Saturday, July 12, 2014

NGSS, energy, and motion sickness

I once taught physical science here in New Jersey--some introductory physics, a little bit of chemistry, a whole lot of hands-on experimentation, and a rocket project at the end, where kids designed and built rockets designed to blast raw eggs up a couple hundred feet, then back down again intact.

 I am a certified biology teacher, but had a year of physics in college, as well as two years of chemistry, and I know my 19th century stuff, more than enough to teach Introductory Science I, a "low level" introductory course to how the physical world works.

Turns out that the NCAA had some issues with the way the course was named--it had to have the words "Physical Science" to count towards NCAA eligibility. So the name was changed. Same course, different name, new power. Magic!

Alas, the state of NJ has its own magical powers, and once the course was renamed "College Preparatory Physical Science" to keep the NCAA happy, I instantly became ineligible to teach the course because my biology certification was now insufficient. 
I get this, and I am even OK with it.  It is possible to be certified as a biology teacher in NJ without ever having studied physics, so if I want to teach physical science, I need to show I'm capable: take the Praxis, schlepp a transcript to Trenton, and pay my $70. A pain in the arse, but not unreasonable.

But here's the problem. The Next Generation Science Standards require a deep understanding of what look like simple concepts. Here is a concept pulled directly from NGSS, from the 3-5 grade physical science progressions:

Moving objects contain energy. 

While true in a trivial sense (since all objects "contain" energy), it gives license to teachers not well versed in the mechanics of motion to continue to spout off misconceptions most of us hold. As phrased, this progression obfuscates the profound shift in one's worldview required to grasp the laws of motion.

Here's another:
 The faster the object moves, the more energy it has.

Again, trivially true, but without a reference frame, without defining what kind of energy, this statement is, well, nonsensical, and will only confirm the biases we all have in how the natural world works.

[Addendum: Frank Noschese, a brilliant physics teacher, has no problem with the statement as it stands. "It doesn't say 'Fast objects have more energy than slow objects.' That'd be problematic (& false)." He notes the statement is true since it "clearly states relation to itself," and he is right.]

(If I throw a baseball 50 mph at sea level but just drop one from a balloon hovering 5 miles above Earth, which "has" more energy?)

If the Next Gen standards are over-simplified because the committee worried about confusing the kids (or more likely the teachers who will "teach" the kids), you can roll out the standards to the tune of 1,001 trombones and nothing is going to change. Nothing.

I am not qualified to teach these concepts to adolescents in my state;
elementary teachers with far less science background than me will be required to teach them to the pre-pubescent crowd.

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