A proposal for a How Things Work school science curriculum

How Things Work: A fundamental motivation for physical science in the general-science curriculum

Why do we teach science?

The major subjects in the public school curriculum were placed there for sound, practical educational and social reasons. We teach history to help our students avoid the mistakes of the past and to understand why the political world is structured the way it is. We teach mathematics to establish mental discipline and to prevent the student from being deceived in business dealings.

And we teach general science. Two of the disciplines therein are quite well-defined in purpose: biological and earth sciences help students understand how the world works, revealing in an orderly manner the relationships between living things, the structure of the heavens and the earth and the workings of our own bodies.

The third major component of a general science program is physical science--chemistry and physics. It's clear to any educator that these must be included in a general science program. But their practical purpose has been clouded by a number of issues. Can we define precisely why physical science is a good thing to teach?

Physical science in general science curricula:

In today's typical general science curriculum, physical science is a series of parlor tricks: make a volcano, make a battery out of a lemon, see how far a model rocket will go, blow a huge bubble. These alternate with rote memorization of simple machines, electrical demonstrations that start and end with series and parallel circuits and an electromagnet that can pick up paper clips, chemical reactions involving foodstuffs (e.g., iodine turns the starch in a potato blue,) and the inevitable Lives of Famous Scientists. We learn from a NASA video that liquid poured out of a jar in the orbiting Space Shuttle will turn into a floating blob and that the spacecraft gets very hot upon re-entry and are told that this is very important to know.

And so the physical science component lurches from topic to topic, without the centralizing purpose that give the earth sciences, mathematics, and social sciences their perceived legitimacy. I think that, at any point in the course of study, a student is justified in asking (politely, of course,) "Why do we have to learn this stuff?" In other subjects, and in the other sciences, the answer is fairly straightforward, but we currently don't seem to have a good answer in the case of physical science.

How we got here:

The situation probably dates back to World War II and the development of rocketry and the atomic bomb. The expansion and transformation of physics and chemistry from an academic and industrial pursuit into a high-priority military enterprise peaked in 1957 with the launch of the Sputnik. Between the end of the war and 1957, great advances had been made in the civilian industrial sector--dyes, plastics, synthetic fabrics, computation, structural engineering, engine design and metal fabrication--developments in aerospace technology largely overshadowed these advances in the public mind.

Thus when the Soviets appeared to have taken a great technological leap ahead of the West by the successful orbiting of Sputnik, tremendous pressure was placed upon schools to improve science and mathematics education. In retrospect, there doesn't seem to be much evidence of any great deficiency, but change of emphasis was made: schools started to teach physics and chemistry with the unstated but understood goal of training weapons scientists and technicians. The Physical Science Study Committee was established, and US science education was given a substantial increase in funding, all in the name of military preparedness.

Ten years later, 1967-1977:

The same students who grew up with Sputnik and PSSC went on to protest the Vietnam War and the "military-industrial complex" that seemed to support it. And when these students became teachers, physical science became politically incorrect for the next twenty years. Physics and chemistry survived as high school courses because they were required by the states, but the physical science component of general science was minimized almost out of recognition in general science programs. Chemistry became a preparatory course for vocational programs in medical technology or as a means to test for industrial pollution. Physics, with its egghead reputation and military connotations, could go nowhere but into space: the Space Shuttle and astronomy predominated along with a few attempts to relate it to sports and amusement park rides.

1980's and 1990's:

There has been some easing of the political pressures that shaped general science curricula in the 1980's, but other factors have intervened. Since 1990, funds that might have supported both physics and chemistry have largely been diverted into computer training. The term "technology" has been co-opted by computers. And the physical sciences continue to find themselves scrambling to find an identity and a reason for being taught.

The situation today:

Thus, as in 1957, we have to ask ourselves precisely what it is that we want to accomplish by teaching science. We clearly do not wish to mint new scientists. There are few jobs in science, either academic or industrial, and despite the fervent wishes of NSF we don't have any great scientific wars to win. Most industrial research and development seems to have gone the software route, and this is undoubtedly the most efficient path for industry. But why should schools teach chemistry, basic mechanics, electricity, and heat transfer?

A proposed solution:

How Things Work is, as much as anything else, an answer to this question. We can teach physical science to understand how the man-made world works. Science is best taught using familiar things, and the familiar things we're surrounded by are, well, industrial. Public utilities, plastics, communications, building materials, cars--all these are products of the industry that we Boomers revolted against.

Moreover, technology--the _true_ technology of transportation, structures, materials, public utilities and computers--has largely gotten away from the average person, even the average engineering graduate. Nothing could have demonstrated the failure of this part of education better than the fear of massive industrial and utility shutdowns at the end of 1999. Virtually all of the concerns were the result of a basic misunderstanding of, well, how things work--how power and water are delivered, how automobiles run, how airplanes fly, and how communications systems are set up.

It's not new

This was not always the case. A good deal of the general science curriculum in past years was of a practical nature. The old texts showed, and students learned, how iron was made, the oxy- acetylene welding process, the fabrication of glass and rubber products, the transmission of electric power and the workings of a telephone exchange. These familiar, practical applications motivated the teaching of physical sciences.

The How Things Work program is a plan to do the same task with modern technologies. We're no longer surrounded and supported by iron, steam and coal, but by plastics and solid-state electronics. Properly taught, these are no more inaccessible to us than were steel and steam to our grandparents.

What I can do:

I have designed an apparatus-driven curriculum for a How Things Work-based science program. Much of the work is already done: about all that remains is to assure school administrators that integration of the program into the existing state science plan won't affect scores on the state proficiency examinations.

None of the demonstrations is particularly complex. Indeed, one of the prime design constraints of my demonstrations is the limitations of my own craftsmanship. None of it has been patented--at least not by me. It is my intention to leave the demonstrations in the public domain.

Neither miraculous, unique, original, nor totally comprehensive:

The greatest strength of How Things Work is, I think, mostly as a philosophy for the design of a physical science curriculum. It defines for teachers and students why physics, chemistry, and related areas are useful and interesting things to know and assures them that even the more mysterious devices and systems that seem to rule our lives are quite accessible at many levels.

Any good science teacher will be able to improve the demonstrations I've built and contribute lessons on the many technologies I've skipped. To encourage this, I've established a How Things Work discussion group via e-mail.

The name "How Things Work" isn't particularly original, either: it's shared by perhaps five other enterprises, including a physics text used at the University of Virginia. The Web URL howthingswork.com has been purchased by Marshall Brain's "How Stuff Works" project.