Dr. David Mattingly, assistant professor in Physics at UNH, responds on the science standards:
I recently heard Commissioner Frank Edelblut on NHPR criticize the Next Generation Science Standards adopted last year by the New Hampshire Board of Education. In particular he stated that there is too much focus in the new standards on scientific process and climate change and not enough on relativity as compared to the previous 2006 standards and that such content omissions will hinder the training of good climate scientists.
As a parent of four children in the New Hampshire public schools, I am slightly worried about the continued fixation of the commissioner on standards reviewed and endorsed by thousands of national scientists and educators as well as hundreds of our own Granite State K-12 education professionals.
As a physicist who did his doctoral dissertation on quantum mechanics induced modifications to Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity, who is partly responsible for some of the most accurate scientific tests of relativity ever constructed, who regularly teaches undergraduate and graduate level general relativity, and who supervises the climate science related theses of two seniors going on to graduate school to be professional climate scientists, I am very worried that the commissioner fundamentally misunderstands how to train scientists.
The previous standards involving relativity the commissioner defends were about facts and memorization, for example: “Describe the predictions made by the theory of general relativity, and the evidence that supports it.” Under this standard students do learn scientific facts – they might learn for example that the prediction from general relativity for the orbit of Mercury matches observations more accurately than the prediction from Newton’s earlier theory of gravity.
But memorized facts are then all they have. A typical K-12 student will never calculate the orbit in general relativity or observe it in a telescope. This reduces relativity to dogma and doesn’t give students the skills, techniques and mind-set required to actually do science, which is very different than merely knowing about scientific facts. And precisely because relativity is complex, K-12 instruction about it tends to be more dogmatic than for other topics and less amenable to training necessary scientific skills.
Climate science, on the other hand, is conceptually, mathematically and observationally easier to dig deeply into, not to mention vastly more important to students’ immediate lives, and is much more suited to K-12 teaching of the skills necessary to actually be a good scientist.
A good scientist is on the frontier, where they are responsible for creating new knowledge. Creation of scientific knowledge is not a fact – you cannot memorize it or write it down in a textbook. It is a process. My students this year were not able to write good climate science theses because they knew relativity, they were able to write them because they were rigorously trained in the processes of scientific inquiry – model building, data collection, numerical computation, algebraic computation, statistical analysis, etc. – that transcend any one field.
Similarly, K-12 standards that require students to practice scientific processes and not just memorize facts are actually what will help make good scientists.
I encourage our commissioner to stop fighting the NGSS, with its appropriate emphasis on scientific processes and climate science at the expense of memorizing facts about relativity, and instead spend his efforts on providing teachers the resources and professional development needed to make instruction based on those standards as conceptually, experimentally and mathematically rigorous as possible. This is what will provide our students with the skills to succeed in any kind of science, making for better climate scientists and, perhaps ironically, better specialists in relativity, too.
(David Mattingly is a professor of physics in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of New Hampshire. The view and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by UNH.)