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Volume V: The String Wars


Scientific Inquiry

Mario D. Iasella
Schenely High School, Pittsburgh Public Schools

Proposed here in is a complimentary theoretical/hands-on inquiry based laboratory series to accompany a high school physics I course. The series' main objective is to introduce first year high school physics students to scientific inquiry. The process of exactly how scientific inquiry is actually done varies from researcher to researcher however in general the steps are similar. First a testable theory is developed. This theory is then subjected to rigorous testing and analysis. The testable theory must stand the scrutiny of others in the field in order to become widely accepted as standard models for a given phenomena.

Most traditional physics classes include laboratory exercises. In these laboratory experiments certain physical phenomena are investigated. The students follow a set of instructions and perform a "canned experiment" meant to reinforce a concept. Common investigations include; physical properties of mater, motion, forces, energy, momentum, electrical charge, magnetism, waves, light, sound, radio activity, etc… While these traditional labs certainly demonstrate key concepts and make "concrete and tangible" the concept, they do not always help a student to understand how "real investigation" happens for theoretical and experimental scientists. The main focus of this series of laboratory exercises is to develop in the student an appreciation of that process.


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The Nature of a Scientific Theory
Eric Laurenson
Peabody High School

This unit is intended to introduce the nature of science for physics students and to my freshmen general science class and to expound on how versatile science actually is when on the cutting edge of knowledge. The cutting edge of science, theoretical physics, in its search for the Theory of Everything, known as (TOE), may well be facing the dilemma as to whether it is a scientific pursuit. String Theory is the predominant TOE currently and has been pursued for thirty-five years. According to String Theory the limited “answers” or “parameters” of the theory that we are able to determine are very bizarre. But even more difficult is the fact that we don’t even know the question! We haven’t been able to even formulate the theory itself. We find ourselves in a very tenuous situation. And it has left many people to ask whether the pursuit of String Theory is even science! This is because String Theory has not posited a testable hypothesis, nor potentially will it be able to for a very long time. So this leads us to the question: What is the nature of science?

In school we are taught that science is based on the scientific method. But it appears that theoretical physics has gotten far from experiment, perhaps inevitably because of limits of technology, perhaps as a result of a lack of cleverness by physicists. Some scientists are looking towards cosmology where technology is providing a source of data. Other theoretical physicists are proposing alternative theories. Many continue to pursue String theory in the belief that its mathematical elegance will pay off in reflecting natural laws. So in light of this dilemma, I would like to consider, 1) What is the nature of a scientific theory? 2) What are the bizarre claims of string theory and are they warranted 3) What are some of the alternative TOE’s and other speculative theories being pursued? 4) What is the current state of cutting edge scientific inquiry? And lastly 5) Does this illuminate the approach that we should pursue as science?


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The Ethical Aspect of Science
Kevin Reid
Schenley High School

The purpose of this curriculum is to direct high school civics students to the variety of scientific experiments performed on unsuspecting humans during the 20th and 21st century. The students will make judgments about the moral and ethical decisions scientist must make when performing questionable experiments. This topic was chosen to question the government’s (particularly U.S.) responsibilities and culpabilities when applied to such macabre experiments. Should the government permit such experiments? Should the government participate in these experiments? What should be done with newly discovered data from diabolical experiments?

Although this unit was written for high school civics, it can be adapted to different grade levels. In this curriculum informational texts, the Internet, and primary sources will be used. Teachers interested in studying the moral role of government and civil and human rights of citizens especially U.S. citizens would be interested in using this unit. The unit teaches the process of scientific method, and the ethics involved in each step of this procedure.

Students will apply moral lessons with the United States Constitution’s and cloning, by determining the value of the lives of clones. The students will make critical judgments determining whether a clone should be afforded the same rights as other citizens. The goal is to show how the Constitution is a living document, changing as the United States change. An additional goal is to demonstrate how morals and social norms are used to determine the value of lives. The students will be introduced to the ideology of Social Darwinism and how it can be used to justify questionable experiments on humans. Finally the students will investigate the macabre experiments of the 20th century, including the diabolical experiments in the Nazi concentration camps. They will apply the teachings of Social Darwinism to these experiments and determine if the Social Darwinism justifies these experiments.


