Sunday, August 17, 2008

SWBAT for physical science this year

The New Jersey state curriculum for science opens with this:

The New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards for Science reflect the belief that all students can and must learn enough science to assume their role as concerned citizens, equipped with necessary information and decision-making skills. Students best learn science by doing science. Science is not merely a collection of facts and theories but a process, a way of thinking about and investigating the world in which we live.

State of New Jersey Department of Education;c=5

I did this for biology a few days ago; this is the physical science edition.

As I get closer to Labor Day weekend, I get less philosophical and more practical (not that being practical has ever been my strong suit).

My supervisor ("Hi, Diana!") and some of my colleagues know about the blog, a good thing--I have spent hours upon hours informally discussing curriculum, methods, and philosophy with others in the department.

(OK, I'll admit it--I'm spoiled. I work in a new science wing with all the equipment I could want with bright colleagues who like to think and a supervisor who let's us try new ideas within the curriculum, in a state where the science curriculum is still based on science. We're not in Kansas anymore.)

Until the state eliminates the opening paragraph in its introduction to the science curriculum, I am going to teach science. If the state wanders away from science, well, I'll go dig clams or something.

OK, maybe not clam digging. I raked up all of two quahogs yesterday in perfect conditions, a day when a 4 year old matched my total his first 5 minutes out on the tidal flats. That 4 year old learned more in his time out on the flats than I could teach in 2 years.

(On the same mudflats I found a 1" horseshoe crab, a tiny exposed oyster bed, thousands of periwinkles, a stranded blue crab, a few dozen fish in tidal pools, and mud that reflected both life and death--a 4 year old can get an Ivy League's worth of education spending a summer on the flat.) the point--these are the things I hope my students take away come June, 2009. It would be nice if they passed the course, too....


1) grasp the law of gravity

I'm not asking them to get the "why"--no one knows why, though maybe we'll be a tad closer once the Large Hadron Collider starts working. Just get the enormity of the concept.

Every particle of mass, no matter how big or small, no matter how near or far, is attracted to every other piece of mass in the universe.

OK, so it's a simple Newtonian view of the universe.

You are attracted to Venus, to Pluto, to alpha centauri, to every object in this universe. I am attracted to you, you to me.

I grew up by the shore--I saw (and still do today) unimaginable amounts of water ebb and flow twice a day because of the influence of the moon and the sun.


I tell a story in the beginning of the year about savallah!, a mysterious force recognized by my ancestors the travelers(OK, gypsies, but I mostly keep my fingernails clean) in western Ireland. I might even light a candle as I tell the story. I describe what gravity does, but call it savallah!

Not one student believe it exists. Not one. Newton was a smart guy.

You think teaching is easy? Explain gravity. Ha!

2) comprehend that we are mostly empty space

Yep--atoms, molecules, whatever, are space. Here's a fun page! An electron is represented by pixel, a proton by the picture--the size of the hydrogen atom? 11 miles.

Space...almost all space.


3) know we cannot "see" electrons

This one's almost cruel--kids are shown the (wrong) model of the atom since the early grades--you know the model--a nucleus with a few electrons zinging around. The model looks like a photograph.

Never happened.

If you present science as anything beyond what it is (models, concepts, and, well, stories, all based on empirical and reproducible data, no small thing), then students get upset when they learn this.

Be careful.

Know the limits of what we know.

4) digest that chemistry is all about the outer (valence) electrons

Too many times I have heard that we should be amazed that element so-and-so combine with element so-and-so produces a molecule that resembles neither.

If you get the model, that the properties of anything we can reasonably detect reflects the outermost energy level of that substance (valence electrons), then this makes sense.

While I find that we can design such a model to explain chemical reactions pretty freaking amazing, the model itself should help clarify why water has few properties similar to the to atoms that comprise it.

Don't teach kids to marvel at things that are merely human constructs--they learn that from television, the internet, and pop music.

4) realize that despite our words, we really don't grasp matter and energy, and that's OK

Matter is "stuff", energy "the ability to do work."

I still remember a grade school visit to the American Museum of Natural History--the guide asked us what energy was. I knew the right answer, "the ability to do work", but I didn't like it, so I stayed silent.

My teacher was a trifle upset, since she had taught the class those very same words.

Even at 9 years old, I knew I didn't want to be a trained seal.

I don't delve into logical positivism in freshman science--though I'll go there if anyone ever pushes it.

I will say this--once a few kids grasp that current models postulate that we are essentially space, they immediately grasp that a lot of what they assumed was "fact" (or even worse, were told was true) is malarkey.

Recognizing malarkey is critical if you want study science. Even highly lucrative, politically charge malarkey.

(Both illustrations from the National Archives and in the public domain--one of these days I'll learn enough html to get the appropriate caption under them.)

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