Last year, the San Diego school system got some bleak news about
its science program.
A review showed that only 32 percent of the district's 143,000
students were eligible for the University of California system - in
part because most were taking only two science classes. At the same
time, a university research group discovered that the district's
high school students thought school was too easy.
Those dismal results prompted city educators to take action. The
science graduation requirement was increased to three years. In
addition, the order of science classes was reversed.
The goal was to improve the science skills essential to kids in
an age when stem cells and missile defense are daily topics.
"This is simply a matter of us stepping up to the plate and
saying we have to get science in order in such a way that our
students can move on to the university system," says Kim Bess,
director of science for the school district. "Our approach is:
Science education is for everybody; we're not going to have have
and have-not students anymore. Whether it's an inner-city school or
a coastal high school, we want everyone to have the same high-
But the move sparked more than a few protests over lowered
Traditionally, high-schoolers have taken biology as freshmen,
chemistry as sophomores, physics as juniors. But some researchers
concluded that freshmen now lack the prerequisites in physics and
chemistry needed to navigate through a modern biology curriculum.
So San Diego flip-flopped the progression: freshman physics,
sophomore chemistry, and junior biology.
That created its own domino effect. The physics class had to be
redesigned so that all students, rather than an elite 20 percent,
could master it. Much of the hard-core trigonometry and calculus
At the same time, the system needed more physics teachers, who
are as elusive as neutrinos. University coursework had to be
developed that allows San Diego science teachers without a degree
in the field to become certified physics teachers. Teachers newly
assigned to the freshman physics course will receive two weeks of
training provided by outside experts.
San Diego also hopes to make learning experiential and relevant.
A typical course of study will involve students choosing a sport
they enjoy and exploring the physics involved - the rules of
friction, the laws of gravity - and then defending their results
before the class.
But some district physics teachers decried the "dumbing down" of
the freshman physics course, and local residents made their
objections known at school board meetings, on talk shows, and in
letters to the editor.
In the latter half of the 1990s, especially, science education
has received considerable national attention and study. At least
until this year, flush federal and state budgets have allowed for
adequate, if not increased, funding.
"Science education is probably getting more attention right now
than it ever has," says Harold Pratt, president of the National
Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and a 45-year veteran of in the
field. "We're making more strides ... we're learning more than we
ever have in the history of science education."
Yet science test scores, as measured by one global indicator,
were largely stagnant from 1996 to 2000. …