Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On Science Teachers

Teachers are both our problem and our solution. How will we resolve this conundrum and improve education dramatically? The answer is not obvious here in the United States.

Recently, we went to a very poor neighborhood where 98% of the children have free or subsidized lunches. We were invited by the science chair to present our Smart Science® system, which we are offering for free to a limited number of schools in truly poor neighborhoods. A chemistry teacher and the department chair had seen our system and were very enthusiastic about it.

About a dozen science teachers showed up for the meeting and demonstration. They were going to see the system that would ordinarily cost their school thousands of dollars annually, the system that is being used by most online organizations already and by a growing number of traditional schools. This is the only complete online system to deliver an online science lab that meets the definition and all goals of America's Lab Report.

Sadly, what happened was too predictable. A few teachers (three as I recall) were very enthusiastic and couldn't wait to begin using it. The bulk of the teachers were unreadable. Several teachers, however, began to pick at minor issues while suggesting that the students would find this system difficult to use for one reason or another.

Well, tens of thousands of students of all learning and ability levels have already used the system successfully. The user interface and help materials have been honed over the ten years that this system has been in use.

Clearly, the teachers themselves have trepidations regarding the use of technology. That's the teacher part of the problem. You'd expect science teachers to be very accepting of technology.

However, the three teachers who were enthusiastic demonstrate the teacher part of the solution. Without teachers, the technology would not be accessible to most students as a learning tool.

Teachers who are willing to try new ideas and evaluate them on their actual in-class performance are the ones that help education move forward. Then, there are those teachers who are acting as gatekeepers, barring new ideas from their classrooms and prejudging them based on their own subjective evaluation, usually quite incomplete.

We have a crisis in education now. In California, the state is loosening class sizes and allowing them to rise to 41 students. Our teachers deserve better! Yet, such classroom overloading can even be ameliorated with proper application of technology. I hope that it's obvious that improper use of technology will likely exacerbate the problem instead.

Realize that, if forced to use new ideas, teachers have the means to guarantee failure in their own classrooms, fulfilling their prophecies of doom. For this reason, we must have teachers accept the new ideas before asking them to use them.

I know that the Smart Science® system is not a panacea for education. Yet, it does provide a unique ability to allow students to experience real science experiments and to perform labs as prescribed by the sages at the National Research Council in perfect safety and at very low cost, sometimes as little as as 20 cents per lab per student working individually. These are complete lab experiences with many experiments, pre-lab and post-lab assessments, extensive support materials, and online lab reports.

How do we get resistant teachers to change their attitudes? Until we do, we'll be stuck with 19th century education. We should have a positive and accepting means of successfully encouraging otherwise recalcitrant teachers to use new ideas, to give them a truly fair chance. Then, all teachers would become part of the solution and none would be part of the problem.

© 2009 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Gov Dumps Science

Last month, a news article said that Governor Schwartzenneger planned to drop the high school graduation requirements in California from two science courses to one. He was responding to the current huge budget deficit in the state.

At at time when we must have more college graduates and more people trained in science and engineering, this response is exactly backward. Many other states have set the number of science courses required for high school graduation to three!

Why choose science? How will reducing science graduation requirements save money while reducing English or math will not?

Two factors seem to be operating here, and it's not possible to tell from the news which is primary in the Governor's decision. Science courses, unlike the other core courses, have an extra cost component in their laboratory work. The cost of supplies and equipment, even after severe cuts, remains at around $7 per pupil. Further expenses come from hazardous waste disposal, insurance costs, laboratory space maintenance, and teacher time lost to lab preparation and clean up.

The other potential cost comes from teacher certification. Certified science teachers have become rare, especially in physical sciences. Many schools have to pay more to get certified science teachers; other schools must provide waivers to allow uncertified teachers to run these classes.

The truly unfortunate part of the Governor's plan is that alternatives exist that save money and improve science education at the same time.

Just imagine that half of the expensive, dangerous, and ineffective hands-on lab experiences in a high school science course were replaced with low-cost, save, and highly effective laboratory experiences. Imagine that the cost is just a few dollars per student. With online preliminary (formative) and subsequent (summative) assessments added, administrators and teachers would be able to track student performance and provide accountability.

You don't have to imagine all of these ideas. They exist today in the Smart Science® education system; see

The Smart Science® system is the only one to meet the definition and all goals of America's Lab Report. Curricula using this system as the primary lab experience have passed the College Board's AP audit for all three AP laboratory sciences. Yes, full approval, even today.

It's a shame that the Governor and his advisers don't consider alternatives before floating such draconian proposals. Write to him today!

© 2009 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.