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N.S.F. Group Weighing Science Curriculum-Improvement Plans

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More and better science and mathematics courses for general students, as well as a greater emphasis on science in the elementary grades, could play important roles in improving the state of these disciplines, according to "suggested recommendations" outlined by the National Science Board's Commission on Precollege Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology late last month.

The proposed methods of improving the two disciplines at the precollege level are among those that scientists and educators have offered to the commission, which was created to study the issue. The group will issue its own report and recommendations late this year.

But at a public hearing held in Houston on March 26, commission members summarized some of the proposals they have heard to date. The suggestions are among the many that the group will take into consideration when issuing its own report.

Wide Range of Issues

The proposed means of improvement cover a wide range of issues and touch on both the content and requirements for curricula, teacher training and certification, and technology. The recommendations are described in a summary of the hearing issued by the National Science Foundation (nsf).

In the area of curriculum, the commission said, a consensus is emerging about some of the revisions that would lead to improvements. "Federal support should be provided for the development of national, nonprescriptive content guidelines--to aid in the local development of scientifically and mathematically valid curricula which embody the most current thinking in the scientific, mathematical, and cognitive sciences," according to the summary.

In the scientific and mathematical communities, the group has found, there is wide agreement on the need for an effort that brings in experts from diverse fields. Such a plan, it noted, would be difficult to develop locally. However, once a national framework of "reasonable alternatives" has been outlined, curriculum development could proceed locally.

The scientific community also agrees, according to the commission, that more teachers should be brought into the process of developing curricula. Such involvement will not only lead to "more practical methods and materials," but will also be useful in disseminating new methods, the report said.

In addition, many of those concerned with the problem have suggested that state and local school systems should "influence schools to strengthen the content of major subject areas," the report stated.

The issue of course requirements in mathematics and science has also been one on which frequent recommendations have been made, the commission reported.

To address the problem at the elementary level, those suggesting improvements say, all schoolchildren should be required to study science every year, according to the report. Elementary-school pupils have a strong interest in science, and teachers should "be encouraged to capitalize" on that interest, it added. Middle-school courses should pay particular attention to maintaining that interest "so that students are not innocently 'locked out' of high school options."

High-school students, however, should be required to take a "substantial and balanced curriculum of several years of science," according to one recommendation made to the commission. Alternatively, a two-year required sequence on science, technology, and society could also serve to ward off scientific illiteracy.

The recommendations also ad-dress the issue of problem solving, an area in which many students are regarded as woefully inadequate. The commission's summary noted that the back-to-basics movement has shifted curricular emphasis away from the teaching of problem solving.

Some of the recommendations to correct that include placing "substantially more emphasis" on the development of skills in mental arithmetic, estimation, and approximation," and far less on pencil-and-paper calculations. Also, students should begin working with calculators and computers in the early grades, according to the suggested recommendations.

Technological 'Breakthroughs'

The suggestions for changing secondary-school curricula include some that "challenge the traditional division of school mathematics and the position of calculus as the primary goal for able college-bound students," according to the summary. Many of the suggestions involve taking advantage of recent "breakthroughs" in technology.

However, since the breakthroughs that would allow these changes and streamlining of curricula are quite recent, the commission's summary pointed out, "it is not yet entirely clear what specific changes are the most appropriate."

Among the ideas proposed are the introduction of "discrete mathematics, statistics and probability, and computer science" into the fundamental curriculum. Another suggestion is to re-examine traditional mathematics courses in light of computer technologies.

The need to attract, educate, and retain good teachers will be another major aspect of the solution to the problem, the commission noted in its summary.

The recommendations for doing so submitted to the commission include many of those proposed by other groups--raising salaries so they are more in line with those in the private sector. They also include such strategies as providing forgivable loans for students who agree to teach science and mathematics, strengthening requirements for teacher certification in these fields, and revising coursework requirements for those who plan to enter the field.

Those concerned with the problem also back programs that would increase the resources available to teachers for equipment, field trips, and innovative projects.

An increased and enhanced use of computers could help to meet the increased educational needs of both teachers and students, the commission said. For students, computers can provide a personal "tutor" that may help alleviate the teacher shortage. Computers can also be used to teach teachers who need to know more about their subjects and to streamline administrative tasks, hence allowing teachers to spend more time with students.

"We are persuaded that such activities can be a major factor in precollege math, science, and technology education," the group wrote in its summary. "The major questions appear more a matter of how to best advance the presence and effective use of such tools in the schools."

The recommendations received by the group include introducing computers and calculators into all mathematics and science classes, training teachers in these fields in the use of computers, and bringing the federal government, manufacturers, professional societies, and educators into the process of creating and evaluating educational technology.

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