Science Notebook

Monday, July 30, 2007

First, Do the Math

The debate over whether to teach physics, chemistry or biology first in high school is missing the point, research suggests. Instead of worrying about what order to teach the three major high school sciences, educators should focus on math, because that subject best prepares students to do well in all the sciences once they get to college.

Researchers at Harvard and the University of Virginia analyzed the grades of more than 8,000 undergraduates who took introductory biology, chemistry and physics at 63 colleges and universities. They also looked at how much preparation those students had in high school.

Students who took more high school biology tended to excel in college biology, but they did not do any better in chemistry or physics, the team reported in Friday's issue of the journal Science. Similarly, those who took more high school chemistry did better in college chemistry, but not biology or physics. The same pattern held true for physics.

The one thing that helped students do well in all college science was having taken an advanced high school math class. That undermines a commonly held belief that math training is not particularly important or helpful for the study of biology.

The fact that each high school science subject gave college students a boost only in that specific subject casts doubt, the authors said, on the idea that changing the traditional order of biology, chemistry and physics in high school will have any impact on college performance.

-- Rick Weiss

Not a Little Squirt

They're big, they're hungry, they swim at up to 25 mph and attack their prey with beaks and barbed tentacles -- and they have moved in by the thousands to the waters of southern and central California, far north of their usual habitat in the equatorial Pacific.

They are the predatory Humboldt squid, known scientifically as Dosidicus gigas and colloquially as jumbo squid. Researchers who have tracked them say they appear to be decimating Pacific hake, a valuable commercial fish species.

The squids' arrival has been documented by deep-diving, remotely controlled robot submarines operated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. They have been videotaping the waters off Monterey Bay continuously since 1989, accumulating a data set on marine life there. Louis Zeidberg, a researcher at Stanford University, and Monterey senior scientist Bruce Robison used those records to track the invasion.

The squid, which can grow to 7 feet long and weigh 100 pounds, first appeared for a year or two after an El Niño event in the Pacific in 1997. Then, they vanished, only to reappear in huge numbers after a milder El Niño in 2002.

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