A brief history of physics education in the United States

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A brief history of physics education in the United States David E. Meltzera) Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Arizona State University, Mesa, Arizona 85212…
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A brief history of physics education in the United States David E. Meltzera) Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Arizona State University, Mesa, Arizona 85212 Valerie K. Oterob) School of Education, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309 (Received 11 August 2014; accepted 12 November 2014) In order to provide insight into current physics teaching practices and recommended reforms, we outline the history of physics education in the United States—and the accompanying pedagogical issues and debates—over the period 1860–2014. We identify key events, personalities, and issues for each of ten separate time periods, comparing and contrasting the outlooks and viewpoints of the different eras. This discussion should help physics educators to (1) become aware of previous research in physics education and of the major efforts to transform physics instruction that have taken place in the U.S., (2) place the national reform movements of today, as well as current physics education research, in the context of past efforts, and (3) evaluate the effectiveness of various education transformation efforts of the past, so as better to determine what reform methods might have the greatest chances of success in the future. VC 2015 American Association of Physics Teachers. [http://dx.doi.org/10.1119/1.4902397] I. INTRODUCTION practices” in more recent times). However, it seems that this theme was continuously rediscovered in each era as the The teaching and learning of physics has long been a focus intense and passionate debates of previous times were for the U.S. physics community, and physics education in largely forgotten or overlooked. the U.S. has undergone many significant changes during the In Sec. II, we have organized the history of U.S. physics past 200 years. Virtually all academic physicists, whatever education into ten thematic segments, or chronological their age, have been exposed to—and encouraged to partici- “periods.” We summarize the key literature from each period pate in—efforts to reform and improve the way physics is and discuss major events, personalities, and issues of the taught, either at the K-12 or college level. Recently, there day. In Secs. II A–II G, our focus is primarily on physics in have been increased calls for university physics faculty and the high schools and on college preparation requirements, high school physics teachers to transform their courses, for since that arena was the center of most broad-based pedagog- example, by more directly incorporating scientific practices ical debates and reform efforts by physicists and physics and by aligning instruction more closely with findings from educators until the late 1960s. In Secs. II H–II J our focus research on student learning. Systematic physics education moves to the colleges and universities. In Sec. III, we pro- research (PER) has provided evidence supporting the use of vide a summary, and offer a number of (unanswered) ques- various specific instructional strategies.1 However, there has tions that could be productively addressed by physics been little attention given to the history of physics education educators and physics education researchers of the present and to how the many reform efforts and often stormy debates day. of the past have played out. Few have asked, for example, how today’s pedagogical initiatives differ—or don’t differ— from those of the past, or what exactly has changed—or not II. HISTORICAL OUTLINE OF U.S. PHYSICS changed—as a result of previous reform efforts. An obvious EDUCATION question to ask is “What must be done to avoid the short- A. Origins of physics education in the U.S., 1860–1884 comings of previous efforts at reform?” Although we are not able to answer that question here, we provide a basis for ini- This early period—similar to several that immediately fol- tiating the discussion. low it—is transitional in the sense that physics teaching was A careful examination of the U.S. physics education litera- undergoing a rapid and wide-ranging transformation. Physics ture dating back as early as the 1880s reveals that there are (known originally as “natural philosophy”) had been taught many similarities between the early writings about educa- at the secondary level in academies and high schools since tional transformation and the discussions that are taking the early 1800s, its inclusion in the curriculum being justified place today.2 In some cases, it is difficult to determine in large part by its practical utility and relevance to everyday whether a quotation came from an article by a physics in- life. However, only during this period did physics and other structor published in 1912 or from a report by a national sciences begin to gain a firm foothold in college curricula af- commission issued in 2012. It can be surprising to realize ter long resistance by proponents of “classical” education. that calls for physics education reform have remained rela- From then on, the evolving relationship between high school tively consistent in many ways during the past 100 years or and college physics instruction would become a major theme more. Another recurring pattern is that writings from each of U.S. physics education.3 time period rarely refer to the national reports or other pub- At the beginning of this period, instruction was largely lished documents or research from earlier periods. For exam- tied to textbooks and was primarily through lecture, ple, for the past 130 years physics education reformers have “recitation” (which meant literal recitation by students of been calling for increased engagement by students with the textbook readings), and occasional demonstrations by the in- practice of scientific induction (called “inquiry” or “scientific structor. High school textbooks focused on providing factual 447 Am. J. Phys. 83 (5), May 2015 http://aapt.org/ajp C 2015 American Association of Physics Teachers V 447 information and on explanations of everyday phenomena. attributed to the overuse of textbooks. Wead’s report makes Although the use of mathematics in these books was limited, clear that the difficulty lay in how to actually implement it became increasingly common to find quantitative practice teaching through the inductive method on a broad scale in the problems at the ends of chapters, in contrast to the over- high schools; he frequently called attention to Gage’s text- whelmingly qualitative emphasis of