Group Brings Scientists and Educators Together To Plot Reforms

By Peter West — March 25, 1992 7 min read

PASADENA, CALIF.--Alan Lazarus remembers his first attempt at bringing his scientific expertise to bear in a public-school classroom.

In an effort to share with elementary-school teachers the knowledge he had accumulated in a lifetime as a working scientist, Mr. Lazarus, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, brought a simple kit of gears, pulleys, and levers to a local school to demonstrate some rudimentary principles of physics.

But the lesson, he said, “just got totally off track.’'

The teachers, he recalled, “had never played with levers and gears, and they were like a bunch of 4-year-old kids.’'

Although that lesson ended in confusion, Mr. Lazarus said he learned that the science background of elementary teachers is often sketchy, and that efforts to upgrade precollegiate science instruction must be more comprehensive than many scientists have realized.

But more important, he added, the incident strengthened his commitment to help improve science teaching and learning.

Hoping to capitalize on, and better direct, that kind of enthusiasm, the National Science Resources Center invited Mr. Lazarus and more than 30 other eminent scientists, teacher educators, classroom teachers, and researchers here to the California Institute of Technology this month to plot a strategy to help schools teach science more effectively.

In an information-packed, weeklong “working conference,’' they saw firsthand how an exemplary elementary-science program works, were briefed on efforts to reform secondary-school science and to develop national standards for science teaching, and heard a lecture on adolescent development from a nationally known psychologist.

The conference was the first in a series of four annual meetings that the N.S.R.C., a cooperative venture of the National Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution, has planned in an effort to develop a national network of scientists and engineers who are actively involved in long-term reform efforts.

“Some people already are helping, but, for various reasons, it’s not working,’' an N.S.R.C. spokesman said. “And it’s time to talk about why.’'

The Pasadena conference gave scientists--who are often accused of assuming that that they alone know how to “fix’’ science education--an opportunity to hear from educators about how they can help develop new teaching aids, participate in teacher education, and act as a resource both to districts and teachers.

Many schools “need guidance from motivated individuals who have a plan,’' said Robert Najjar, a senior chemist with Union Carbide Industrial Gases. “But you just don’t go in there and say, ‘You have a problem, and we have the answer.’ ''

One participant noted that that statement, and similar remarks during the week, constituted a major admission for many scientists.

Inspiring ‘Fast Plants’

Conference officials explained that a primary influence on the theme of the meeting was the success in the education market of a product called “Wisconsin Fast Plants’'--a rapidly growing species of Brassica.

The plants are now a fixture in many precollegiate classrooms, but Paul H. Williams, a professor of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who developed the strain, said high-school teaching was the furthest thing from his mind when he developed the original “fast plant.’'

In an interview, Mr. Williams said he developed the plants as part of his research into how to develop rapidly growing strains of broccoli and cauliflower, which are important food crops in developing nations.

“My goal was focused on a practical material,’' he said. “It’s an example of how an idea could be adapted to meet the needs of teachers.’'

Developed through a grant from the National Science Foundation and distributed by the Carolina Biological Supply Company under a license from a university-affiliated foundation, fast-plant kits have become a key component of many biology and botany courses from elementary school through college.

While N.S.R.C. officials do not expect to develop such products, they do hope that the success of fast plants will generate new ideas about cooperation between schools, researchers, government, and the private sector.

To reinforce the need for such cooperation, participants spent much of the early part of the conference focusing on problems in elementary science and visiting a classroom in the Pasadena Unified School District, which has adopted a curriculum developed at Caltech called Science for Early Educational Development.

They also heard about the realities of science teaching for younger students.

“At the elementary-school level, in many school districts, the teaching of science has virtually disappeared from the curriculum,’' Douglas Lapp, the N.S.R.C.'s executive director, noted in his opening remarks.

Working Together

The conference also featured presentations by teachers about the needs of middle-school science teachers and discussions about Project 2061, a reform effort of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Scope, Sequence, and Coordination of Secondary School Science Project of the National Science Teachers Association.

That segment produced a heated exchange between participants and representatives of the two competing reform projects over what information should be considered integral to a successful science curriculum.

Participants seemed particularly struck by the lack of both time and money available to high-school teachers and by the administrative and disciplinary duties those teachers are typically assigned.

“If you want to get involved in high-school science, you have to understand what a high-school teacher’s life is like,’' they were told by Arthur Eisenkraft, a physics teacher at Fox Lane High School in Bedford, N.Y.

But, participants pointed out, school districts also have much to learn about how to work with the scientific community.

“Does anybody else have the problem that the administrators do not have a science background?’' Raymond B. Heath of the Sandia National Laboratory asked.

Others noted that many educators, particularly at the elementary level, have a very superficial understanding of how difficult it is to bring meaningful science into classrooms.

“I don’t think that one can assume that the educational establishment knows--because they’re not doing it yet--what good science is,’' said Karen Worth, the principal investigator for the Insights Project, a curriculum-development effort at the Education Development Center in Newtown, Mass.

Overcoming Difficulties

Many participants said, however, that they hoped that interaction among colleagues and across disciplines would begin to provide some answers to what they view as longstanding and difficult problems in science education.

Fred Begay, a Navajo Indian and a physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said he hoped to learn from experts how to improve educational opportunities on the vast Navajo reservation.

“For the Navajo, it’s really one of the worst educational systems that you can think of,’' he said. “And, if you [know] about my background, you’ll understand how bad it is.’'

Mr. Begay, who holds a doctorate in physics without ever graduating from high school, argues that Native American children can learn science, but that strategies have not yet been developed to help them overcome difficult linguistic and cultural barriers to success.

Many participants, even those employed by prominent corporations and federal laboratories, also argued that high-profile rhetoric about a national commitment to science education often does not “trickle down’’ into practical applications.

Ramon E. Lopez, a scientist and project manager with the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., said that he has mentored some students and done some other “short-term interventions’’ in schools and recently offered to consult on curriculum development in two suburban Maryland counties.

But, he added, “for some of us, it’s very difficult to get [release] time.’'

Ellen P. Metzger, an associate professor in the geology department at San Jose State University, said that, acting in isolation, she finds it difficult to bring about change.

“I feel that I should [be able to do more],’' she said, “but I don’t feel like I can do it.’'

However, Herbert D. Thier, a curriculum developer at the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley, suggested that scientists try to avoid a “global approach’’ to fixing precollege science instruction. Instead, he urged, scientists might take on more manageable roles, such as volunteering as a consulting science supervisor for a district that cannot afford to hire one.

At least one participant said that the conference might have saved a school partnership effort that his employer was ready to abandon.

The researcher, who asked not to be named, said his employer insisted that he attend the conference as a public-relations gesture before the project was discontinued.

He said, however, that his experience here “really lit a fire under me’’ to try to keep the project alive.

A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 1992 edition of Education Week as Group Brings Scientists and Educators Together To Plot Reforms