Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Science textbooks don't tell whole story

        New scientific evidence suggests I might be smarter than my academic records indicate. My records — in Mom's attic along with my high school yearbooks and an unfinished apron from a then-mandatory home economics class — indicate that I am in no danger of being recruited by Mensa. But maybe I was getting bad information.

        A review of science textbooks found them loaded with factual errors. Loaded. “It was far worse than we had expected,” says John Hubisz, a physics professor who led a 2 1/2-year study of the most commonly used texts.

Singing silicon chip
               A professor at North Carolina State University, Dr. Hubisz says middle school textbooks were targeted because “at that level a lot of non-science types might be teaching science courses.” I guess he means some of the football coaches in my junior high school.

        Indeed, I am not sure Mr. Dexter would have spotted, for instance, a misidentified Red Nebula. But I feel sure he would have jumped right on the picture of Linda Ronstadt labeled as a silicon crystal in one of the books reviewed by Dr. Hubisz. Even though she was not a famous singer at the time. And even though she cannot throw a decent spiral pass.

        “Our goal is to put pressure on publishers to get real authors for textbooks and for those authors to be in the right academic discipline,” Dr. Hubisz says. “Right now, science books are terrible.”

        This is not news to educators. A Web site is devoted to “amusing errors in physics books.” In case you are called upon to entertain at a dinner party: “the subscript in the Laguerre polynomial in the sum should read k and not n.” And if that doesn't have them rolling in the aisles, you can try throwing some completely whimsical brackets around an integrand.

        But you might not find this amusing if you are trying to keep up with physicists trained in countries with better books. Such as Slovenia, Iran, Latvia, Romania and Thailand, according to a story in Forbes headlined “the Great American Textbook Scandal.”

        The good news is that textbooks don't tell the whole story. At least to kids around here.

        “We are working hard so students will have the opportunity to experience and apply what they learn,” says Kevin Stinson, science curriculum manager for Cincinnati Public Schools. “To do that, our curriculum cannot be solely textbook based.”

Discovery learning
               More emphasis is placed on “learning kits” or lab books, instead of conventional textbooks. Joyce Moore, principal of Fairfax Elementary School calls it “discovery learning.” But books still will be around for a while. Even ones riddled with errors.

        “Most schools can't afford to buy new textbooks, even when mistakes are discovered,” Dr. Hubisz says. He plans a Web site that lists specific mistakes by textbook. That is maybe six or eight months away.

        Meanwhile, a site (www.textbookleague.org) reviews textbooks, mercilessly critiquing, for instance, Scott Foresman's The Web of Life — “don't buy this shallow, obsolete book” — and Prentice Hall's Exploring the Universe — “star dreck.”

        And a final piece of education from Ms. Moore and Mr. Stinson, who say they are finding substitutes for conventional textbooks. Kits. Workbooks. Experiments. But so far they are unable to find a substitute for a really good teacher.

        E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or call (513) 768-8393.


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