from The Textbook Letter, May-June 1998

Reviewing a general-science series for high schools

Science Probe I
1997. 552 pages. ISBN: 0-538-66900-4.

Science Probe II
1997. 543 pages. ISBN: 0-538-66901-2.

South-Western Educational Publishing, 5101 Madison Road,
Cincinnati, Ohio 45227. (South-Western is a division
of International Thomson Publishing Inc.)

Good Textbooks That May Be
Useful in Grades 7, 8 and 9

Lawrence S. Lerner

The two textbooks constituting South-Western's Science Probe series are adaptations of books that were developed in Canada by ITP Nelson. ITP Nelson (which was known as Nelson Canada until 1996) is based in Scarborough, Ontario, and claims to be "the largest Canadian owned educational publisher." Like South-Western, it is a part of International Thomson Publishing Inc.

The Science Probe books offer what is commonly called integrated science, though South-Western calls it "coordinated" science. South-Western's promotional brochure for these books says:

We're leading the way into science reform with this two-year coordinated science curriculum. The future in science education is here now . . . only from South-Western Science. . . .

Coordinated science means "every science, every year" . . . a refreshing way to teach and a more meaningful way to learn. In this approach, the four disciplines -- Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Earth/Space Science -- are connected within the units. Science Probe has captured this approach in a two-year curriculum primarily for 9th and 10th grade students. . . . Science Probe I and II provide for a two-year, high school science requirement.

Two Questions

We can ignore the assertion that South-Western is the only publisher offering integrated science, but two other claims in the promotional brochure invite examination. Is integrated (or coordinated) science really the "future in science education"? And are the Science Probe books really appropriate for use in high schools?

Traditionally, science has been taught in American middle schools and high schools as a sequence of discrete subjects -- life science, earth-and-space science, and physical science (in grades 7 through 9), and then biology, chemistry, and physics (in grades 10 through 12). During recent years, much has been said and written about the purported advantages of integrating life science, earth-and-space science, and physical science into a single subject, which would be taught over several years. This approach is no novelty. It has been used in most European countries for a long time.

Now that nearly all the states of the Union are composing subject-matter standards, the choice between the traditional system and the integrated system has become urgent: Which one shall the states incorporate into their standards for science education? Each approach has its advocates, but as a matter of hard fact, nearly all the states that have adopted standards have embraced the traditional system. To the best of my knowledge, the only exception is West Virginia -- and West Virginia's standards are so muddled and so poorly written that they cannot be taken as a fair model of the integrated system. (See my report State Science Standards, in which I have evaluated the standards developed by 36 states. The report -- available on the Internet at http://www.edexcellence.net -- was published in March by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.)

The committee that was charged with developing California's science standards considered the integrated approach, but that effort was nipped in the bud by one of the committee's members, the Nobel laureate Glenn T. Seaborg. Seaborg (who had the ear of the governor) promised that if the integrated approach were accepted, he would write a dissenting report and would surely prevail. The committee then adopted a "focus" approach, in which the traditional sequence was preserved but some links among the various sciences were mooted at each grade level.

Aside from tradition, there is another factor that weighs against the integrated approach. Many teachers are simply not prepared to teach all the sciences -- especially the physical sciences -- proficiently.

Hence it is difficult to credit South-Western's claim that integrated science represents the "future in science education."

Now, what about South-Western's attempt to position the Science Probe textbooks as high-school books? This attempt raises two issues. First: If high-school students were to study integrated science in both grade 9 and grade 10, they would not be able to begin the biology-chemistry-and-physics sequence until they reached grade 11 -- and for college-bound, scientifically inclined students, this would create real difficulties. Second: The Science Probe books seem more suitable for middle-school students than for high-school students. My overall appraisal of these books is that they are good middle-school texts -- better, in terms of both presentation and scientific accuracy, than almost all the middle-school books that I have reviewed heretofore. Integrated-science courses based on the Science Probe books can serve as useful precursors to, but not as substitutes for, the high-school science courses that students have traditionally taken in grades 10 through 12. In the analysis that follows, therefore, I shall consider the Science Probe books for use in grades 7 and 8 or in grades 8 and 9.

There is much good in these books, but there are significant faults as well. Let me start with the good:

Both books offer text written in clear, literate English by writers who understand their subject matter. The sidebars make sense, for the most part, and usually are relevant to the text that they accompany. Many of the experiments and other projects presented in the "Activity" boxes can serve as fruitful learning experiences; relatively few of the "Activity" items are mere busy-work or contain unanswerable questions. And many of the problems, though not all, seem useful. Here is one example, typical of the best:

A student combed his hair and then brought the comb near some sawdust. At first, the sawdust was attracted to the comb. Then, after touching the comb, it was repelled. Explain these observations. [volume II, page 49]

A student who can answer this question has learned quite a lot about electrostatics.

In almost all cases, the writers show respect for numbers -- that is, the values given for physical quantities are almost always realistic.

