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Science Education Through the Eyes of a Physicist

Ted Schultz

About the Author. The author received a Bachelor of Engineering Physics from Cornell University and a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from M.I.T. In his career as a scientist, he worked as a theoretical condensed-matter physicist at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center and was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society. During this period, he also taught at New York University and the University of Munich. His more recent career in science education started at the National Science Resources Center in Washington, DC and has continued in projects concerned with the involvement of scientists with science education at both the National Research Council and the American Physical Society.

Introduction. As a theoretical physicist who now devotes full time to trying to involve scientists in science education, especially in the elementary grades, I have found that the world of education is very different from the world of physics, and probably from the world of science or engineering. The environment and challenges in the two worlds are entirely different. So are the vocabulary and even the sociology. But, surprisingly, there are also a few ideas in elementary education reform that are more natural for physicists than for educators.

Any scientist (or engineer) working in both worlds or wishing to make a transition from one to the other, will have to learn about the differences. From the "constructivist" point of view, of which science educators are so fond, the scientist making this transition must construct his or her own understanding of these differences. These observations presented here are offered to help that process along.

Any educator who is involved in a partnership or collaboration with scientists may also find these observations useful. Coming to understand some of these differences, if done the hard way, could otherwise be a slower and more painful process.

1. Complexity. The educational system is far more complex than are physical systems. This is true for a number of reasons:

The educational system has many organizational levels (classroom, school, school district, state, nation) and each has its own administrative structure (teacher; principal; science specialist or curriculum coordinator, superintendent, and school board; state department of education; and U.S. Department of Education). Furthermore, the parts of the system at different levels interact so strongly that it is difficult if not impossible to ignore those interactions. Physical systems may also have several organizational levels (elementary particles; nuclei; atoms and/or electrons; molecules; gases/plasmas/liquids/solids; macroscopic objects; electric, magnetic, and gravitational fields; Earth, the solar system, stars, and systems of stars; etc.), but it is usually possible to focus on one or two of these levels and ignore the rest in any single investigation.

The educational system also has numerous side branches that play important roles (e.g. teacher training institutions and departments; science departments at colleges and universities; educational research organizations; educational testing organizations; educational materials developers and publishers; educational advocacy organizations devoted to a wide and often conflicting range of issues; and funding organizations). Physical systems also have side branches (e.g. the measuring apparatus, stray electric and magnetic fields, the environment as a source of heat, etc.), but they are much fewer and their effects are easier to determine and control in precise ways. [This is not to say that physicists don't have to involve themselves with public concerns, political personalities and organizations, and funding organizations, but for most purposes, this is an ancillary activity, not "doing physics".]

The "elementary particles" of the educational system are highly varied, often uncharacterizable, and usually unpredictable: people. By comparison, the elementary particles in physics, although mathematically difficult to describe, are by comparison far simpler and in a certain sense, completely predictable.

Participating subsystems in education work at more than one logical level. Teachers, for example, not only teach children, are taught by science educators, and are managed by school administrators, but they also join professional societies and unions, form advocacy groups, serve on assessment panels, etc. Electrons, by contrast, respond to a field in a definite way and don't, at the same time, stand back, observe, and fold into that response how they think the field wants them to respond and what they want the field to get out of the interaction.

In the educational system, there are many different kinds of school districts. For example, there are big-city districts, suburban districts, and rural districts; there are rich and poor districts; there are districts coinciding with all kinds of political subdivisions like a state (Hawaii), counties, cities, and townships, and there are school districts that are coterminous with no other political entity; and there are districts with a wide range of degrees of local autonomy from centrally administered districts to those with "site-based management."

The educational system also has many conflicting stakeholders: pupils, parents, teachers, school administrators, school boards, state departments of education, national administrators, advocates and lobbyists, higher-level educational institutions, teachers of education, educational researchers, and politicians at all levels. Physical systems don't have stakeholders (until electrons develop a will of their own). The world of physics has stakeholders, but their variety is much less, and so is the contention among them.

In education, there are no sharp reliable rules, much less laws, that characterize the behavior of any of these subsystems or their interactions. In physical systems most of the rules are known and the systems are, in principle if not in practice, predictable.