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Science Fiction: From Black Holes to Alternate Universes
for the High School Classroom
Ronni Rossman
Perry Traditional Academy

Reading efficacy, the belief that one can be successful at reading, is vital to becoming an active reader. Reading efficacy refers to students' perceptions of themselves as competent readers and learners, which are associated with academic achievement. The last twenty-five years of reading research confirms this simple formula- students who read the most, read the best, achieve the most, and stay in school the longest. Science fiction is the literature of things that might someday be possible. It is also a way to bridge the divide between thinking “inside” and “outside” the box. It is my contention that by adding science fiction into the mainstream curriculum, we can capture the imagination of some of the previous non-readers and get them excited about reading. Many students in today’s high schools are not frequent readers, although the No Child Left Behind Act entreats teachers to encourage reading outside the curriculum.

This unit is designed to help teachers of typical mainstream high school students to adapt a portion of their curriculum to include reading, and to focus the students on the science concepts introduced in the reading. It is an excellent tool for use as a cross-curriculum project for science, English, and civics (or social studies) classroom. It has been adapted for use by mainstreamed, special-ed students whose reading level is at the 6th grade. For further adaptation, for students whose reading level does not match that specified, the teacher could spend more than the proposed time on the reading, and read the story OUT LOUD in the classroom, rather than have the students read on their own. Specifically, the science introduced in this curriculum will include multiple dimensions, non-Euclidian geometry, the curving of gravity and light around objects, atomic particles and their movement, string theory, the “grandfather paradox,” and tesselation. As a supplement to this curriculum, the students will read a science fiction novel, and write an original science fiction story. Included as an addendum are worksheets to supplement the lesson plans, as well as the exact Pennsylvania Standards for Education used in the unit.


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Hands-On Cosmology
Steve Scoville
Brashear High School

Less than 100 years ago, there were still scientists, astronomers, and physicists who believed that the universe was only as big as our galaxy and that the positions of the stars were fixed and unchanging. Part of the modern interpretation of the universe includes many features that were not present a century ago, but one of the most fundamental and fundamentally different from previous conceptions of the universe deals with the origin and subsequent expansion of the universe following an event mockingly (at the time) labeled “the Big Bang.” The cosmic creation story is a myth that is present in every culture in every language, whereas the Big Bang is a scientific theory. If the Big Bang is to be appreciated as a scientific theory, then the evidence for this conclusion should be presented to students in a manner that is both consistent with scientific practice (and hence based on an evaluation of evidence), as well as comprehensible to a high school student. This unit proposes a series of inquiry-based activities designed to provide or explain the evidence that humans have used to reveal the history of the cosmos, back to its earliest beginnings. A narrative description of the first few classroom activities is provided. These activities provide an experiential introduction to the “cosmic distance ladder” that enables astronomers to determine the approximate distances to remote stars and galaxies in a manner that leads students to an understanding of the limitations of cosmology and the ways in which humans have striven to overcome those limitations. The structure and instruction in the unit are analyzed in the context of a particular pedagogical approach, demonstrating the manner in which inquiry-based practices influenced the design of the unit and the problems associated with inquiry-based approaches to teaching cosmology.


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The Scientific Method: From Socrates to String
Vincent Vernacchio
Brashear High School

In all disciplines of science, educators have been trained to teach the scientific method as a step-by-step approach that will guide students in gaining understanding of a variety of science concepts, whether they are general or specific. This method seems universal in its structure and is consequently multidisciplinary. As such, science teachers have a common instructional language when referring to the scientific method. It has been my experience that most teachers do not question this process, as it seems intuitively sound as a procedure for investigation. Traditionally, science textbooks also reinforce this process as an accepted practice that will lead to scientific meaning for the learner. Is this process, as it is structured, the best practice for teachers to promote? Does it allow for creativity or independent thinking that is ‘out of the box’? Is the scientific method in itself an acceptable foundation to guide students to the higher ability of being able to logically reason? The aim of this unit is to demonstrate that understanding the history of thought behind the scientific method informs science educators of best practices for their science instruction.


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Chatham University
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Jointly sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University, Chatham University and the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
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