Nobel Laureate Seeks To Turn Science Curriculum on Its Head
The order in which scientific disciplines appear in the curriculum should be reversed so that each student receives an early and solid grounding in mathematics and physics, a Nobel laureate who is involved in education reform argued at a meeting here.
Speaking at a special forum as part of the National Science Teachers Association's 42nd annual meeting, Leon M. Lederman, a physicist and the director emeritus of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., said he supports a national effort to revise the curriculum into a "pyramidal'' model with a strong foundation of math and physics.
In most American schools, students have traditionally studied biology first, followed by chemistry, and only those who continue taking advanced science courses then move on to physics.
While conceding that the existing curriculum has strong defenders--and that as a physicist he has a bias toward his own field--Mr. Lederman said he hopes his proposal will spark serious discussion about the educational status quo.
"I'm opposed to any educational dogma,'' he added with a smile. "Even if it's right.''
Mr. Lederman, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, was joined by Rudy Marcus of the California Institute of Technology, who won the prize in chemistry, and Arthur Kornberg, a recipient of the biology prize, in a symposium titled "Teaching and Learning: Reflections on Science by Three Nobel Laureates.''
The symposium was designed to give the scientists an opportunity to discuss the state of science education before an audience of K-12 educators gathered for the March 29-April 2 N.S.T.A. conference.
Mr. Lederman's proposal substantially enlivened the discussion by essentially challenging his two colleagues to defend the importance of their own areas of expertise.
It also cast a sidelight on some of the difficulties facing those who are trying to set national standards for science education as they choose from a vastly diverse field the knowledge that each student should be expected to acquire.
Mr. Kornberg quickly registered alarm that Mr. Lederman's proposed schema "places biology in some remote and inaccessible place'' at the top of the pyramid.
But Mr. Lederman countered that the high school curriculum now acts as filter, with relatively large numbers of students enrolled in biology but fewer and fewer continuing on into other branches of science.
A poster distributed by Mr. Lederman, espousing his proposal, argues that "mathematics is the base of ... the pyramid of science.''
"Physics finds its expression in [math]; chemistry rests upon physics and [math]; [and] biology requires chemistry, physics, and [math],'' it argues. "This is the way science should be studied, recognizing the variety of ways students come to science.''
Mr. Lederman's outline bears some conceptual resemblance to the N.S.T.A.'s Scope, Sequence, and Coordination of Secondary School Science reform project, which aims to dismantle the traditional "layer cake'' of courses and teach each branch of science every year. (See Education Week, March 23, 1994.)
Bill G. Aldridge, the executive director of the science teachers' group and himself a physicist, is a signatory to Mr. Lederman's proposal.
But Mr. Aldridge made it clear that the proposal is designed to complement, not replace, the "scope and sequence'' effort and that Mr. Lederman supports the N.S.T.A. project.
Mr. Marcus, the chemistry laureate, said he was not convinced that Mr. Lederman's arrangement is workable.
"There's a real question here of just what science should be taught,'' he said. "I can see advantages of teaching physics before chemistry, if it's the right kind of physics. Certain kinds of physics wouldn't help at all.''
He added that "there could be danger in trying to mix 'something from this and something from that.' It might just muddy the waters a bit.''
Mr. Lederman, who founded the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science in Chicago, also advocated a long-term and sustainable view of reform.
Fear of Science
Noting that the academy has, in three years, given intensive training courses to roughly 10 percent of the Chicago school district's 20,000 elementary school teachers, Mr. Lederman said he is constantly asked by critics, "'You've been at it for three years, how come you haven't changed the Chicago public schools?'''
All three scientists were somewhat reluctant to comment more generally on contemporary education, noting that schools and society have changed since their youth during the Great Depression.
"I'm not sure that any comments a senior citizen would make would be very useful to you,'' Mr. Lederman said.
Both Mr. Marcus and Mr. Kornberg expressed surprise when members of the audience observed that students today often are ridiculed for studying science seriously.
"At the schools that I went to, education was highly thought of, and nobody was ever looked down on for doing well,'' Mr. Marcus said.
Mr. Kornberg, however, suggested that "there has been a rising tide of fear and disgust of science'' in recent years, which he attributed to excesses in Hollywood's depiction of the field and to widespread scientific illiteracy.