The educational system is very large, and because of its great inhomogeneity, seems much larger still. It has 51 "state" jurisdictions, 16,000 school districts, 100,000 elementary schools, 1,400,000 elementary school teachers (most of whom have had little education in science, almost none of which was the kind we would hope they'd imitate in their own teaching), and about 24,000,000 elementary school pupils. Typical physical systems have of the order of 1023 particles, which is far larger than any for the educational system, but the number of different kinds of particles is small (e.g. electrons and nuclei) and particles of like kind obey identical laws.

2. Measurability and Predictability. In education, nothing approaches being as measurable or as predictable as in science. This has enormous consequences.

In physics, the relevant quantities, like energy, mass, length, time, and charge, are all measurable, some with great precision. In science education, the most interesting quantities like the knowledge of science, ability to do science, outcomes of education, ability of teachers to teach science, etc. can be "assessed" (the jargon word) only very crudely.

In physics, the effects of the interactions among particles or among more complex systems are often predictable, sometimes with surprising precision. This breeds confidence that sometimes borders on arrogance. In science education, by contrast, the results of teaching in a certain way, or using certain instructional material, or instituting a certain educational program, are predictable only crudely, if at all. The inability in education to say with confidence that this is better than that, and certainly to say by how much, leads, I think, to insecurity, defensiveness, proofs by handwaving, and political maneuvering on a scale that is totally foreign to physicists.

Physicists are constantly disagreeing and questioning; tell a physicist you've discovered something and he (there are very few she's) immediately tries to find the counterexample. The arguments get rather hot, but the end result is usually a defensible conclusion, or at least an agreed strategy to test different proposals. Among educators, because defending conclusions is much more difficult, disagreement and questioning are seen as more personal and threatening, so educators avoid confrontation and are usually both friendly and caring. Differences, if resolved at all, are often resolved by appeals to authority.

While there are fashions in physics, they are usually fashions of what is considered interesting, not of what is believed to be true. Our understanding of the physical world progresses in one direction; rarely do we revert to a position held and abandoned long before. In education, where what is "true" is much harder to agree on and even harder to measure, fashions are much more common, and old views do return.

3. Immediate Answers vs. Many-year Waits. In physics, the interesting results of an experiment usually occur within days, sometimes within microseconds; in education, the ultimate effects may not occur for many years. This difference makes meaningful experiments in education far more difficult. One wants to know not only the effect of instruction on the student's understanding of science and his/her development of scientific skills and habits of thinking each day, by the end of the module, and how this exposure affects the student's choices and behaviors in middle school, high school, college, and beyond. These are all important effects, and all essentially unmeasurable.

4. Inanimates vs. Humans. Physicists deal with particles and fields; science educators deal with human beings. As a result of this difference, feelings play little if any role in what physicists do and a very important role in what science educators do (and don't do). When I first entered the world of science education, I was astounded at the number of greeting cards, gifts, and celebrations of personal events (not to mention baby showers!). In the world of physicists, only weddings, deaths, the commemoration of major work anniversaries, and the winning of major prizes receive that kind of attention. Not only what is celebrated but what is said and what underlies entire attitudes reflect this difference. Physicists "tell", and the feelings of the person being told are usually ignored. Educators "share", and the feelings of the person with whom one is sharing are in the forefront.

5. Substance vs. Mode. For physicists, what they communicate is far more important than how they communicate it; for science educators, it is almost the reverse. The differences are seen in the way they communicate and the extent to which they evaluate their communication processes.

For physicists, their discoveries are almost all that matters. Papers are often badly written; talks at meetings are often compressions from what should take 3 hours into 10 minutes; and the pervasive attitude in oral presentations is "here it is, come and get it". Some real care may be taken by some physicists, some of the time (e.g. in writing review papers and books), but little is expended on how research results are first communicated.

For science educators, how they communicate (which is really a form of education) is extremely important. At a conference, reading a paper, with its carefully crafted prose and many well-turned phrases, is common, whereas physicists almost never read from a prepared text. Also, educators' concern about communication extends well beyond the preparation of presentations. At almost every kind of event, evaluation sheets may be distributed, something that occasions no surprise and that even seems expected. If a physicist were to hand out evaluation sheets after a seminar, colloquium, workshop, or conference, it would shock the other physicists beyond belief.

