2005-12-16 / Columnists

School Scope

Science Is As Science Does
By Norman Scott


In the 8th grade at George Gershwin JHS (166) in Brooklyn, Mr. Klein was my science teacher. At least once a week he did an experiment for us that we had to write up using the scientific method -– my first real exposure to this kind of rigorous teaching. I had spent most of my school career in a semi-drowsy state but in this class I was wide-awake. Watching water getting separated into oxygen and hydrogen – I can still remember getting startled by the “pop” when Mr. Klein lit a match near the gas – was so real compared to the other subjects.

I never became a scientist but those experiences in Mr. Klein’s 8th grade class help create a life-long interest in science. There was something so practical that explained so much about the way things worked.

Part of the problems in getting students motivated is that so much of what has to be learned seems to be so out of context. Mr. Klein was not a flamboyant teacher – not one of those super motivators – but a rather low-key guy. His effective teaching came from being able to organize the material in a sensible way.

Not all elements of science lend themselves to doing hands-on experiments – there were probably times in his class that I went into my foggy state – but science should be one subject that has the potential to stimulate lots of interest in students who are otherwise not being motivated.

Yet, we hear reports all the time that because schools are stressing reading and math and are not rated based on the science knowledge of the children, the subject is being downgraded even at the junior high school level (downgrading of science while emphasizing math removes some of the context of math having real and necessary practical applications) and Howard Schwach in the Wave has reported on this trend in Region 5 a number of times, though this is happening all around the nation.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute issued a report this week, stating “the focus on reading and math as required subjects for testing under No Child Left Behind has turned attention away from science, contributing to a failure of American children to stay competitive in science with their counterparts abroad.”

Don’t you just love the “Keep America competitive and strong” arguments for just about any supposed educational “reform” – and I would use the word “reform” very loosely. Just as the attention of school administrators has been turned away from science, the attention of students has certainly been focused elsewhere. Why should American kids worry about staying competitive in science when they can dream of being sports stars, filmmakers, rock stars and actors? Given a choice of being Albert Einstein or Brad Pitt, which will they choose? Just check out the amount of TV and print devoted to celebrating celebrities. Do you ever hear the business community say that this atmosphere of worship may have as much as anything to do with turning students away from science?

A Washington Post Op-Ed (Dec. 6, 2005) piece written by Norman R. Augustine, the retired chairman and chief executive of Lockheed Martin Corp. titled “Learning to Lose: Our Education System Isn’t Ready for a World of Competition” also pounds “the nation is in danger of falling behind the competition” theme.

Augustine says, “… the United States must compete on the basis of its strengths. Throughout the 20th century, one of these strengths was our knowledge-based resources – particularly science and technology. But the scientific and technological foundations of our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are building their innovative capacity. U.S. firms need employees who are flexible, knowledgeable, and scientifically and mathematically literate.

“But the U.S. educational system is failing in precisely those areas that underpin our competitiveness: science, engineering and mathematics. In a recent international test involving mathematical understanding, U.S. students finished 27th among the participating nations. In China and Japan, 59 percent and 66 percent, respectively, of undergraduates receive their degrees in science and engineering, compared with 32 percent in the United States.”

Ironically, it was similar complaints from the business community that led to the high stakes testing craze and attempts to turn schools into mini-corporations in the first place. Augustine was part of a 20-member committee created by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. Congress asked the committee to examine the threats to America’s future prosperity.

The committee “recommended the recruitment of 10,000 new science and math teachers each year through the awarding of competitive scholarships...” amongst other suggestions. (Gee, where’s the demand to fund 10,000 filmmakers? We don’t want to fall too far behind Bollywood, where India has shown the competitive edge to turn out 10 times the trashy films the US can.)

As we can expect, there is a brilliant solution to “restoring” science education (despite my own positive experience in 1958, I seriously question whether science has ever been stressed for students other than the elite.) A NY Times article discussing the Fordham report, pointed out that it was issued “… in anticipation of 2007, when states will be required to administer tests in the [science] under President Bush’s signature education law [NCLB].”

Aha, another test to prep for. Sorry, kids, no time for those wonderful experiments Mr. Klein did. We have to take practice tests for science in addition to math and reading. Let’s scare the kids into being creative scientists with threats to hold them back. What’s next, branding schools failures if the kids can’t do a hundred sit-ups or run the 100-yard dash in 12 seconds? Don’t we want out Olympic teams to stay competitive? The Times reports that naturally Bush’s Education Secretary, Margaret Spellings, (Dr. ‘Test Em Till They Drop’) “a strong proponent of more testing to measure how effectively schools are teaching, said she was not surprised by the findings. ‘I’m a what-gets-measured-gets-done kind of gal.’” (I wonder what Maggie thinks of the measurements her boss is getting on his performance as President?)

The Report actually rated each state according to their performance in teaching science. New York was one of only seven states that got an “A.” Boy, if New York got an “A” there must have been some curve.

Robotics is science, isn’t it?

Since our topic is science it is time for another dose of robotics. When I retired in 2002 I volunteered with, NYCFIRST, the local branch of scientist and inventor Dean Kamen’s international FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) organization. FIRST puts on robotics tournaments for students of all ages. I work with the FIRST LEGO League, an event for children aged 9-14 where they build a robot out of LEGO materials and compete based on a yearly theme. This year’s event is called “Ocean Odyssey” and it takes place on an 8 by 4 foot game board that simulates the ocean environment. The robot has 2.5 minutes to complete a number of tasks, including rescuing a dolphin and closing a pipeline leak. There are over 5000 teams involved worldwide with tournaments in just about every state and in a number of nations abroad.

Teams in NYC come mostly from public schools, though a number of private schools, YMCA programs and even home-school teams are taking part. (One of the fabulous aspects of these events is seeing kids from the most elite private schools working next to kids from the poorest neighborhoods in the city.)

We have been so oversubscribed that we had to go to a two-day event, which takes place at Riverbank State Park in upper Manhattan on Jan. 28th and 29th. (Hundreds of volunteers are needed and welcome, so contact me at norscot@ aol.com if you are interested.) But even the two-day event has not been enough to cover the demand. So we instituted tournaments in each borough this year. Recently, I attended the Manhattan tournament at Stuyvesant high school. Parents of kids in the Stuyvesant robotics club organized the event but basically it was run by the Stuy kids who were assisted by the robotics team from Staten Island Tech, which ran the SI borough event a few weeks ago. The kids at Brooklyn Tech ran a tournament last week and kids from high schools in the Bronx will be assisting at Fordham on Dec. 17. Things have gone so well it makes you think we ought to give kids the opportunity to run more things.

This Saturday (Dec. 17) I will be involved in helping to run the Queens borough tournament at Long Island City High School. We expect 35-40 teams, mostly from Region 4 where we have had a federal technology grant to institute robotics. (Come on down if you want to see what’s it’s all about.)

We are getting assistance from students at Aviation and Long Island City High Schools who will be involved for the first time this year. By next year we hope they will run the entire event so we can sit back and watch kids really do science without threats or tests.

Where have you gone Mr. Klein and others of your ilk? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

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