Monday, December 15, 2008

Please visit an actual classroom before you make recommendations, IV

Here we go again.

From a front page article in the Health & Science section of today's Philadelphia Inquirer:

Temptation to learn
With science scores sagging, schools seek to make the subject more appealing. At Temple, one answer is wine.

At many schools, there is a long tradition of watered-down science courses - heavy on memorization and low on true understanding - for students who seek merely to fulfill a graduation requirement. Physics for Poets, say, or Rocks for Jocks.
Not Professor Levis' Chemistry of Wine class at Temple University:
Levis and his colleague David Dalton want their charges to grasp the why and how of science - to ask their own critical questions and devise a way to find answers.


Such efforts to boost scientific literacy are afoot elsewhere. The University of California at Berkeley, for example, offers a rigorous course called "Physics for Future Presidents," in which students must demonstrate their mastery of concepts by writing essays.

But education experts say the push needs to start well before college. Last week, it was announced that the performance of American students on the most recent international science test had declined. And researchers have found many students do not retain what they've learned, says Sarah Miller, codirector of the Wisconsin Program for Scientific Teaching, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Some fault could lie with the instruction, she says - particularly in cases when science is presented "as this known quantity of information that must be memorized, which is the antithesis of the scientific endeavor."


Lectures are part of the course, too, but they are not of the traditional stand-behind-the-podium variety.

In one recent class, Levis bounded up the stairs of the auditorium to illustrate how red wine gets its color. He was pretending to be a molecule of a pigment called malvidin, which jumps to a higher energy level (a higher "stair") when struck by light.

The molecule absorbs some of the light, from the blue-green end of the spectrum, whereas the color red passes through. So that's the only color we see.

Levis, a serious wine buff who makes wine in his garage, carried a ball of tinfoil in his hands as he leapt up the stairs. The ball represented a unit of light called a photon, which is emitted when the molecule goes back to a lower energy level. So when Levis jumped back down to a lower stair, he "emitted" the ball, tossing it at student Paige Gilbert. She was unfazed.
Nor am I. Indeed, is any of us fazed by this breathless reporting of old hat?

More to the point: has either Inquirer reporter Tom Avril, or scientific teaching expert Sarah Miller, visited an actual k-12 science classroom recently?

Yes, the science is watered down. But it's watered down not because classes are "heavy on memorization," or because they don't ask students to write essays, or draw pictures, or reflect on "how" and "why." (Cf: here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

Rather, science is watered down, and our test scores are down, because, in their zeal to have students to write essays, log journal entries, and draw pictures about science, and to entertain them rather than to educate them, science classes no longer teach students the basic facts they need as a foundation for true scientific understanding.


vlorbik said...

outstanding; you're doing good work.

is the second "here" link broken?

lefty said...

Thanks, vlorbik! I've fixed the link.