6. Children's Brains are Different. The brains of children, with which educators have to deal, are significantly different from those of adults, with which physicists are used to dealing.

The education of children must be "age appropriate." There are certain things that a developing brain simply can not do (for example, at a certain age, little children have little notion of either space or time). What is age appropriate at each age level is something a teacher needs to know, but it's a notion that physicists implicitly ignore. In fact, physicists think if they explain something slowly and clearly enough, it can be understood by anyone. Educators know better.

The education of children should be more concrete, less abstract. Educators know that children are not only more comfortable dealing with the concrete, but are even unable to deal with the abstract, especially below roughly the age of eight. Adults are quite different, so for many physicists, the more abstract the better!

7. Questions and Answers. For physicists, asking the right question is most important; for elementary-school teachers, having the right answer often is.

This statement is of course an oversimplification, but there's more truth than might first appear. For the research physicist, good questions are the crux of the enterprise. Research is a continual quest. The answers, when found, are certainly interesting, especially when they allow the quest to go on, and they are what gets published. But it is the unknown, not the known, that is most intriguing. For many science teachers, questions are threatening, especially if from students. It is answers that make them most comfortable and that they are used to dispensing. This is not to say that physicists, when asked a question by almost anyone, don't just dump a lot of facts; they usually do. Or that undergraduate science education is inquiry-centered; it usually isn't. But it's changing, because many physicists know that they do their best teaching when they are working together with their graduate students, near the frontier where they themselves don't know the answers.

This difference has important implications for the nature of experiments and the nature of inquiry-centered teaching. Experiments should provide answers to unanswered questions, not simply confirmation of known results. Physicists know this, although they often ignore it in educating undergraduates. For traditional teachers, for whom experiments, when they occur, are often just demonstrations and are rarely to answer questions, this principle is novel, and was almost certainly not followed in their own science education. Thus, for physicists, inquiry is natural, at least when they are in their research mode. For teachers, inquiry is unnatural. Given how hard it probably was for the physicist to learn to be a true inquirer, it is not surprising how difficult it is for the teacher who is trying to learn to teach children in an inquiry-centered way.

8. Collaboration vs. Solos Performances. For physicists, research is usually collaborative; for teachers, teaching is usually a solo performance.

For physicists, research is most often collaborative if only because it is synergistic; an obstacle that is impenetrable for one member of a team, is easily hurdled by another. The give and take among a few theorists gathered around a blackboard for several days, arguing, suggesting, trying, rejecting, conjecturing ... that's the way much if not most theoretical science is done. And the apportionment of responsibilities by expertise is standard in many branches of experimental science. In a recent issue of a preeminent physics journal The Physical Review B, 95% of the papers have more than one author, and the joint authors are usually close collaborators at a single research institution. Also, the collaboration among physicists is not just within the same discipline and at the same institution. Interdisciplinary teams are becoming more numerous, and inter-institutional interactions, even collaborations, among physicists, who were among the earliest users of the Internet, have led to both the automated electronic exchange of preprints and more recently to the invention of the World Wide Web.

For teachers, the time, flexibility, and administrative support needed to make real collaboration the norm are all scarce. Their schedules are tight and non-meshing; they often have neither Internet access nor even a telephone; and financial support for attending meetings or even observing other colleagues is usually not there. There is an increasing recognition of the need of teachers to collaborate but, to a large extent, teachers are isolated; what they give are solo performances. To me as a physicist, this was one of my biggest shocks when I first became exposed to the education world.

9. Collaboration among Students -- also to be encouraged.

Physicists know from much experience that effective collaboration while efficient is not easy to learn. To us, the idea of encouraging it among children is obvious and natural: the sooner we encourage it rather than inhibit it, the better. In the traditional education of children, where it has been thought important to be able to evaluate each pupil individually, collaboration among children has been discouraged, and sometimes even punished, although that, too, is changing.

