Stuck-in-the-Past Va. Physics Texts Getting Online Jolt

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 30, 2008

The average high school physics class in Virginia traverses 2,000 years of thinking, encompassing the Archimedes principle of buoyancy and Newton's laws of motion, and stopping abruptly at about the turn of the 20th century. Educators want the course to advance to today's string theorists and atom-smashing particle physicists.

But before they can modernize physics education, they need a breakthrough in a textbook system that often leaves courses in physics and other subjects decades behind the times.

Rather than waiting two years for the Virginia Board of Education to review its science standards, then another year for publishers to print new physics texts, the state secretaries of education and technology asked a dozen teachers to write their own chapters in biophysics, nanotechnology and other emerging fields and post them online.

By February, physics teachers from Vienna to Tappahanock should be able to rip, mash and burn new chapters in real-time physics, said Secretary of Technology Aneesh P. Chopra. The virtual pages, which cost the state and schools nothing except teacher time, will be an optional, free supplement to hardbound books.

Although technology has transformed how research is conducted and news and music are used, digital inroads into the $8 billion-a-year textbook industry have been relatively slow. Seventh-graders still haul around usually half their weight in glossy primers.

Educators say the need for change is galactic. Textbooks are often breathtakingly expensive, overly general, unchallenging or outdated as soon as they appear. Real-time updates can speed discoveries into science or engineering classes. They also can fold recent tide-turning events into history or government classes.

Virginia's experiment with the "flexbook," one of the first state-sponsored efforts to digitize course content with teachers, offers a glimpse at how the Internet could alter the curriculum.

The state is partnering with CK-12, a nonprofit organization in Silicon Valley that offers "next-generation textbooks" in physics, math, and biology online. The nonprofit also offers software to help school systems develop their own content. In the District, an experiment with flexbooks is underway at Jefferson Junior High School.

Connexions, an organization at Rice University, offers more than 7,000 free modules, or online chapters, in scores of subjects from pre-kindergarten through higher education. Its Web site draws about 1 million visitors a month.

Electronic texts are multiplying in universities. Professors have more freedom to choose course materials and are not regulated by state standards. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology posts almost all its course materials online. A California Institute of Technology professor wrote an introductory economics text and posted it for free on the Web rather than printing and selling it for the going rate of $150 or more.

Major publishers are also putting more content online, at lower prices than print editions. Drew Crum, an industry analyst at Stifel Nicolaus, said the digital share of the higher-education text market is between 5 and 10 percent and growing.

Virginia's effort to update its science curriculum caught hold after a panel of physicists was convened in 2007 to review state standards. The group found the standards lacking in modern-day applications and research, although the review did not reflect what is taught in honors and advanced courses.

Chopra said he was startled to learn that textbooks used in many classrooms cite the cathode ray tube as the main component of the television. Flat screens and the technology that powers them go unaddressed. "We have been actively teaching the wrong stuff," he said.

A dozen physics teachers statewide volunteered to write chapters or develop lab experiments for emerging fields, including biophysics, quantum mechanics and relativity. (And one chapter will address new TV technology, including liquid crystal displays and plasma display panels.) Their timeline: eight to 10 weeks.

"The time scale for government just does not work in this world of innovation," said Jim Batterson, a retired NASA engineer who oversees the project. What will be posted in February does not need to be perfect, he stressed, because other teachers will be able to post updates, corrections and suggestions.

A physics professor from the College of William & Mary will review content before it is posted, and a Montgomery County high school honors physics student, Pranav Gokhale, plans to check it for readability. Gokhale said he learned about the project on the Slashdot blog, which describes itself as "News for nerds. Stuff that matters."

Experts said they hope that digital texts can spur broader changes in the classroom.

Textbooks lend themselves to "a cookbook approach to teaching," said Deborah J. Stipek, dean of the Stanford University School of Education. A more flexible format could encourage teachers to dip in now and then rather than follow along page by page.

The format could also make it easier for teachers to add new perspectives and customize lessons, depending on the students' cultural backgrounds or interests.

But some caution that the Internet is already teeming with lesson plans. Deborah Roudebush, a physics teacher at Oakton High School in Fairfax County, said the flexbook would be more useful if it offers ideas on blending new topics with old ones.

Roudebush agrees that the old standards could use some sprucing up. She spends her summers working with particle physicists on a university campus and brings ideas back to class. And she keeps a muon detector in the back of her room so her students can study the amount of cosmic muons that pass through in different weather conditions and help answer "questions that no one has answers to yet."

Mike Fetsko, a physics teacher in Henrico County, is writing a chapter on particle physics for the flexbook. He said he loves to teach about current research. It grabs attention.

Students "are not necessarily going to be interested in Galileo dropping a rock off a building" to learn about inertia, Fetsko said. "But a black hole -- that is pretty interesting."

Black holes, extra dimensions, dark matter -- all are within the scope of potential discovery in a new 17-mile-long circular particle accelerator near Geneva.

"That is really one of my main goals: to give students experience with ongoing physics research so they don't think physics is dead. So they know there is significantly more to learn," he said.

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