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Published in Print: June 16, 1999, as A Science Way of Thinking

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A Science Way of Thinking

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For the past five years, a group of us has been gathering support for a revolutionary change in high school science curricula. We are encouraged by the widespread acceptance of standards for mathematics and science, a major advance in a nation obsessed with local control. We are also encouraged by the rhetoric that reverberates in the White House, in Congress, in the state capitals, and in the city halls of the nation. Education is on the political front burner, and for excellent reasons. However, we are discouraged by the general failure of school reform movements, which threatens to make even our luminescent proposals into simply TYNT--"this year's new thing"--and we are discouraged by the awesome resistance of school systems to change.

Nevertheless, the need for such drastic reform is compelling and the conditions for succeeding are particularly opportune. Education is "in" with politicians, CEOs, parents. New standards for mathematics and science have achieved wide national consensus. And there is a growing realization that schools are not preparing their students to cope with the world into which they will emerge.

What kind of world will this be? It is now standard to describe this world as one of unprecedented change, of a whirlwind of ideas, of information, of invention, of an explosive growth of science-based technology. Prospects for continued escalation of change are awesome: The world's knowledge base now doubles every eight years, but by 2020, the doubling time is estimated to be reduced to 76 days! This explosive growth will see the extension of human lifetimes, $100 supercomputers, cybercash, designer drugs, supersonic underground rail transport--and add to that some reasonable fraction of the predictions of your favorite brand of science fiction. The pace increases because science and technology create the wealth and increased power to generate more science and technology. Globalization adds to this brew. And then there is biology.

Physicists and chemists must pay homage to the spectacular revolution in modern biology. We console ourselves by describing this as "biologists have discovered molecules," but the depth and breadth of the new biology is astonishing. Molecular biology will have a profound influence on our understanding of living systems, of the human system, the nature of human behavior, and ultimately, the problem of mind and consciousness. Biotechnology may well exceed the impact of microelectronics as an engine of change. The economic and societal consequences are vast and essentially unpredictable. And as James Trefil points out, "At the bottom, every molecular topic from the development of new drugs to finding the causes of cancer comes down to one simple fact: Living things function because molecules fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle." Here is where chemistry and physics play an essential role, supplying the tools of analysis and the basic processes that produce these fits.

Our reform thrust, in military metaphor, is toward a weak section of the barriers to change that surround the school systems. We have observed that 99 percent of our high schools teach biology in 9th (or 10th) grade, chemistry in 10th or 11th grade, and, for survivors, physics in 11th or 12th grade. This is alphabetically correct, but by any logical scientific or pedagogical criteria, the wrong order. A standards-based science curriculum must contain at least three years of science and three years of mathematics. And the coherent order begins with 9th grade physics, taught conceptually and exercising only the math of 8th and 9th grade; then chemistry, building on the knowledge of atomic structure to study molecule formation; then the crowning glory of modern, molecular-based biology.

We assert that there is a hierarchy in the sciences which dictates the logic. Arguments of the need for higher levels of mathematics or of capability for abstractions in order to teach physics do not stand up to close reasoning. In this proposed sequence, physics with its atoms underlies all of chemistry, and physics and chemistry support modern biology. Science and mathematics can then be woven into a coherent whole, making use of what has been mastered to advance in a logical and increasingly encompassing unity. There are many unifying themes: energy transformations, symmetry, vibrations, photons, photochemistry and photosynthesis, instruments and measurements, estimation and prediction.

There are many variations in this core, three-year (or more) curriculum. Earth science, astronomy, technology, science in society, history (for example, "How do we know?") can be inserted or added as fourth-year options. We are convinced that this reversal of the sequence is long overdue, and we are encouraged by the experience of over 70 schools (that we know about) around the nation that have been using this "physics first" sequence for upwards of a dozen years. Uniformly, their stories are of great praise for the new sequence. Our vision, then, is realizable: high school graduates, enabled with a science way of thinking that will serve them for a lifetime.

A 21st-century person must be armed with a science overview to be able to adapt to these extraordinary events, to be employed by or otherwise profit from the new industries that will emerge, and to participate in the decisions that society must make as to the pace and direction of this revolution. We must also be aware of the darker sides of technology. One, most relevant to our concerns, is the inequitable distribution of the benefits of technology that increases the gap between rich and poor. Equal access to knowledge would seem to be essential to address this problem. The key is clearly in how we adapt our educational system to this unsettling new world.

nuclear tests, tobacco, DNA, AIDS, global warming, population, geneticallyengineered foods, gene testing, gene therapy, creationism, pollution, energy, education, Internet, Microsoft. Where will the wisdom emerge that will sort out the emotional from the rational? Is there a future for democratic consensus, or must we surrender to "experts" to steer the ship of state away from the shoals of disaster toward the calm waters of health and prosperity? Again, the key is education. The goals of education in democratic societies must be responsive.