10. World Stage vs. Single Classroom. Physicists and educators perform on different-sized stages.

Not unrelated to their very different opportunities to collaborate is the very different stages on which physicists and educators "perform". Physicists who are able to publish the results of their research perform on a world stage. What they publish in an American journal (or even more, the preprint they circulate electronically from a server in Los Alamos or Trieste) is read by other physicists in Moscow, Madras, Madrid, and Minneapolis (not to mention Marseilles, Manchester, Munich, and Montevideo). It will be discussed at national conferences in a few months, and perhaps at international conferences not long after. Real collaborations will start among people who have never even met one another.

For the school teacher, a discovery may never go beyond her/his own classroom, certainly not beyond his/her school. If there are 10,000 teachers attending the annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association, there are at least 1.4 million teachers who are not there, most of whom are not even members of the NSTA and will never be at such a meeting.

This incredible difference between the stages on which physicists and teachers perform and a host of different attitudes it fosters should not be ignored.

11. Teamwork vs. Hierarchy. The leader as coach, or even colleague, rather than as a didact, is as natural to physicists as it is foreign to many teachers.

For scientists or engineers, the leader of a research group or team is often like a playing coach. It is in this position that he/she gets the best feel for what the research program is doing and the best opportunity to make his/her own scientific contribution. This cooperation is also a great leveler, strongly opposing any tendencies toward a hierarchical structure.

For teachers, to lead is to be out in front, set the agenda, determine what is taught and how, provide the necessary information and even materials. In this sense, some teachers do lead, but more often they are led, these decisions are made for them. The result is a hierarchical structure that pervades much of education and that can be very inhibiting to teachers' initiative and creativity.

12. Reinventing Wheels -- physicists avoid trying to; teachers often don't.

Physicists, perhaps because they are practitioners of the most fundamental of the sciences, are notorious for trying to reinvent wheels -- new and more interesting wheels, perhaps, but wheels just the same. But even they know that their science is part of a mammoth structure, and that there is too much to do in the future to be reinventing or rederiving what was done in the past. They pay a great deal of attention to much of what has been done.

Some educators know this, too. But many others spend summers "developing curriculum" and many subsequent years faithfully using the results of their efforts. It becomes a sign of "ownership," "individuality," "self-empowerment." Yet there are instructional modules that have involved many of the best minds, drawn on the latest cognitive research, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, whose existence is often ignored in favor of the home grown, almost as a matter of principle.

13. Teachers' Professional Development. Physicists, teachers, and the National Science Education Standards have three quite different views.

The physicists' view of what elementary-school teachers are is usually based on a few images from their own youth or from their children's teachers of previous years. These images, snapshots in time, give no sense of how teachers grow over the years. In this view, teachers just are, they don't become.

The teacher's view is that his or her growth comes from experience, inservice courses, summer institutes, advanced credits, and trying harder to get better ... until burnout. A teacher picks up many things from many places, but how they are used is strictly pragmatic: try them, and if they work, use them, somehow. In this view, research journals, whether on cognitive development, how children learn, or the effects of different instructional strategies, are for another community, the research community, not for the practicing day-to-day teacher. This is reminiscent of how medical doctors functioned at the turn of the century, when the science of medicine was still primitive, but it certainly troubles the physicist, who wants to see the latest discoveries and understandings always being applied.

Deep in the Professional Development chapter of the National Science Education Standards is Professional Development Standard C (p. 68), which articulates the view that teachers should be lifelong learners who use many of the processes of science in improving their own teaching, both individually and collaboratively. These processes include observation, reflection and analysis, using new tools and techniques, and paying close attention to research. For maximum growth, the Standard asks that teachers should learn to think scientifically, and use this ability to think about (and improve) their own teaching; the teacher should become a scientist about science education. To physicists, needless to say, this is a very appealing notion.

In Conclusion. Physicists (and other scientists, engineers, and other technical professionals) can make important contributions to science education in many ways. But to do so, they must enter a very different culture. To make their involvement useful in any real sense, they must understand the underlying features of that culture and not assume that those features are similar to those of their own. Educators will say that physicists will understand this only when they have constructed the understanding for themselves. These observations are offered as a set of pointers to aid this constructivist process.

Copyright National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.