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Project Science and the Physics Method
ROGERS D. RUSK, M. A.
N the reorganization which the methods of the secondary school sciences are now undergoing each teacher is largely a law unto himself, but neverthe
less certain clear and fundamental principles are SUMINE gradually asserting themselves. In particular the
adaptation of the project method, as it is being developed today, is doing much to aid in the reor
ganization of science teaching and even physics, the most backward of all the secondary school sciences, is strongly feeling its influence.
Although the project method is only a product of the past few years, already the term has come to have several distinct meanings, and it is high time there was some little agreement among teachers and others as to its usage. For instance it is quite commonly thought by some that the project method can only be applied to elementary science instruction, while on the other hand a statement which has been quoted frequently says that all science is project science.
A few years ago it was thought quite sufficient to say that a true scientific method is inductive. Now it is common knowledge that the inductive method may be applied in a multitude of ways. Witness for instance the hue and cry about the problem situation, toy science, practical applications, the development lesson and project science. They all emphasize important applications of the inductive principle. The word “project” however, is an apt one to express a certain phase of applied induction as developed in the teaching method, but we must distinguish carefully between its
Literally, the word means a proposed plan; a definite line of work to be developed. As far as the general idea of induction is conveyed by the word, all science is truly project science. The Baconian idea obtains today the same as ever, and has well become
truism. In a more restricted sense the word has come to mean a certain type of development lesson, combining induction and de duction, in which the central thought is reached by building completely on the common knowledge and interests of the pupil. Such teaching is true teaching. It is right psychologically, but it has a number of drawbacks. The principle objection is that by no stretch of the imagination can a pupil be expected to so rediscover * a science. Nor do some topics lend themselves at all readily to such presentation.
More recently still the term project method has been applied to that type of instruction in which a laboratory demonstration lesson has been followed by a recitation lesson. Such a plan, it is readily seen, can not apply to all science instruction. Only such projects can be thus studied which are fairly simple and short. An extension of the method over a number of days is possible but brings on undesirable complications and loss of time. The idea itself is vital however, and expresses the need we have long felt for a scientific method proceeding directly from experiment. More than all else it demands observation and description, two of the quantities our pedagogy for many years seemingly tried its best to suppress. Then too it leads directly to the development of the powers of analysis, those powers which we can not coerce into activity. And lastly it brings us to the hidden truths of the material in the most truly inductive manner possible. Perhaps this particular method might be called for convenience the laboratory-recitation plan.
The method of any science should depend on at least three things, the pupil, the subject matter and the aims of the course. (1) With reference to the pupil, the method of the course should be determined by his of her age, preparation, sex, temperament and probable future. The age of the pupil indicates his stage of mental development, and indicates the tendencies which are at work shaping and molding his mental life. From six to eighteen many instincts have their rise and fall. Through high school and perhaps in the grammar grades the boy is in the adolescent period.
There is quite a difference however between the first three and the last three of the last six years of common school life. The play, curiosity, and wonder instincts have full sway in the earlier three years while during the latter three pure curiosity changes to love of knowledge, the play instinct becomes a longing to do something useful and practical, and the wonder instinct changes to the highest type of idealism. Most important of all, the mental capacity for the abstract begins to develop, whereas in the first three years of the period the mind could grasp little or nothing that was not concrete. These periods may be hastened or retarded, but they are always present except for certain tendencies which may be partially or completely inhibited.
It is easy to see from this the function general science should and does play in the educational program. Coming as it does in these years of growing adolescence it serves as a great awakening study which aids in the normal development of the child's tendencies. Quite properly it deals with the concrete, and is made to appeal to the earlier instincts, and as might have been expected it is most completely adapted to the project method including the laboratory-recitation plan. All this may be said regardless of the fact that general science as a subject is yet in its infancy, and regardless of the fact that in its present form it is in many ways unsatisfactory. Regardless of all this it does fill a very definite need, even as it is, in the earlier part of the adolescent period, where the seeds of mental habit are sown which will bear fruit in the later sciences. After all is this not its greatest function?
When the pupil reaches the physics class, sometime during the last three years of his common school life, his instincts are further developed, the capacity for the abstract is greater, there is a love of knowledge for knowledge's sake, and more than all else there is + an opportunity to mold these tendencies into a mental fabric capable of functioning independently as it should.
(II) With reference to the subject matter, the method of a science should be determined by the amount of material to be
covered, and the nature of the material. The sciences within themselves are radically different. Take for example physics and chemistry. Physics deals with facts of common experience; balloons, pumps, pulleys, electric lights, telegraphs, musical instruments, thermometer, magnifying glasses, etc. On the other hand chemistry does not deal with objects of everyday experience. It takes up such subjects as oxygen, hydrogen, solution, ionization, valence, neutralization, etc. Physics appeals to the longing to know the why of a mechanism or phenomenon. Chemistry appeals to the longing to do things, to make things happen. Chemistry is more descriptive than physics. Physics has a greater variety of laws and methods. The concrete point of contact is more often formed in the laboratory in chemistry, while in physics it is more often taken from the pupil's experience. These things can not but determine in large part the method of instruction to be used.
(III). With reference to the aims of the course, the method of any science should be carefuly adapted to their attainment. The justification of physics as part of our curriculum is that it gives the pupil certain methods of attack on life's problems in addition to a certain amount of information. Every educator in the country has, at one time or another, taken pains to call our attention to the fact that we should teach method as well as subject matter. And herein lies the fallacy of those who would have us play completely to a certain instinct or to certain instincts so that the pupil takes his medicine without knowing it. Information may be amassed in this way but discipline never.
The unreserved application of any single method of instruction to any subject is usually dangerous. The teaching process is, from the nature of things, an exceedingly complex one, and formal methods can never be established to eliminate the personal equation of both teacher and pupil. However it is to be hoped that the sciences will more and more establish their own methods aimed to bring about their individual ends. In this light it seems that instead of looking for this or that particular type of lesson to fill our needs we should try to develop a method of physics, a method of chemistry and so on.
All of physics should follow some development plan. It is the development subject par-excellence, but the aim of such development is two-fold. First, it should develop the single topic; and second, it should co-ordinate the different topics and bring out the fundamental principles involved. The short project does the former and might well be called the lesson-project. It serves well to develop the topic from the pupil's own knowledge and interest, and focus the attention on a few central ideas, but still we need something more in physics. It may also arouse the interest and hold the attention but the driving force so developed will waste itself without a larger project to asborb it. The science will build little or none upon the foundation of general science and will be little more than informational.
What we need is more mass treatment in physics, that is treatment of a number of closely related topics as a whole, so as to bring out definitely the principles involved by means of the proper repetition and change of view point, which are so absolutely essential to good understanding. To do this we need a series of definite extended projects, which might be called group projects, to coordinate the lesson-projects and the subject as a whole. Little as we like to admit it, as well as our pupils may repeat laws and principles, the fact remains that they do not understand them so that they can use them as they should.
It is to be hoped that the teachers who are doing the pioneer work in this field will turn to the development of group-projects with as much energy as they have lately devoted to development of lesson-projects.
The old formal order in physies was something like this; mechanics, heat, sound, light and electricity. The bitter medicine of mechanics was given first, without any sugar, with the calm solace that if the patient's stomach was not turned he would be greatly benefited by it and he would also be adequately prepared to appreciate the greater joys to come. The old order remains much the same but we are breaking down the barriers between the separate divisions and we are learning to give more agreeable