution that
> early,
> and there are so many other topics that must be learned in biology that
> there is no problem filling in the missing weeks with something else
> that's
> profitable. Further, evolution can't be understood beyond the "How
> and Why
> Wonder Book" level until the students have some solid genetics under
> their
> belt, so the students will get much more out of an evolution unit that's
> taught later in the high school curriculum.
> 4. I agree that they need to learn Newton before they learn Einstein. I
> see no need to teach Einstein in high school physics at all, except
> maybe a
> bit in the final year of high school to whet the students' appetite
> for the
> more tantalizing areas of theoretical science. There is so much basic
> physics to learn -- electricity and magnetism, kinematics, dynamics,
> acoustics, optics, elementary wave and particle theory, etc. -- that
> Einstein, Hawking, chaos theory, etc. can wait.
> 5. Standardized tests can be a blessing and a curse. They are a
> blessing
> because without them there is no control over teachers and schools, and
> things rapidly degenerate. They are a curse in that they can drive
> teachers
> to "teach to the test" rather than to educate students to love the
> subject -- in this case science. A *good* state educational authority
> would
> design the state curriculum so that any experienced teacher could prepare
> his or her students to write the standard tests based on, say, 85% of the
> class time in the school year. That would allow science teachers the
> other
> 15% of the time to play with, and they could work into the curriculum the
> topics and activities that they personally deem important for good
> science
> education. There have to be standards, but teachers shouldn't be turned
> into robots. All excellent education has a personal dimension, and
> science
> teachers, like English or History teachers, need the freedom to exercise
> personal judgment about what works best for students in a particular
> school
> at a particular point in time.
> Cameron.
> ----- Original Message ----- From: "Merv Bitikofer" <>
> To: "Cameron Wybrow" <>; "asa" <>
> Sent: Sunday, May 31, 2009 7:30 AM
> Subject: Re: [asa] science education
>> Bill is right regarding the difficulties of "teaching" critical
>> thinking.
>> (modeling, encouraging, --or even just: *not discouraging* critical
>> thought is about all a high school teacher can try to do.) In a
>> society
>> that has increasing paranoia about teacher quality and a love/hate
>> relationship with standardized tests and merit criteria, most teachers
>> feel a lot of pressure just to move kids to the "testing well" stage
>> which
>> is solidly in the grammar / logic portion that Bill discussed. We
>> would
>> love to be able to tread the paths, ask similar questions, repeat the
>> experiments that great innovators of the past had to get through to
>> achieve their revolutionary progress. But to do this more than just
>> in a
>> passing token sense and still cover the expected material, we would need
>> your students in our science rooms for about three years instead of
>> one ---and without so much lost class time to sports, fund raisers, and
>> other competing ---sometimes noble and worthy activities. Another
>> related
>> challenge is that, without some of the basic building blocks, students
>> haven't even arrived at the point where they can begin to ask the
>> penetrating questions. Until they have basic apprehension of Newton's
>> work, they won't be able to properly appreciate how counter-intuitive
>> relativity or QM can be, for example.
>> I aspire towards much of this; and in fact my physics and chemistry
>> students do get treatment of the history of scientific thought including
>> discussion about Galileo and even MN which I pull in as a result of my
>> years' participation on this list. But this past year after allowing my
>> students extra time for experimentation in other major areas we ended up
>> shortchanging the study of optics and had to do a cursory (literally
>> post-course) fly-through of relativity and QM topics in modern physics.
>> (And other major areas like thermodynamics also ended up being a bit
>> rushed.) So there are definitely trade-offs and public pressure for
>> good
>> standardized test results definitely do NOT favor your side in that
>> balance. Until the public can let go of its cherished mistrust of
>> teachers (even despite that mistrust being justifiably earned in too
>> many
>> cases --but probably not as many as popularly imagined) I fear no
>> progress
>> will be made. It's time for Johnny to know he will own his own
>> failures
>> (and successes) again.
>> --Merv (a high school science teacher whose four-year degree is in
>> electrical engineering --guess I didn't quite make your cut!)
>> p.s. your points, Cameron, are well-taken though; and I've been slowly
>> moving in these directions for several years now and still have many
>> improvements to make.

To unsubscribe, send a message to with
"unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
Received on Mon Jun 1 07:41:47 2009

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Mon Jun 01 2009 - 07:41:47 EDT