Last Friday, the YU Physics (and Engineering) Club went to Junior High School 143 in Washington Heights to do some physics demonstrations. Cuz dys (one of our blog's occasional commenters) did an index of refraction demonstration where he made Pyrex disappear. I showed them a laser light show (think Lissajous figures). Eliyahu had them play with electromagnets and paper clips, and Elie (yes, there were three "Eliyahu"s there...) did a cool velocity amplification demo with basketballs. Overall, some cool stuff. One would have thought that this would be an exciting and educational distraction from an otherwise dull school day.
However, the 6th graders were bored. They sat there with blank stares and no interaction. When one of us would ask a question, a few kids would raise their hands in the fashion of "Look! See! Class participation!" They seemed more interested in dribbling the basketball than in making one bounce to the moon. I noticed this in both 6th grade classes we visited.
However, we were pleasantly surprised by the 5th graders. They were interested and intrigued. When they were playing (yay!) with the electromagnets they weren't (yay!) paying attention to the speaker:
They asked me good questions about the laser show, and a bunch stayed after class, into their lunch period, asking how they could make something like this on their own and repeating the basketball demo on their own, only reluctantly leaving when forced by their teacher. During the index of refraction demo they gave good explanations as to why the sky is blue, and one girl had an excellent (intuitive?) explanation of energy's relationship to mass (we're talking classical energy, not E=mc2.
Now, I'm not sure what happens to kids in between 5th and 6th grade, and it's possible that this latter class was just a better group of kids. I don't have enough info to comment intelligently on the difference between the two grades, so I won't. But that's not the sad state of science education.
This is bad. In truth, this is only part of the badness. Each and every poster was about global warming, or damage to the ozone layer or something like that. Each and every poster had data and graphs (in all cases the data wasn't relevant and certainly didn't support the conclusion), hypotheses and conclusions. But not a single poster had any science.
This stuff looks like science. It is as if the teacher described what science is supposed to look like - you know, the scientific method and all that - but then told them to write a book report in a science poster style and the kids followed the (stupid, pointless) instructions perfectly.
I will note that the teacher told us that they don't have any labs, but they do have lots of books. Now, books are great - I'm a big fan of books - and the books they had were good books, but gimme a break. I did better science projects before 4th grade! You don't need "labs" to do experiments. For example, phototropism or thigmotropism. Does mold grow on toast quicker than bread? Dominant and recessive genes in family eye colors. Simple things, but still real science.
I'm not sure who's at fault here, but this is the sad state of science education in at least one NYC public school.
But hey, at least it's not England.
Then again, we're not much better.