earlier textbooks. book,9 which was at the time unique in providing support for Popular high school textbooks of the era included those by such methods. Quackenbos4 and Steele.5 Although nearly all high school students who reached the B. The move toward laboratory science instruction, 12th grade took physics, this group represented less than 5% 1885–1902 of their age cohort in the population (see Fig. 1).6 Until the end of this period, laboratory work by students was rare, Throughout the late 1800s physics educators increasingly both in high schools and colleges; around 1880, laboratory argued for the use of student laboratory experiments and in- instruction began gaining favor. Student laboratory work ductive methods of instruction in the high school physics came to be seen as necessary to achieve physics instructors’ classroom. (Physics laboratory instruction had been pio- aims, which were explicitly stated to be both understanding neered in college classrooms by MIT beginning in 1869.) of physical principles and improvement in ability to observe However, respondents to Wead’s survey disagreed to some and reason from observations. The “inductive method” was extent about whether high school physics should be required widely favored, at least in principle, referring to the execu- for college admission, and on whether the “prevailing char- tion and analysis of experiments preceding any explicit state- acter” of the work should be for “information or for dis- ment of general principles underlying those experiments. cipline,” or for both. Though high school education was Textbooks to support this method appeared only toward the initially intended to serve students who were not bound for end of the period, and it is unclear how widely the inductive college, many students who enrolled in college were coming methods were actually employed. Even by the end of this pe- from the high schools. Thus, university administrators and riod, only a handful of secondary schools had actually imple- faculty felt a need to establish clear college admission stand- mented full-year laboratory-based courses; an extensive ards. The president of Harvard charged physics instructor national survey carried out in 1878 by F. W. Clarke revealed (later professor) E. H. Hall with the task of developing a list only four schools that reporting having reached this level, of physics experiments that would be required for admission along with about 30 colleges and universities.7 By contrast, to Harvard. In 1886, Hall published the first of several ver- the two decades to follow would see an explosion in the sions of this list to guide high school physics teachers in pre- widespread implementation of laboratory instruction. paring students for college. This “Harvard Descriptive List” In 1884, University of Michigan physics professor C. K. had a substantial influence on the discourse and policies of Wead published the results of yet another extensive national physics education over the next several years,10 and its influ- survey, this one on the purpose and methods of teaching high ence was amplified by the textbook written by Hall and school physics.8 The survey was circulated among faculty at Bergen that incorporated the entirety of the Descriptive List.11 normal schools, secondary schools, colleges, and universities Concurrent with ongoing disagreements about the purpose throughout the U.S. Responses largely favored the inductive of high school science, the nation was dealing with very method; arguments were made in support of developing obser- large enrollment increases and increasing numbers of course vational skills, drawing conclusions from data, and “catching and curriculum offerings. The National Educational the spirit of inquiry” (Wead, p. 37), a theme that would persist Association (NEA) appointed a “Committee of Ten” to make for many years to come. Respondents were generally opposed recommendations for addressing the rapidly changing high to the “unscientific habit of memorizing,” which many school environment. The report of the Committee of Ten Fig. 1. High school graduates (physics-takers and non-physics-takers) as a proportion of the age-17 population, selected years; includes graduates of both pub- lic and private schools, but private school enrollment for some years is estimated. Some figures are interpolated. Sources for enrollment and percentage of graduates include those in Ref. 89; additional population data are in Ref. 90. Source for physics takers, 1948 and after: Ref. 62, p. 1. Sources for graduates and physics takers before 1948 are in Ref. 91. Percentage of physics-taking graduates for 1910 and 1922 is estimated by assuming that physics enrollment was evenly split between grades 11 and 12; see, e.g., Ref. 92. 448 Am. J. Phys., Vol. 83, No. 5, May 2015 D. E. Meltzer and V. K. Otero 448 recommended that both college-bound and non-college- physics more interesting and inspiring to the students”; to this bound students should be taught the same way and that high end a committee, consisting of two high school teachers and a school physics should be heavily laboratory based, incorpo- physics professor, was appointed by the Central Association rating at least 200 h of study.12 The Committee’s recommen- of Science and Mathematics Teachers. The committee’s initial dations received further endorsement in the 1899 report of step was to send out a survey to high school physics teachers the Committee on College Entrance Requirements, whose around the nation, publishing the survey in the two leading physics committee was chaired by Hall.13 science education journals.18 The survey solicited opinions on The Committee of Ten’s report stated explicitly that the which experiments should be regarded as “essential” for the main function of secondary schools was to prepare students first year’s work in physics, and also asked teachers’ opinions “for the duties of life,” and not to prepare them for college on what was “most needed to make physics more interesting, (Ref. 12, p. 51). However, it turned out that a majority of its stimulating, and inspiring to the students, and more useful as recommendations were closely aligned with many of the an educative factor.” Extensive results of this and several requirements for college entrance. Another strong connec- follow-up surveys were published in both leading journals tion between college requirements and the nature of high over a two-year period. school physics instruction came at the turn of the century, In part due to the diversity of the opinions disclosed by when the newly formed College Entrance Examination the surveys, a journal-based symposium was initiated and Board was charged with writing entrance exams to aid col- published in the form of a sequence of