In the continuing discussion about K–12 physics education, one or two sentences in Leon Lederman’s response ( Physics Today, August 2002, page 74) caught my eye. Lederman says, “Here I only insist that the design be for all children.” That got my attention, because I have been working for 25 years at that goal of science for all Americans. It was also the goal of F. James Rutherford, former assistant director of NSF and former assistant secretary of the US Department of Education, perhaps the most knowledgeable physicist in science education that the country has ever produced.

From plenary lectures on science education that I have presented at major scientific and teachers’ society meetings, I summarize some questions that I do not see answered in the writers’ comments in the August 2002 Letters. For scientists interested in having all Americans learn science, I pose the following:

  • ▸ For whom are you designing your reform? All students? Including the urban poor? The science able? The nonscientist/engineer (NSE) population? Future physicists?

  • ▸ If you are concerned about all students, can you demonstrate to yourself even some knowledge of their typical educational background, lives, and challenges?

  • ▸ What should students know more or better? Is physics more important for all than English, geography, or music? What is the evidence? CEOs, Cabinet officials, and media stars seem to do well with essentially no clue about physics. In what way would they improve by learning physics?

  • ▸ As a scientist, have you reviewed the enormous amount of available literature on these topics from our university colleagues in education?

Let me provide a reference to some baffling and scary data relevant to our hopes and ambitions. Rent or purchase copies of the videos A Private Universe and Minds of Their Own from the Annenberg Project series. Watch them and answer this question: Will your reform improve the performance of these students? If not, what value do you perceive in putting physics in ninth grade for all students?

The students in those videos are graduating seniors of Harvard University and MIT, most with superb high-school experience. Yet more than 90% thought that the reason Earth had summer and winter was that it came closer to (or farther from) from the Sun. Even more could not identify photosynthesis as the mechanism by which a tree accumulates mass. The same percentage of MIT engineering graduates in their caps and gowns could not light a bulb with a battery and one wire.

I’ve concluded that less than 10% of the American populace can handle any kind of abstraction. Fortunately, almost 100% can learn by using other senses and right-brain pathways. Hence my recent focus, and my recommendation to those who want to get more students into physics, is to start with reality and touch: touch-science. This recommendation builds on the unchangeable reality of the sequence of human sensory development, which starts with touch in the womb. The hands-on approach puts students in touch with such real sciences as agriculture, Earth, health, and materials. And as data from the University of Washington show, 1 using materials as the gateway to abstract science is valuable to both citizens and protophysicists. Out of the many who become interested spring more, and possibly better, physicist-citizens.

1.
T.
Stoebe
,
G.
Whittaker
,
K.
Hinckley
,
Jour. Mat. Ed.
(in press). Electronic copies available from Thomas Stoebe, stoebe@u.washington.edu.