President's Commentary (Spring 2004)

President's Commentary (Spring 2004)
Jim Nelson
Announcer, Vol. 34, Iss. 1

Go Physics Boosters!

For a system to be healthy, the various components of the system must be individually healthy. If you have a toothache you do not care much about the other parts of your healthy body system, and similarly if your feet are “killing you” the rest is diminished in importance. I would like you to come with me as we take a look at the physics educational system.

The physics educational system might be divided into four stages: pre-high school years, high school years, college/university years,and post bachelor years.

This AAPT President’s Report will deal with the first stage. I am looking at a pre-high school textbook, and although the pages are colorful, they are not very engaging. The pages are filled with facts, but very little about the process that leads one to the facts or the reason one would be interested in knowing the facts. One thing is clear, the topics included are ones that you, as a physicist, would call physics: topics such as atoms, electrical circuits, light, magnets, motion, etc.

I encourage pre-high school teachers to concentrate on the macroscopic topics that students can actually hold in their hands (e.g., lenses, magnets, motors, springs, etc). The more concrete the better. Leave the abstract concepts for another stage of the system. This is certainly not a novel idea. I found the following quote:

The method that should be pursued is that known as the objective method. This presents two distinct, though intimately related departments: perceptive teaching, in which the object, as an acorn, an egg, a leaf or a piece of coal is directly presented to the pupil’s senses; and conceptive teaching in which impressions previously received are recalled, arranged and utilized, the objects themselves being presented to the senses during the lesson.
 — E. V. DeGraff

Perhaps you can sense from the tone of this quote that it is not new-fashioned, but I think many of us are surprised when we learn it was written before 1878.

Thus, for a long time it has been suggested that students use their senses to perceive the nature of things. Teachers at all stages of the physics educational system would do well to heed this advice. Students learn best if they can gather information, learn the appropriate vocabulary, look for patterns, and then move more slowly to concepts that “explain” them. What we might loosely call science is the process of moving from observations to generalizations and finally to explanations. I find that pre-high school teachers have typically not had an opportunity to experience this approach to understanding the world. Every pre-high school teacher is an adult reader, but only a few have had the opportunity to do adult science.

One of the very active area committees within AAPT is the Committee on Research in Physics Education. While I cannot claim to have done such research, I can appreciate the importance of this group’s efforts. Their mission is to give the same rigor to an understanding of how we learn physics concepts as we give to our efforts to understand the phenomena of nature. My methods of teaching continue to be influenced by the results of this segment of the AAPT community.

What can you, regardless of your position along the continuum of the four stages of the physics educational system listed above, do to serve this first stage of the physics educational system? You can help in ways as simple as going to a local elementary school and talking to the teachers and students about why you love physics. A memorable demonstration shared with younger students will add to your effectiveness. It is amazing how such interactions can renew your own excitement as you return to your “normal” stage. How about giving one hour a month?

Other efforts that you might make to contribute to this stage of the physics educational system include reviewing science books and curriculum; doing research into the perception of physics topics by pre-high school teachers; assembling a grant to provide the opportunity for pre-high school teachers to learn more about physics, teaching, and learning.

We have a major shortfall of precollege science teachers in the United States. Many experienced teachers are retiring, while over half of the new teachers cannot be found in the classroom five years later. Harry Wong puts it this way: “ … teachers are just marched in, defeated, and then replenished with fresh troops.” The interests of professional physicists are linked to this early stage of the physics educational system. Remember the person who first showed you the joy of learning how nature works. Was it someone from your early years of school?

Physics is like a football game. We not only need professionals who play the game, but also spectators who understand, appreciate, and ultimately support the game even if they chose not to play. There cannot be many professional players if no one is introduced to the game as a youngster. The pre-high school classrooms of today are the breeding ground for both those who will play the game in the future and for those who support the game. Go physics boosters.

1 DeGraff, The School-Room Guide, NY, 1878, p. 323

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