Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 22  |  Friday, March 19, 1999  |  Number 6
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

The Talk of the Lab

Letter from Washington

All the high-minded pledges of congressional support for doubling the science budget have not translated into more funding for science–at least not for particle physics. The President’s fiscal year 2000 budget request of $697 million for the high-energy physics program is nearly the same as the 1999 budget.

In an interview with George E. Brown, Jr., of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Science, the New York Times asked how skilled scientists and researchers are at presenting their case to Congress. Brown answered, "Very unskilled." He said that, in general, scientists and researchers "have too great a faith in the power of common sense and reason. That’s not what drives most political figures, who are concerned about emotions and the way a certain event will affect their constituency. If you’re going to work in a political environment, you have to know the reasoning of the people you’re dealing with. You have to talk to them realistically. It does very little good to appeal to high principle, although I would not say that’s insignificant. The vast majority of politicians think they are functioning on high principle."

The New York Times also asked Brown whether the appointment of Rita Colwell, a microbiologist, as head of the National Science Foundation signaled a change in the agency’s direction. His answer was not heartening. He said that her appointment "could portend a new direction in the support of science in the United States. Her achievements reflect the direction science funding is going into in the future. In other words, jobs and industrial opportunities are going to stem more from the biological sciences than from chemistry and physics."

Colwell herself might take issue with that, however. She is concerned over a dramatic shift in the last 25 years in the distribution of federal research funds. In 1970, 50 percent of federal research dollars went to engineering and the physical sciences. That’s down to 33 percent today. Meanwhile, support for the life sciences has risen from 29 percent of federal research spending in 1970 to 43 percent now.

Colwell, who admits she’d be "the first to tell you about the great things that are happening in biomedical fields," also acknowledges that "society cannot live by biomedical bread alone." Indeed, revolutions in medical treatment and diagnostic tools–laser surgery, CAT scans, fiber optic viewing, ECHO cardiography–often depend on advances in the physical sciences and engineering.

–Sharon Butler


ARISE, and put physics first


At Whitney Young High School in Chicago, Angela Dumas is helping students to learn science the way scientists learn science.

Dumas is the team leader for Whitney Young’s ARISE program, which reverses the conventional high school sequence of biology, chemistry and physics. The ARISE format, championed by Fermilab Director Emeritus Leon Lederman, starts with physics and continues on to chemistry and then biology.

In his recent "white paper" on the physics-first sequence, Lederman wrote: "The sequence of high school study in science–biology, chemistry and physics–was set out in 1894 on the basis of a prestigious national commission (The Committee of Ten)."

There is also widespread belief that the sciences were simply listed in alphabetical order to form the sequence. Lederman believes that physics builds the foundation on which the other two sciences rest, and teaching them in the conventional order produces confusion and rote memorization.

"To pursue this mismatch of the biology-chemistry-physics sequence a bit more," Lederman writes, "consider the following statement: ‘The transmission of sodium and potassium positive ions through cell membranes is crucial to the functioning of nerve impulses.’ In this one sentence are essential physics and chemical concepts applied to a vital element of biology. If students do not know physics and chemistry, they are forced to memorize a description of nerve impulses. Without prerequisites, it’s the best that can be done.

"The science of biology strives for explanations of important processes at the level of cellular events rather than for mere descriptions. That a prerequisite of high school levels of physics and chemistry could provide such explanations is the essence of students learning science like scientists learn science. This teaches the science way of thinking."

At Whitney Young, the ARISE sequence is offered as an alternative to the conventional sequence, not a replacement for it.

"The acceptance by students has been excellent," Dumas said. "We have been able to recruit as many students as we wanted so far. And the teachers in our department are not threatened by the program. We do not promote it as the better way to teach science, just an alternative for those who are like-minded. Depending on our success we may expand the program but will not likely replace the traditional sequence with the ARISE program."

Dumas said the ARISE sequence makes sense because it helps students make sense of biology. She pointed out that most incoming students at the city’s West Side magnet school either have taken algebra or are taking it concurrently with physics, so they are prepared for the level of mathematics required in physics. Dumas noted that since the program was instituted last academic year, the performance of freshman students taking physics first hasn’t differed significantly from older students concluding with physics.

"The physics teachers have both said that their standards and methodology are very much the same for the freshman and upperclassmen classes," Dumas said. "The freshmen seem to work a little harder, and the teachers may treat them a bit more gently. Having analyzed four classes of freshmen in physics, they seem to be doing a very good job. Their averages are just a bit below the classes of juniors and seniors, though this can probably be attributed to their lack of experience in a magnet high school setting where (self) organization is essential and expectations are high."

Still to come are the results in chemistry and biology for students moving on. But Dumas already has witnessed a notable level of enthusiasm among the teachers involved in the unconventional sequence.

"In praise of the program," Dumas said, "we teachers have all marveled at how inspiring and supportive this professional development experience has been. We feel that ARISE has truly made a difference in the way we teach science."

–Mike Perricone

last modified 3/19/1999   email Fermilab