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FYI Number 138: October 29, 2003

Two Reports Address Science Education Issues


Below are highlights of two documents that deal with issues related to undergraduate physics and K-12 science education:

UNDERGRADUATE PHYSICS PROGRAMS:

A project report on "Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics" (SPIN-UP) was released earlier this year by the American Association of Physics Teachers. According to the executive summary, this program "set out to answer an intriguing question: Why, in the 1990s, did some physics departments increase the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in physics or maintain a number much higher than the national average for their type of institution? During that decade, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in the physical sciences, engineering, and mathematics declined across the country. Yet in the midst of this decline some departments had thriving programs. What made these departments different?"

With support from the ExxonMobil Foundation, the American Institute of Physics, the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers, the SPIN-UP project "set out to answer these questions" by sending teams to conduct site visits of 21 undergraduate physics departments that were considered to be "thriving." The teams found that successful departments did not necessarily use different curricula than other departments, did not have exceptional lab or research facilities, and did not draw from a student body with more potential science majors. Instead, the team concluded that thriving departments possess the following attributes in common: a "challenging but supportive and encouraging undergraduate program" that included many opportunities for student-faculty interactions and fostered a sense of community; strong departmental leadership with "a clear sense of the mission of its undergraduate program;" a "strong disposition toward continuous evaluation of and experimentation with the undergraduate program;" and an attitude within the department that encouraged proactive initiation of needed reforms instead of complaints "about the lack of students, money, space, and administrative support." The "Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics: Project Report" can be accessed in pdf format at http://www.aapt.org/Projects/ntfup.cfm.

ATTRACTING GIRLS TO SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING:

Recognizing the need to compile a "body of research" from grants awarded to encourage the participation of girls and women in S&T fields, NSF has released a volume that describes projects funded through its Program for Women and Girls. With more than $90 million awarded so far, NSF reports that this program is "the largest public or private funding source for efforts expressly addressing the need to broaden girls' and women's participation in science, technology, engineering, and math."

"New Formulas for America's Workforce: Girls in Science and Engineering" is available at http://www.nsf.gov/pubsys/ods under publication number NSF 03-207. Each chapter describes a series of projects designed to achieve similar goals, such as exploring "new ways of teaching that have...proven to engage all students more;" helping educators "create a social support system" to better engage students; designing courses "to appeal to a broader base of students;" and addressing how all aspects of the system - people, pedagogy, course content, and social support networks - can be affected "to achieve lasting change."

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
(301) 209-3094

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