Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Take a Closer Look at Science Education

With Jerry Brown taking over as governor of California and Mayor Bloomberg appointing Cathleen Black as chancellor of New York City schools, the time is right to review what's happening in science education in these two very large school markets. New York City has over 1,000,000 students in its schools, about 1/3 in high school, and the California high school population is estimated at a bit over 2,000,000.

In addition, Texas, no lightweight in education, has begun its RSSM (Request for Supplemental Science Materials), which seeks to certify 100% web-delivered materials for all of the high school science students in the state. Every Texas student must take four years of science, so all 1.3 million high school students are covered by this new requirement.

With so many articles bemoaning our nation's science education, what is to be done? New national science curriculum standards are being readied right now as is a national education technology plan. Neither of these will have substantial impact on the quality of science education. They may help a bit around the edges. Textbook manufacturers and others who create curricular materials will find their work a bit easier if they can begin with a single set of standards instead of 51. Technology does have great promise, but implementation has its problems.

I'm going to digress from my usual approach of leaving my business out entirely or leaving any commercial comment until the end because the situation is so dire. We've dropped from the first-place science education country in the world to somewhere in double digits depending on which data you use.

You cannot ignore the fact that all of the paths to success in science education that are being tried have been tried before. Why should they succeed now?

Some say that science education is being hamstrung by poor math and language arts skills and seek to improve science education by focusing on those areas. That idea appears logical but puts the cart before the horse. After all, science can be taught without complex language or advanced math skills. It's just not the way people usually teach it. Besides, science can be the trigger to engaging students in learning better math and language arts skills.

I created Smart Science® education just to deal with these issues. I looked at highly rated schools and found their science programs often lacking in basic science understanding. They did quite well in producing students who have memorized the materials: words, formulas, and procedures. But, their students did not understand the nature of science and often lacked decent scientific thinking skills.

My analysis indicated that these students simply did not have enough true science investigation (lab) time. Oh, they may have had plenty of science labs, but those labs were either verification labs (answer told to them ahead of time) or technique labs (focused on learning a particular technique). Students did not go into the lab wondering what they'd find.

Even in cases of investigation, the time and availability of materials and apparatus prevented a complete investigation. In addition, many great labs were being eliminated due to new safety requirements and increasingly tight budgets.

I chose to attack our science education failings right at the lab level. Anyone can provide memorization classes and create memorization software to aid in that course of action. However, creating great science labs is not so easy. You must have a number of factors such as:

1. Low cost, or the labs won't be used in most schools.
2. An unknown outcome of the experiments
3. Enough experiments to allow exploration and discovery
4. Data from the material world with systematic and random errors so students learn the nature of science.
5. Students collecting their own individual data point by point while exercising their own care and judgment to extend their understanding of the nature of science.
6. Data analysis made on students' own data to engage students by providing data ownership.
7. Certainty of experiment operation so that entire periods aren't wasted with totally failed experiments.

These criteria can only be fulfilled with the support of technology. Consider a couple of technologies that are being promoted to improve science education, simulations and probeware.

Science animated simulations use a formula to produce data for students to study. In general, they do not produce a data table of individual data points. These simulations violate criteria 4, 5, and 6 above. Using a simulation to mimic a true science lab tends to leave a very inaccurate impression of science in the minds of students: precise and easy. Science is just the opposite. Teachers should reserve simulations for understanding content and not attempt to use them to replace labs, where the nature of science is one of the major outcomes sought.

Probeware provides an efficient way to collect data from the material world. However, this approach violates criterion 5 above and may run into criterion 7 due to failure of the experiment or of the electronics. It also does not truly meet criterion 1, low cost. Probeware should only be used in advanced classes where students have already mastered the concepts of the nature of science to a reasonable degree. Unfortunately, even in advanced classes, the students often enter without having had the opportunity to master those concepts.

Only Smart Science® education, with its patented approach, meets all of the listed goals.

1. In large school districts, purchasing contracts allow students to do entire labs of many experiments for on the order of 25 cents per lab.
2. The labs do not disclose the outcome before the experiments are performed.
3. Each lab has a number of experiments, sometimes more than twenty, to allow a full investigation.
4. All labs use filmed real experiments as the source of data so students get a true feeling for real data with the same sorts of errors they'd get themselves.
5. Each student must collect individual data and cannot simply copy someone else's data; their own care and judgment affect the results.
6. Students analyze their own data; they even determine how much data to take.
7. Prerecorded experiments ensure success.

There's simply no other system for science investigation that matches Smart Science® education.

The above does not preclude traditional hands-on experiments. Rather, it embraces them. Many Smart Science® labs have a hands-on component so that students can have a kinesthetic experience and have the opportunity for experimental design beyond that available in prerecorded experiments.

Furthermore, Smart Science® labs are suitable for homework. Students can do a hands-on lab in school and then go home and expand that experience enormously with the platform-independent, 100% web-delivered Smart Science® system.

We must improve science education dramatically. All of the paths being trod today are old ones being revisited except for this one. The Smart Science® approach as been adopted from very successful programs in the past. These programs were successful in outcomes but were incapable of scaling to the entire population because of their high cost and difficult training requirements for teachers.

Those impediments can now be overcome with technology. The patented technology of Smart Science® education does exactly that.

Other measures must also be taken to succeed. For example, we must recruit the best possible science teachers and provide them with excellent tools for classroom use. Yet, these measures will take time. Implementing Smart Science® education can be done immediately so that its benefits can begin to be felt today.

The Smart Science® technology currently has implementations for grades 6-13. We have designs to add grades 1-5 so that this remarkable technology be used throughout every student's education beginning at first grade and continuing through the first year of college. We also can expand its capabilities to augment the lab experience beyond the freshman year of college.

Smart Science® education can revolutionize science education.

© 2010 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.net
Follow this author on ETC Journal