Author Reinvents Science Textbooks as Lively, Fun Narratives

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 28, 2008

To middle school teacher Chad Pavlekovich, most science textbooks are dull and lack the context students need to understand scientific principles. That's why he is exposing students in the town of Salisbury on Maryland's Eastern Shore to three new textbooks that are unorthodox in concept, appearance and substance.

The "Story of Science" series by Joy Hakim tells the history of science with wit, narrative depth and research, all vetted by specialists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The first book is "Aristotle Leads the Way," the second is "Newton at the Center" and the third is "Einstein Adds a New Dimension." The series, which has drawn acclaim, chronicles not only great discoveries but also the scientists who made them.

"These books humanize science," Pavlekovich said.

"We teach students this equation and this theory or this topic and that idea, but we never discuss the scientist behind it or how that scientist made the discovery," he said. "It helps students to understand how they struggled and overcame great obstacles to do what they did."

Hakim has also drawn attention for lively U.S. history textbooks she authored in a series used from elementary school through college. Her science texts, published by Smithsonian Books, target middle school.

Hakim said she wrote the books to help the nation develop more scientists. Most science texts, she said, are rife with errors and virtually impossible to read.

"Feed kids Cokes and french fries and you get an obesity crisis," Hakim said. "Feed them mental junk food and you get nonreaders and poor thinkers."

Constance Skelton, science coordinator for Arlington County schools, said teaching science through stories rather than unconnected snippets of formulas and information is gaining popularity.

Teachers, she said, are increasingly under pressure to improve literacy among students and are looking for opportunities to engage them in reading in all subjects.

Scientists and educators say that there are many ways to teach science but that Hakim's approach makes sense.

"If you talk to any first-rate scientist about a particular development, you will very quickly hear a narrative, because the way good scientists think about developments in their field is in terms of stories," science writer Timothy Ferris said. "Telling a story reminds you of how you got to your present state of knowledge," he said, and scientists constantly test whether those steps were reliable.

Juliana Texley of the National Science Teachers Association is writing support materials for Hakim's third book. Johns Hopkins University curriculum specialists did so for the first two.

"I've been in science education for almost 40 years, and I've never been as impressed with a series of literature," Texley said. "Most physics teachers would tell you that students who haven't had calculus couldn't understand it. Yet Joy's text is clear, fun to read, understandable and very, very accurate. After decades of teaching the material, I felt I finally understood the methodology."

Hakim said MIT scientists, including senior research scientist emeritus Edwin Taylor, checked each chapter of the Einstein book.

"In a textbook, if you get 90 percent right, that's not good enough," Taylor said.

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