Real-World Science

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I teach physics at an independent school in San Francisco that was founded in 1895 on the premise that every teenager should learn to use his or her hands. Even though our emphasis is quite academic, all of our students learn machining, welding, lathing, sheet-metal, wood, glass, and computer-aided design and manufacture.

Our freshman course in conceptual physics, for example, covers optics and many of my students grind their own telescope mirrors for their interdisciplinary final project.

A lot has changed in 100 years, but not the educational value of intimate, firsthand encounters with the real world. The capacity for knowing through doing is something I think our founders, James Lick and Klute Jellis Wilmerding, wanted to give students. And it is a lesson that other schools should consider carefully as education--and the country--moves toward a broader base of "knowing.''

During the school year, for example, my school encourages the best student communicators to tutor in middle schools in disadvantaged sections of the city. Their influence sparks interest in a free summer program for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. The curriculum is fun and rigorous, including mathematics, English, and science as well as rock climbing, camping, and field trips. After three years of participation, these middle school students are then eligible for a full-tuition high school scholarship worth nearly $40,000. Thirty percent of our students fall into this category. (Our class size is 15 and our total enrollment is 340.)

This is one way we try to live up to a good motto: "Education for head, heart, and hands--a private school with a public purpose.''

High school science teaching is often isolated from the frontiers of scientific research. When I started teaching in 1961, I believed that varied research in the summer, working with prominent investigators, would be an effective way of keeping abreast of the field. I made it a priority to find positions every summer in a variety of laboratories and projects. This has provided me with a diverse working background that includes chemistry, biochemistry, neurophysiology, pharmacology, atmospheric aerosols, nuclear-waste disposal, exotic isotope synthesis and separation, and electron/positron pair production.

This broad experience has been of great advantage to me in teaching. Students want authentic teachers--English teachers who are writers, coaches who are athletes, and science teachers who are scientists. I began working at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in 1985 and have returned nearly every summer since. Two years ago, I met a nuclear physicist, Michael Nitschke, and together we applied for a "Partners in Science'' award. This award provides a summer salary for a high school teacher, along with discretionary funds that most recipients use for such items as personal computers and travel. I have used my funds to hire my two best students to work with me in fundamental nuclear-science research.

During the school year, I am always observing students with this summer program in mind. It is unusual to find a 17-year-old with a bright scientific and mathematical intellect, coupled with excellent experimental skills and a demonstrated commitment to hard work. When I do find such students, I want to engage them.

In the summer, we work for eight weeks and our days in the lab may last 12 hours. The students must carry their own weight and make a contribution or else their welcome may wear thin. So far, we have been very successful.

Last year, I worked with two of the brightest and most committed female students I have ever encountered. For their summary report, I asked them to include complete definitions of any technical terminology they used. They included this term and definition: "physicist: a man.'' This male preponderance in physics is a difficult problem to overcome. But I feel certain that, for my top female students, these research experiences have provided powerful incentives to continue pursuing their interest in the field.

When my students and I talked recently with a committee charged with evaluating curriculum, the committee members' most persistent question was, "How is what you are doing different from the high school honors program already in place?'' The honors program is a good program that stimulates students to think independently, but it is qualitatively different from ours--and in ways that are hard to put in words.

Finally, one of my students found the words: "What we are doing is real science, the answers are not known and the results matter to someone--someone is waiting for and needs our results.''

In general, we in education grossly underestimate our students' ability to learn and to contribute. In my own case, working side by side with my top students has been one of the most powerful educational experiences I can imagine--both for myself and for my students.

Lawrence Dean teaches physics at Lick-Wilmerding High School, an independent school in San Francisco.

Vol. 13, Issue 26

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