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transforming_physics_education - Transforming Physics...

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36 November 2005 Physics Today © 2005 American Institute of Physics, S-0031-9228-0511-020-5 T he science community needs to change science educa- tion to make it effective and relevant for a much larger fraction of the student population than in the past. This need is the result of significant changes in the environment and society over the past several decades. First, society now faces critical global-scale issues that are fundamentally technical in nature—for example, climate change, genetic modification, and energy supply. Only a far more scientifi- cally and technically literate citizenry can make wise deci- sions on such issues. Second, modern economies are so heavily based on technology that having a better under- standing of science and technology and better technical problem-solving skills will enhance a person’s career aspi- rations almost independent of occupation. Furthermore, a modern economy can thrive only if it has a workforce with high-level technical understanding and skills. As a community, we must now ask ourselves, “How successfully are we educating all students in science?” This objective is very different from in the past, when the goal of science education was primarily to train only the tiny fraction of the population that would become future scien- tists. The new, broader educational need does not elimi- nate the need to educate future generations of scientists. However, improving science education for all students is likely to produce more and better-educated scientists and engineers. This claim is supported by data showing that the fraction of students who complete a physical science major in college is determined more by the students’ abil- ity to tolerate traditional physical science instruction than by their ability to do science. 1 For a variety of reasons, the physics community should and can take the lead in providing an effective and relevant science education for all students. Moreover, this is in their enlightened self-interest. A better-educated cit- izenry would better appreciate the value of supporting physics research. But what specifically do we mean by effective physics instruction? It is instruction that changes the way stu- dents think about physics and physics problem solving and causes them to think more like experts—practicing physi- cists. 2 Experts see the content of physics as a coherent structure of general concepts that describe nature and are established by experiment, and they use systematic concept-based prob- lem-solving approaches that are ap- plicable to a wide variety of situations. Most people (“novices”) see physics more as isolated pieces of information handed down by some authority and unrelated to the real world. To novices, “learning” physics simply means memorization of infor- mation and of problem-solving recipes that apply to highly specific situations.
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