The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Working toward Science Literacy

Science literacy has been a hot topic of conversation in education for several years now. As part of the national push for more STEM focus, science literacy encompasses a number of skills (as opposed to content) that are essential for STEM and other professions in the 21st century workforce.

Our science team centered its goal this year around science literacy:

Based on the fact that students currently score below the state and national averages on MCAS, AP, & SATII exams, our goal is to increase scientific literacy across grade levels. We will develop monthly assessments that measure proficiency in scientific literacy skills. We will review student performance on these monthly assessments and if 70% of the class does not receive a 75% or higher, we will reteach and reassess.

We made this year’s goal in response to the fact that our data shows our students are consistent unprepared for the level of rigor of high-level assessment, most of the time not due to lack of content knowledge but lack of skills in breaking down and interpreting complex texts, graphs, data, etc. The skill deficiency was also noticed by 12th grade teachers who get wave after wave of students who lack the skills for researching, writing, and defending their senior thesis.

The need for these skills is more urgent now for us as well because of the Common Core standards, and the accompanying PARCC exam.  Last year, students struggled with both the ELA and Math PARCC pilot tests, again not due to content knowledge, but due to being unable to parse the question and figure out what was even being asked.

So our administration basically said, top-down from the skills we know they are missing in 12 grade AP, PARCC, and senior defense, everybody align all the way down in every grade, every content, every student.

Over the summer, we used two references as guidelines to construct a draft vertical alignment. Both are attached. The first is a pdf of the pages relevant to Scientific and Technical Literacy from the Common Core ELA standards, which are obviously PARCC aligned. These will serve as classroom-level guides on constructing tasks, assessments, projects, etc. All major projects and assessments should include components from this rubric.

The second is the NMSI Process Skills Progression chart, which is based on the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices. The nine skills are broken down into three levels of increasing abstraction: Factual Knowledge, Conceptual Understanding, and Reasoning & Analysis. We have loosely decided to base the assessments we will use to measure our Science Team goal on these skills. We will assess one of the nine skills per month, and try to establish a baseline set of data for what level our students are at on the progression in each skill by grade level. Then next year, we will use the baseline data as the starting point to construct a full vertical alignment of what needs to be taught by grade level and in what depth.

Both of these overlap very well with what we’ve been using to design projects until now, the Hess Cognitive Rigor Matrix (also attached). We will continue to measure our major projects against the Hess rubric.

That’s about all I really know at the moment, since we are just starting this initiative. I’ll try and update with any significant developments throughout the year as we continue to take a look at it.

Why Learn Physics?

MinutePhysics posted this video, entitled “Open Letter to the President: Physics Education”, to their YouTube stream.

Summary: The content of high school physics curricula generally stop at around the year 1865, which is an interesting observation. At first it seems quite logical that students should follow the prescribed path from kinematics to dynamics to electromagnetism and from there on to more complex topics if there is time (which of course there never is, so we never get to anything further).

But from another perspective, does one really need an understanding of dynamics as a prerequisite to an introduction to relativity and quantum? I actually don’t think so. The physics discoveries of the 21st century so profoundly changed our fundamental view of the universe and how we relate to it, that most of what came before seems absurdly limited in scope. Quantum Mechanics, for example, starts from very different conceptual foundations than does Newtonian Mechanics; thus, even though one came before the other chronologically, they really have nothing to do with each other conceptually.

I think it would be awesome to teach an introduction to contemporary scientific issues and understanding in high school. The inevitable counterpoint question will of course be, “but when will they use that?” I certainly admit that Newtonian Mechanics and classical electromagnetic theory, though limited in scope and not even technically correct by modern standards,  are far more likely to be “relevant to students’ lives” than quantum, relativity, particle theory, or cosmology. (In other words, Newtonian Mechanics are more readily applicable to every day situations even though their underlying assumptions and framework do not actually describe physical reality as we now know it.)

However, my (opinionated) rebuttal to this counterpoint is that it is, like so much of education policy, shortsighted and focused on the wrong things. What is the purpose of education? More specifically, what is the purpose of high school science education? What should my students be learning in my physics classroom? Though I certainly encourage STEM careers and want to prepare my students for college, the fact of the matter is that very few of them — even under ideal circumstances — will go on to choose further study and careers in science and engineering. If and when they do, they will receive specialized content instruction and training for it. So, yes they should have some introductory content knowledge, but ultimately what is more important for all of my students, including the STEM-bound ones, to come away with in their formative years as they emerge as adult citizens of the nation and world?

I would argue that the best answer to this question is: a sense of place. A perspective that the universe is a beautiful and endlessly fascinating arena full of challenge and discovery — and that therefore, on that principle alone, it is worthy of study and exploration. An understanding of the rigorous tools of scientific analysis and inquiry that have allowed us as a species to discard illusions and improve our lives. Further, a realization that they must use these tools daily as citizens in the modern world as a defense against manipulation by interests who would misrepresent science for self-serving ends.  And lastly, a cohesive story of our human quest for truth — the part that was grounded in empiricism and fueled by curiosity — which has brought us to our present understanding of what we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

Very little of this perspective, by the way, is captured in the present Massachusetts high school physics curriculum [PDF] or standardized accountability tests such as the MCAS. From what I have read, the Next Generation Science Standards are much, much better than what we have now and certainly a huge step in the right direction. But even these standards, on the cutting edge of what American K-12 science education policy is working on, remain far from the mark in my opinion. They remain somewhat impeded by the inertia of 150 years of “this is what we’ve always taught”.

It is only in the context of physics as the true “natural philosophy” — testing whether our human ideas hold traction with reality — that (properly) introducing the most contemporary physical understanding of the universe (alongside those which came before) to our high school students makes sense. Barring that framework for what physics education is ultimately for, I really doubt that our students will learn physics past 1865 until and unless they choose to do so in college — by which point it may be too late to engage them with it anyway. Which means of course, that it may be too late for the study of physics to contribute to the scientific literacy of the overwhelming majority of our citizens.

Keep fighting the good fight, MinutePhysics.