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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

Why We Need to Rethink Science Education

Schools like to have authors talk to their students and, as someone who writes books for the ten and up crowd, I often oblige. So there I was in a well-regarded Montgomery County school, talking to bright middle schoolers, when I asked a question.
'What is gravity?" I asked.
The answer was immediate and in unison, 'It's a force."
I gasped. We've known for 100 years that gravity is not a force.
Before that we were wed to Isaac Newton's gravity.  Newton not only said that gravity is a force that acts at a distance and instantaneously, he gave us an easy formula to measure gravity. That formula works…at Earth speeds and in most instances we encounter here on Earth. But Newton knew he didn't have it right. In a letter he sent to the Reverend Richard Bentley, he called gravity an "absurdity" and asked that Bentley "not ascribe gravity to me."
In his words: "That gravity should be innate inherent & {essential} to matter so that one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum without the mediation of anything else by … which their action or force {may} be conveyed from one to another is to me so great an absurdity that I believe no man who has in philosophical matters any competent faculty of thinking can ever fall into it." Umm, really? That was Isaac Newton?
Yes, there is a problem with gravity that Newton couldn't figure out. Nor could the amazing Galileo. All objects in a gravitational field fall at the same rate. Can that be explained? Albert Einstein managed that 100 years ago when he came up with General Relativity, which is a theory of gravity. Not an easy one. An explanation usually starts with a stretched rubber sheet dented by a bowling ball. The sheet is time and space (or four-dimensional spacetime). The sun is the bowling ball. Gravity is a response to the dent. (Roll a marble on the dented sheet, where does it go and why?)
Can this be explained to middle schoolers? My experience tells me yes, but teachers need to understand the science first.  And, mostly, we've taken the easy route in science education. The new national science standards don't even try, they call gravity a "force."
I came home from my classroom experience and made some calls. I found that some schools in the DC area get it right. The ones I found were independent schools. As a believer in the importance of public school that was disturbing.
I looked at the NGSS. There was gravity—as a force.
I talked to a science teacher with impressive credentials about the new science standards. She said she has seen many new science teaching efforts. "They get a lot of hype, but never seem to lead to real change."
Juliana Texley, a former NSTA president, and my personal candidate for "best educator of the century" says the new standards are an improvement over what we had, which I didn't read as passionate enthusiasm.
A master California teacher told me the same thing.
But David Evans, the very personable chief of NSTA, was passionate when discussing the new standards. He sees them revitalizing science instruction. NSTA has already produced manuals and books aligned to the standards. So have the major textbook companies and others who will cash in on the change of standards.
What's to do? Maybe it is time for the scientific community to pay more attention to what and how we teach science in our schools. Right now we do a pretty good job of providing skills for future scientists. As for science's big ideas and its big stories? Mostly, aside from our scientists, we have an educated population that is scientifically illiterate. The NGSS may help a bit, but mostly it is the same approach to science instruction wearing a new dress. Ask your neighbor, or yourself, "Why isn't gravity a force and if you don't know, you might want to watch the PBS special narrated by Brian Greene on gravity and special relativity.

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