Not long ago, liberal arts education was for the few, vocational training for the rest. But now we must expand from the need to train leaders to the need to prepare all students for life in the world they will find. This is what makes success so much more difficult, but also so much more urgent. School reform must be designed for equitable, ethical, rigorous standards appropriate for the new century. And as we spread the benefits of a higher level of standards to all students, surely an increased number of future leaders will emerge to repay the costs.

The revolutionary step we are proposing is perhaps a crucial one in a long list of school reform activities. This reform concentrates on installing a coherent, integrated science curriculum, which matches the standards of what high school graduates should understand and be able to do. There is a logical process that connects the science disciplines. An ideal curriculum should give every student the mix of science content and science process that adds up to the science way of thinking.

However, this reform comes with a new need for continuous professional development, for weekly meetings of the science and math teachers to improve coherence, design laboratory work, find the connective inquiries that entangle and unify the disciplines. And wouldn't it be a natural next step to invite in the history teachers, the teachers of arts and literature, to help develop those connections of the fields of learning that the biologist E.O. Wilson calls "consilience"?

We stress that this is a design for all students, work-bound, liberal-arts-college-bound, or science-and-technology-bound. The schools that are "doing it right" report greatly expanded enrollments in fourth-year electives and Advanced Placement science courses. Thus, a solid, core curriculum will enlarge rather than discourage the future scientists.

Motivating the need for this reform, we try to project the 21st-century world of change on the individual student and on the society in which he or she lives. And, indeed, we must share this motivation with our students. They will surely experience the increasing reliance of employers on computers and robots to do the routine tasks in both factory and home. This will in turn increase the need for nonprogrammable problem-solvers, trained to encounter new situations and unforeseen problems.

The growth industries today are computers, software, robotics, materials sciences, fiber optics, digital processing, information storage, processing and retrieval, superconductivity, nanotechnology, aerospace, financial services, entertainment, environmental remediation, pharmaceuticals, the Internet. Many of these industries were mere whispers or gleams in the eye just a few decades ago. Some are still speculative. These are the jobs of today and tomorrow. Of course, we've left out the unpredictable ones because they are even more exotic.

Employment will depend on education for tasks only dimly visualized now.

This paints a picture of a future which is qualitatively different from the world of today's teachers and parents. It can be summarized in a new stress on knowledge and the use of knowledge, in contrast to the industrial age or even the electronic age. The requirements placed on the workforce now change rapidly, demanding a continuous capacity to translate thinking skills to new areas and new contexts.

The new tasks for equitable education in our democratic society are to cope with the phenomena of change, to anticipate the directions of such change, and to hold each and every student capable of achieving the science savvy that is as appropriate for their survival as street savvy may be for coping with the mean streets of the inner city.

Employment will depend on education for tasks only dimly visualized now, but which will surely demand thinking skills that emerge from the solid education in science and mathematics that we propose.

Lest our sermon be misunderstood, the changing nature of our society increases the need for our students to absorb some of the wisdom of the humanities and the experiences and lessons of the social sciences. The school reform we are proposing will serve to lower the barriers between physics, chemistry, and biology and seek the unifying strands. But we dream also of doing the same for the separations between the sciences, the arts and humanities, and the social sciences. The more science we know, the more feasible the dream appears.

Why is this important? If we are successful and our students/citizens have comfortable access to the knowledge base and to the processes whereby this base is expanded, that still would leave us seriously incomplete. The schools also must address the social and cultural adjustments that the millennium epoch requires. Our students must understand what it means to live in a democratic society. "Wisdom," a wise man said, "makes itself manifest in the application of knowledge to human needs."


The ideas advanced in this essay are those of Project ARISE (American Renaissance in Science Education), which, though Chicago-centered, is advised informally by a Washington-based steering group consisting of Bruce Alberts (National Academy of Sciences), Rodger Bybee (National Research Council), Shirley Malcom (American Association for the Advancement of Science), Gerry Wheeler (National Science Teachers Association), and Marjorie Bardeen (Fermilab) and chaired by Mr. Lederman.


Leon M. Lederman is the director emeritus of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., and holds an appointment as Pritzker professor of science at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist is a founder and resident scholar at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Ill., a public residential high school for the gifted. He is also a founder and the chairman of the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science in Chicago.

Vol. 18, Issue 40, Pages 43,56

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