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Summer workshop aims to boost student grasp of science

Recently, a study dubbed the nation's report card found that high school seniors did not show any improvement in science understanding since 2000. The National Assessment of Educational Process found science aptitude is actually lower than it was in 1996. Many people are taking action to improve science education. Specifically some are improving how schools teach physics.

Physics is an abstract subject, often involving imaginary pulleys and balls rolling down ramps. As a result, many students have a hard time understanding physics. Some educators say lecturing and other traditional methods make learning physics even harder. But, educators are working to fix this problem with innovative teaching techniques.

In Columbus, a summer workshop trained teachers in the Modeling Method, which encourages students to take a more active role in learning physics. The method is designed to inject a sense of exploration and discovery in physics. Workshop facilitator and Ohio State University Physics Professor Andrew Heckler says with this method, students collect their own data to re-discover physical laws. He says this method changes the role of the traditional teacher.

"Instead of the sage of the stage, people say, it's much more of a guide on the side. And so they're much more of a shepherd where they're more facilitating the students' learning instead of up there spouting out wisdom," Heckler said.

He says this method teaches students the scientific method and gives them a firmer understanding of concepts.

"And we use these techniques that we found that really help students learn. It has a lot to do with more than just memorization, but they really go through the method of science," Heckler said.

Tests show students who've been taught with the Modeling technique understand physics better. High school science teachers who've used this method praise the technique. Doug Forrest teaches physics and physical sciences at Pickerington High School North. He's been teaching in the same district for 12 years, and has used the method for two years.

"I think the method of instruction that we go through works with real kids in real classrooms, not just upper level kids, not just remedial students," Forrest said.

Forrest says he was skeptical at first, but written feedback from students and diagnostic tests showed this method really works.

"My students in physics had always done pretty well, but I've noticed a discernible increase in the gain of their physics understanding over the past two years. Like I said, that's something I really didn't expect," Forrest said.

The Modeling method can also be used to teach chemistry. Olentangey High School student Kim Mowrey says she learned a lot from teacher Jessica Mamais

"We would whiteboard everyday in class so we'd have a class discussion everyday where she would give us problems and we'd have to put them out on a board and she'd asks us does that makes sense to you and then when we looked at it, obviously, no or yes and we'd discuss why or why not," Mowrey said.

But, Mowrey says not everyone in her chemistry class liked the non-traditional approach. "You had to step out of the box, and I know that was hard for some people and they like hated trying to think another way," she said.

OSU Physics Professor Lei Bao stresses the importance of understanding how science works, as opposed to just memorizing scientific facts.

"The understanding of what science is, that's the most important thing, because once you get that, you're much better prepared in dealing with future situations," Bao said.

Both Bao and workshop facilitator Heckler say future situations include not only job prospects, but also everyday decision-making and developing educated opinions as citizens.