Science Education

A creative proposal: Teach young minds spooky physics first

By Brad Lemley|Monday, October 24, 2005

My early physics education was very strange,” says theoretical physicist Lee Smolin. Strange, but effective. In the early 1970s, Smolin’s mentors at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, flipped the usual order of courses, teaching quantum mechanics to freshmen and classic Newtonian regimes to upperclassmen. Smolin, a researcher at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, and a major contributor to loop quantum gravity theory, worries that the best and brightest students are turning to other disciplines because basic physics curricula are stodgy.

“In every other area, students are being exposed to things that are intellectually challenging and exciting because they are new,” he says. “The fact that we teach 300-year-old physics as introductory physics is just shameful.”

There is plenty of shame to go around in America’s science classrooms, and creative solutions are definitely in order. The number of science and engineering doctorates awarded at American universities has dropped since the late 1990s, while foreign schools have more than picked up the slack. “We need another Sputnik,” says Cindy Workosky, director of communications for the 55,000-member National Science Teachers Association. “There was so much enthusiasm and focus on science education during those days, and we just don’t have that now.”

Association president Anne Tweed says there are hopeful trends. Although the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 shifted public-school money toward mathematics and literacy at the expense of science programs, starting in 2007 states must also measure student progress in science at least once in each of three grade spans: 3rd through 5th, 6th through 9th, and 10th through 12th.

“We’re also starting to see much more innovative research questions being asked in the lower grades,” says Tweed. “Students are inserting genes into bacteria as part of a 9th- or 10th-grade biology curriculum. Students can clone plant materials. It’s really amazing.”

Tweed predicts that broadband Internet connections will let any researcher anywhere—including young ones in school classrooms—access mass spectrometers, electron microscopes, large telescopes, and other expensive equipment once reserved for a privileged few.

And someday, Smolin hopes, physics education, regarded by many as the foundation upon which all other science education should be laid, will be revamped to reflect our latest concept of ultimate reality. Even high school students, he says, could grasp—and be excited by—the fundamentals of simple quantum mechanical systems such as qubits, the two-state units of quantum information that  scientists hope will someday be manipulated by quantum computers. “In the 21st century, we regard quantum mechanics as the truest thing we have,” he says, so it is only sensible that the most fundamental system be taught first. “It does not require any more skill or intelligence to learn this way, and it’s the best way to get and keep the kids we really want, the ones who are real thinkers and who are creative.”

Intelligence cap?
In the late 1970s, the United States dominated both Europe and Asia in sheer numbers of science and engineering doctorates, but it has trailed both regions since the late 1990s. The American predicament may be even worse than the graph below suggests because more than a third of the science and engineering doctorates earned at U.S. universities in recent years have gone to foreigners, many of whom return to their homelands after graduation. One positive trend: The number of women and minorities receiving Ph.D.’s in science and engineering is on the rise.

Dean Kamen, founder of DEKA Research and Development Corporation in Manchester, New Hampshire, and inventor of the Segway Human Transporter, has made it a personal mission to shore up the sagging interest of American teens in science and engineering. In 1992 he founded First—For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology—which runs an annual nationwide robotics competition that provided 74,000 high school students this year with creative motivation and hands-on engineering experience.

What gave you the idea that the span from ages 7 to 17 is a crucial decade when it comes to exposing kids to science and engineering?
I looked at my own life and the lives of people I know. Very few people I know get into their twenties, never mind their thirties and beyond, and decide, “I have never done math or science, but I think I will become an engineer or a scientist or a physicist.” Most people, by the time they graduate from high school, have constructed the boundary conditions for what their career options will or will not be.

So the idea is not necessarily to pound more knowledge into kids’ heads during that decade but rather to stretch those boundary conditions?
Right. If a kid can come away from a science or engineering program in that decade and think, “I like this, I can do this, this is an option as a career,” then he or she can go on from there and take steps to get the necessary college education.

What if kids don’t?
Then we will slide, as other cultures in the world have, into being a second-rate, has-been society. That is a very real risk unless we do something quickly.

Is there an increasing chance that each new generation will be left further behind?
Absolutely. A generation or two ago, you could open the hood of a car and, without much training, simply see how it operated. Even a radio—you could see if the tube was lit or not. But now the train is picking up speed. If you don’t grab on, you will be left behind as this thing called technology goes whizzing faster and faster into the future. Take a half-dozen Nobel laureates in medicine in the 1980s: The work that won them the prize is now routinely done in high school biology labs. And there is more competition. This generation of American high school kids will be competing with nearly a billion people of their same generation, people who are hungry for knowledge, passionate and determined to pull themselves up the economic ladder.

Most education in the United States is government funded. Your program runs on corporate donations. What can government learn from you?
If our whole program were government funded, there would be strings attached, and it would suffer. But, frankly, it is expensive to run this, so there is a way government funding can help, and it’s a win-win-win situation. Now NASA, as a government agency, needs more scientists, engineers, and roboticists. So well over 100 of our teams are funded directly by NASA this year, and they are fantastic sponsors. This could expand. Let the big science and technology organizations in government—the federal labs, all the places that need technological people—become part of First the same way corporate sponsors do: by adopting high schools and supporting teams.

Does it have to be just with First?
No, it’s not a zero-sum game. There is no such thing as a bad program if it gets kids to be more effective at making career choices and becoming responsible citizens. The more we get our program to succeed, the more the other programs it spawns will succeed.

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