articles in the journal leges in selecting candidates for admission. The various en- School Science and Mathematics from December 1908 trance requirements and standards strongly influenced high through March 1909. A wide variety of education experts school teaching, and set the stage for much further debate were invited to discuss the “purpose and organization of regarding the purpose and methods of high school physics physics teaching in secondary schools.” The 13 participants teaching. The next period would see a “New Movement” in included educational reformers such as John Dewey and uni- physics education arising in response to these new versity physicists such as Robert Millikan and Albert challenges. Michelson, along with science education professors from universities, teachers’ colleges, and normal schools; also C. “New Movement” among physics teachers, 1903–1910 included were high school physics teachers and principals, educational psychologists, and a college president.19 By the early 1900s, there was broad recognition that high school physics instruction was not living up to the vision laid D. “Project method” and early beginnings of PER, out earlier by physicists and science educators. Instead of 1911–1914 instruction centered in the laboratory and relying on the in- ductive method, courses became increasingly formal, text- During this period, several lines of thought were culminat- books became increasingly mathematical,14 and laboratory ing while some newer ones were gaining a foothold. The instruction became increasingly “cookbook” in nature New Movement had fully matured—in fact, henceforth it through emphasis on highly prescribed step-by-step proce- would no longer be referenced explicitly in contemporary dures carried out by rote.15 During this period, the need to writings. There was widespread awareness and considerable improve the overall quality of instruction was a central topic acceptance among physics teachers of a commitment, at least of journal articles on physics education. One particularly in principle, to incorporate more “practical,” “interesting,” well-organized reform effort came to be known as the “New and “meaningful” laboratory and classroom experiences into Movement Among Physics Teachers.” their courses. This period saw the early beginnings of the so- Following the report of the Committee on College called “project method” in which students were to be Entrance Requirements, journals and conferences saw engaged in lengthy investigations—sometimes lasting days increasing complaints from physics educators who blamed or weeks—that focused on practical questions, of interest to overly rigid college admission requirements, among other students, that might arise from (or be connected to) their things, for the poor quality of high school physics instruc- everyday life experiences.20 At the same time, spurred on by tion. Failure rates on the physics exam set by the College educational researchers such as Thorndike, physics educators Entrance Examination Board were high and rising; in 1907, were becoming sensitive to the need to apply rigorous inves- 61% of examinees failed to achieve a grade of 60% or better, tigative techniques to the improvement of physics teaching; the level often adopted as the “passing” standard.16 Many a handful of tentative research investigations were published argued that this was because college entrance requirements in the journals during this time.21 led to overcrowding of high school curricula with sophisti- The other major new trend during this period was the cated mathematics and overly precise (but mindlessly exe- introduction in the high school curriculum of a “General cuted) laboratory measurements, resulting in rote Science” course. This was deliberately designed to appeal memorization rather than deep understanding of physics con- especially to students who were supposedly not interested in cepts and experimental methods. It was argued that physics or capable of focused study of “special” sciences such as experiments and textbook problems had become so quantita- physics and chemistry.22 Of all the events of this period, the tive and were presented in such abstract contexts that it was creation of General Science is arguably the one with the difficult to teach physics as relevant, interesting, or con- greatest surviving influence—it remains in existence to this nected to students’ everyday lives. Physics teachers reported day in the form of the physical science course, typically that drilling of decontextualized information led to students taught in the 9th grade, and often required of all high school ending up with misconceptions, a distaste for physics, and students. The major proponents of General Science were sci- lack of understanding of the true spirit of science.17 ence education faculty in the normal schools and teachers’ The self-titled “New Movement Among Physics Teachers” colleges, many of whom expressed deep skepticism regard- began in 1906 as an effort to “make the elementary courses in ing both the desirability and effectiveness of teaching 449 Am. J. Phys., Vol. 83, No. 5, May 2015 D. E. Meltzer and V. K. Otero 449 “special” sciences in the high school. By contrast, some emphasizing genuine laboratory-based investigations that physics educators—notably Millikan—believed that General could lead to the induction of physics principles and the nur- Science would serve merely to draw capable students away turing of what Mann had called the “scientific spirit.” It was from studying physics and the other sciences, wasting their in this context that the report cited the project method (Ref. time with superficial and ultimately ineffective survey 27, p. 52). courses rather than deep, focused, and meaningful study.23 Science education faculty in normal schools and teachers’ This period saw the publication of the greatest synthesis in colleges (whose primary responsibility was the education of U.S. physics education of the first half of the 20th century, future teachers) were generally in favor of the “science for C. R. Mann’s The Teaching of Physics for Purposes of everyday life” approach and they played an increasingly General Education.3 In this influential and widely cited prominent role in the debates over the secondary science cur- work, Mann summarized the entire historical development of riculum. The science educators, too, used the term “project U.S. physics education, and discussed the motivations and method” to represent a key component of their activities, goals—both philosophical and practical—of the New although their goals and vision of the project method differed Movement that he had led. To address the quandaries facing significantly from that of t
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