Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Fixing Science Education

Why is the United States falling behind in science education?

Class Size
Reading newspapers will provide a number of potential answers. For example, many decry the large class sizes. Prof. E. H. Hall of Harvard University wrote at the end of the 19th century that science labs must have no more than twelve students to succeed in teaching science. One teacher, no matter how skilled, could not provide inquiry-based learning to more than twelve students at a time.

Today's science teachers tell us that they have problems with more than 16 students in a science lab. Studies of accidents in science labs suggests that more than 24 students causes the accident rate to rise precipitously. Inadequate space in science labs also increases accident rates.

Unless you abandon science labs in science courses, you must have small lab sections - or an entirely different approach.

Teacher Training
Few science teachers these days understand science despite their education school training and lots of professional development. Even sending science teachers to spend summers with research scientists doen't necessarily solve this problem. Often, the teacher becomes a lab technician rather than a real research assistant.

The teacher training being practiced today misses the important point of science, is costly, and is time-consuming. Moreover, high turnover of teachers means that constant training is required to ensure that most science teachers have been trained. Finally, training rarely instills into teachers a true understanding of the nature of science.

Professional development is necessary to keep us from falling further into decay but is not the solution by itself.

Little Depth
Too many science classes spend very little time of each of many topics. This fact comes from overly ambitious standards, usually imposed by states. So many topics are specified that less than a day can be spent on each one. This sort of curriculum favors rapid memorizers and completely ignores aspects of science that are really important: the nature of science, scientific reasoning, data analysis skills, and understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work.

Students spend too much time in their science classes listening to teachers talk or watching them demonstrate. Conceivably, they could spend all of their time just preparing for, doing, and discussing excellent labs and have a much superior learning experience. Such a curriculum would necessarily limit the number of topics. Of course, the labs would have to be well-designed and sequenced. Preparation would have to include some purpose and connection to students' own lives.

Curricula have been designed and redesigned without notable success in widespread results. Something is missing.

Unprepared Students
Most students seem to arrive in their science classes with inadequate reading and mathematics skills. Great efforts have been put into improving these skills so that students can do better in their science and history classes as well as in their post-graduate lives.

The problem remains. In education, you must take your students as they are. Science courses must find ways to teach science while simultaneously enhancing reading, writing, and math skills. Science, like history, has much to offer other than simply skills. It has, literally, the world to offer. Well-designed science classes with great teachers will get students excited about learning science. Then, they'll have the motivation to improve their other skills so that they can understand the world around them.

Real Innovation Required
The current ideas are the same old ideas in new packages. Despite tens of billions of dollars and decades spent on them, the results are pretty much the same, and things are getting worse.

The usual ideas involve more teacher training, funding smaller science classes, redesigning curricula, and applying more effort in language arts and mathematics classes. Yet the science learning problem remains endemic in our nation's classrooms.

Something new, something completely different, would seem to be required.

Let's face the facts here. Unless students have exciting science teachers who understand science deeply, they will not learn science the way it's being taught today. Some may learn enough science vocabulary, enough laws of science, and enough formulas to pass their tests but even those students will not understand science and are unlikely to select science as a career.

An American Answer
Fixing science education in America requires an American perspective. We are a country of innovation, of entrepreneurship, and of hope.

We will not reduce science class sizes significantly soon. Schools have no money for more teachers, more buildings, or more lab equipment. We must find a way to teach great science courses to large classes. In New York City, class size is capped at 34 students. Because of budget considerations, classes with fewer than 30 students often are eliminated.

Teacher training cannot solve the problems by itself. It takes too much time to get all teachers through training, including new ones. There's little follow-up to ensure that teachers apply their training. For example, one teacher was sent to SLAC (Stanford Linear Accelerator) to learn about a computer system being made available to schools around the country. He returned to tell the community about the great experience he'd had. However, this program was never presented to any students.

School administrators should have a way to determine whether professional development is being utilized in classrooms.

Only one approach provides any hope of solving all of these problems - technology.

Using Technology
You can object that lots of technology has been applied to improving science education without success. However, the use of technology so far has mostly been pedestrian rather than innovative. For example, what is probeware but a computer and probe replacing a dedicated instrument such as a digital thermometer, a pH meter, or a colorimeter. Using probeware adds nothing new to the learning.

We've see many efforts to use simulations to help students learn science. These programs take time and require computers. They may be no more effective than a good video presentation such as the PBS Nova series or programs on the Discovery Channel that take fewer resources.

Some teachers substitute simulations for science labs. These simulations are one form of virtual activity that generates its data, objects, and phenomena using computer algorithms. While they are a valid interactive substitute for videos, they're not science labs. The National Research Council defined a science laboratory experience in America's Lab Report as follows.
"Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science."
This definition clearly excludes simulations. By this definition, a simulation is not a lab of any sort and therefore not a virtual lab. The purveyors of simulations would have you believe otherwise.

On the other hand, lots of alternatives exist for providing true virtual science labs. For example, Mohave Community College offers an oceanography course that includes real-world case studies using current oceanographic data including ocean predictions, satellites and water vapor content. MIT is working on iLabs, a system for providing access to expensive equipment for students to do experiments over the Internet.

These alternatives are limited in scope and cannot provide a full lab program for science students. We must have more. Taking the concept of remote, real-time labs one step further provides the answer.

The Smart Science® core learning system does just that. It prerecords the real experiments that might have been done remotely and many that just couldn't be done in real time. It then provides highly interactive software that allows students to collect their own personal data from these experiments. It also delivers extensive learning support and monitoring capabilities while capturing all student and teacher online interactions in a server database.

Solving the Problems
How can the Smart Science® system of integrated instructional lab units solve all of the problems of science education?

1. Class size.
Teachers can monitor students working on computers much more readily than those working on hands-on experiments. By rotating students between safe hands-on experiments and computer-based experimentation, a larger number of students can be managed.

Class sizes still should be reduced. The immediate benefit of using this specific technology is that larger class sizes can be accommodated right now without sacrificing the quality of the lab experience.

2. Teacher training.
Because the background material, the goals of a lab, the support material, and all other required pedagogical material can be included within an integrated instructional lab unit, the amount of teacher training required is reduced considerably. The teacher still must be good at teaching but won't necessarily have to be a science expert.

3. Little depth.
One problem with providing more depth in science classes is providing experiences that go into a topic in greater depth. Science labs provide that opportunity. However, the typical science labs (cookbook with answers known in advance) do not. In addition, science labs tend to use lots of resources: time, money, and space.

Excellent, online true science labs can fill the void here and allow great science course design that includes more depth for important topics.

4. Unprepared students.
Computer-based systems allow students to work at their own pace. They can sense that students must have remedial work and indicate those students to the teachers or even provide it to them directly. Explanations of mathematics are available. Vocabulary words are available. In short, every support imaginable can be made a part of the computer system.

Ready Now
The best part of this solution is that it's ready today at a very low cost, and that cost will go down as usage increases. A student can use this system today in an entire course for less than the cost of a lab book.

See for more information.

© 2008 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.

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