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science mish-mashDid you ever get the feeling that what you learnt in science class at high school was just plain wrong? Did you feel stupid because you couldn't understand what the textbook was getting at? Did you get a question wrong even when you'd faithfully applied the right formula?

Well, turns out you might have been right all along.

A new examination of some of the most widely used middle school physical science textbooks in the USA has found tracts that incorrectly state Newton’s first law of motion and show the equator passing through the southern United States! Even worse, some of the accredited authors don't seem to exist, or never even wrote the books in the first place.

Other astounding errors spotted by the examiners included:
  • A textbook asserting (within 12 pages) that "sound travels faster through warm air than cold air" and then that "sound travels faster in colder air".
  • A book giving the incorrect formula for the volume of a sphere.

The purpose of the two-and-a-half-year study, carried out by Dr. John L. Hubisz, visiting professor of physics at North Carolina State University, was to review and critique a dozen physical science textbooks used by a significant number of American middle school students. University science departments in the US, and indeed other parts of the world, have lately been concerned about the poor level of scientific knowledge their new scholars are bringing with them from high school. Hubisz's findings certainly shed some light on this.

What's this got to with it?Could do better

To conduct the study, Hubisz enlisted the aid of seven other reviewers already familiar with middle school science textbooks. "We had a good cross-section of teachers and teachers who teach teachers," he explains. All reviewers had physics and teaching backgrounds that varied from middle school to graduate school, and all but one had more than 20 years of experience in the field.

The results were less than encouraging. The team found numerous errors in scientific accuracy, faulty portrayals of the scientific approach and inappropriate lessons for particular grade levels.

"The books have a very large number of errors, many irrelevant photographs, complicated illustrations, experiments that could not possibly work, and diagrams and drawings that represented impossible situations," the report asserts. Most of the statement's 100 pages list specific errors from several of the books reviewed.

Scientific ghosts

Perhaps more sinister than the factual errors was the difficulty experienced in contacting the "authors" listed on the covers. "Of the several names listed in several of the textbooks, none that we contacted would claim to be an author and some did not even know that their names had been so listed. Instead of authors, we have a collection of people who checked parts or aspects of the textbook. Some of these reviewers actually panned the material and heard nothing further from the publisher," the report states. (our italics.)

Isaac Newton"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," Hubisz says. For example, most of the physical science "authors" were actually biologists.

Without a clear-cut author to contact about errors, the study panel tried going through the publishers. Unsurprisingly, for the most part they either dismissed the panel's findings or obfuscated, promising corrections in subsequent editions. However, the report says that reviews of these later releases frequently turned up more errors than corrections.

The appearance and layout of the texts also came in for a bashing. The panel found that selection committees were often enticed by the visual appeal of textbooks in an effort to present students with a modern-looking volume. However, the report maintains that textbooks with many illustrations, graphics and other planetsattention-grabbing items frequently do nothing to aid the instruction of middle school children. Moreover, much of the "eye candy" has little to do with the topic, leading the panel to conclude that graphic designers and text writers had little to no communication in the production process.

Dumb and dumber

The inaccurate and vacuous textbooks may be explained by the findings of Cornell University sociologist. Donald P. Hayes. In February 2000, Hayes gave an address pointing out the difficulty American students had in coping with high school science because the textbook standards in other subjects had been "dumbed down" to such an extent. Lulled into lexical laziness by years of oversimplified schoolbooks, the students came in for a shock when they reached the science lab, an environment demanding greater accuracy and more specific explanation.

Reporting at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Hayes felt that too many American students were shunning high school science for "easier" subjects, and then passing into adulthood as poorly educated, science illiterates with a vulnerability to pseudo-science.

buckyball"They are not prepared for science texts with all the domain-specific words, the equations and the longer sentences. There is a gulf between the two bodies of work in the schools, and the gulf isn't getting smaller," Hayes said.

"After World War II, we simplified books for history, English and other non-science subjects by shortening the sentences and avoiding rare, unfamiliar words that might challenge readers to learn new concepts," Hayes recalled.

"As science becomes more sophisticated, the language inevitably becomes more specific, and many American students are not prepared for the level of difficulty that they will encounter in science texts."

Especially if the books turn out to be wrong!

Any complaints about factual errors or inappropriate illustrations in Beyond 2000 stories should not be addressed to us, but instead to our high school teachers or directly to the publishers of New Worlds of Science 3.

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