This Op-Ed piece first appeared on the San Francsico Chronicle’s Open Forum on 12/12/13
The world of K-12 science education is again bubbling with talk of new curriculum standards (the Common Core State Standards) about what areas of science need to be taught and how they shall be taught. This is and should be of vital concern to educational policymakers and administrators. Yet the best standards in the world may not translate into real experiences with real things right in the classroom. This is a brief plea that we not forget that for every ounce of passion spent on educating teachers and principals about the new science standards, there should be 5 ounces put into helping these same teachers and principals provide real experiences with real stuff in the classroom.
I spend my time creating curriculum with the help of willing teachers throughout the San Francisco Unified School District. Through donations from City College of San Francisco and San Francisco State University, I recently was able to obtain a classroom set of old, but working, analog oscilloscopes to take around and share with physics classes at three city high schools.
The invention of these instruments was made possible by one of the key discoveries of modern physics – the electron. In an oscilloscope, a glass vacuum tube creates a beam of electrons, which strikes a phosphor-coated screen, creating a bright spot. By controlling this beam with electrical signals, it is possible to make visible the tiny movements in the electrical world and in any form of energy – heat, light, sound, pressure, etc. (This “cathode ray” tube is also familiar to us as the traditional television picture tube that preceded our flat-screen LCD displays.)
Lugging my set of 10 oscilloscopes around to these high schools has been a real lesson to me: Who knew students would be that excited about seeing instruments of discovery from science and engineering right in their classrooms – i.e., the “real stuff”?
In our classes, students have looked at their vocal vibrations on the oscilloscope screens as well as at (safely through transformers) the electrical energy delivered by our power grid – the alternating 60-cycle AC waveform that is ever present but invisible to the human eye. Students also learned basic electrical measurement, quantifying waveforms in milli- and micro-volts as well as milliseconds. As far as I have been able to determine, the students would have had no experience with these instruments without our traveling classes.
We have taken similar “real stuff” to many other schools throughout San Francisco, including fossils we have collected at sites in Utah (trilobites), Wyoming (fish) and Idaho (corals).
Our most exciting adventure is our 30-foot-long, do-it-yourself gray whale skeleton, which we take around to schools on a truck. We recovered all the bones at Pescadero Beach, and the children themselves assembled the skeleton on a scaffolding.
How could a learning activity such as assembling an entire whale skeleton not be aligned with appropriate science standards? There’s no need for meetings or debates over activities like these!
Dan Sudran is the director of the Mission Science Workshop in San Francisco.