The pedagogy is generally appropriate for students in grades 7, 8 or 9, but I noticed some pedagogic inconsistency when I compared the two volumes. The chemistry and geology presented in volume II are slightly but significantly more advanced than the chemistry and geology in volume I, but the biology in the second volume is no more sophisticated than the biology in the first.

Each volume has a useful glossary -- a rarity in science books at this level.

Some chapters are outstanding in their clarity and usefulness. Examples from volume I include chapter 10 ("Fitness and Health: A Way of Life") and chapter 14 ("The Stars"). The latter has a fine, semiquantitative exposition of the use of triangulation in measuring stellar distances. Another exceptional passage appears in chapter 15 ("Exploring the Universe"): Here the writers use a good analogy -- based on comparisons between geographical distances and the thickness of a sheet of paper -- to convey the relative magnitudes of various astronomical distances.

The writers' treatment of energy in volume I is not rigorous, but it is good. Read, for example, these paragraphs from the "Review" at the end of chapter 18:

There are many forms of energy: sound energy, light energy, mechanical energy, gravitational energy, magnetic energy, thermal energy, chemical energy, nuclear energy, electrical energy, and elastic energy.

• There are two classes of energy: potential energy and kinetic energy.

Would that all textbooks did as well in making the distinction between forms of energy and classes of energy -- a distinction that confuses so many students unnecessarily!

Turning to volume II, I find exceptional work in chapter 3 ("Static and Current Electricity"), chapter 5 ("Using Electricity in Your Home"), chapter 12 ("Geological Time") and chapter 13 ("Earthquakes and the Earth's Interior"). Chapter 5 explains many things that everyone should know but almost no one does. (How can you get both 120 volts and 240 volts from the same three-wire line? How does a ground-fault circuit-breaker work? When you plug in a lamp, why should the outer shell of the socket be connected to the neutral wire?) Chapter 12 has a remarkably comprehensive survey of geological dating methods, and it really conveys the difficult concept of geological time. Chapter 13 considers both practical and theoretical aspects of earthquake waves, and the writers clearly distinguish S waves from P waves. They also come within an ace of explaining how we know that Earth's inner core is solid and its outer core is liquid, but they don't quite get there. This is a pity, because two more paragraphs would have done the trick.

Chapter 16 of volume II is a straightforward and good exposition of reproduction in eukaryotes, including humans, and the writers tell explicitly that "During intercourse [in humans], . . . semen is delivered through the urethra from the penis into the vagina." Their material about contraception is explicit, too, but it has been relegated to an exercise at the end of the chapter:

There are several methods available for preventing pregnancy, that is, methods of birth control. Select one of the methods listed below and do research to determine (a) what is involved in using the method, (b) why it works, and (c) its effectiveness. . . . Present your findings to the class in the form of a poster or a pamphlet, or in some other way. Some commonly used methods of birth control are contraceptive pills, condoms, spermicides, intrauterine devices (IUDs), the rhythm method, and diaphragms.

Volume II also has information about sexually transmitted diseases, but it appears in chapter 15, "The Cell," and it thus precedes the material about sex. The writers offer this advice:

There is much less risk of getting an STD if proper precautions are taken. Here are some ways to protect yourself:

Abstain from sexual activity. That is the only absolutely safe way.

• If you are sexually active, a condom is always necessary. Since some STDs show no symptoms, you have no way of knowing whether or not your partner is infected. . . .

• Do not allow semen to enter the vagina or anus.

• Drug users are at special risk and must never share a needle or syringe, . . . .

• Remember that drugs and alcohol make people less cautious so that they may not take the necessary precautions.

All this is excellent advice indeed, but I hope that students have already seen it. It should be presented to students in, say, the 6th grade, before any significant number of them have started to experiment with sexual activity or drugs.

Omissions and Errors

The weaknesses of the Science Probe books include a number of structural or conceptual defects:

Now let me list some particular errors that I have noticed, mostly in volume I.


Despite all those weaknesses, the Science Probe books are far superior to most of the middle-school books that I've reviewed in The Textbook Letter. The writers have a generally good grasp of the subject matter that they are trying to teach, and it shows.

Are these books acceptable for use in jurisdictions that have chosen an integrated approach to science instruction? I can only answer by saying: Caveat emptor. If a teacher is prepared to cope with the books' faults and to warn students about the errors that the books contain, the Science Probe series may be useful. Even in such a case, however, I would prefer to see students using books that paid more attention to quantitative matters and that did not ignore the most basic principles of the physical and biological sciences.

Returning to the "Biology"
That We Saw in the 1970s

William J. Bennetta

Seen in the light of evolution, biology is, perhaps, intellectually the
most satisfying and inspiring science. Without that light it becomes
a pile of sundry facts -- some of them interesting or curious but making
no meaningful picture as a whole.

Theodosius Dobzhansky (in his renowned article "Nothing in
Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution," which
appeared in The American Biology Teacher for March 1973)

During the 1970s and 1980s, most of the high-school biology texts and middle-school life-science texts printed in this country offered a mangled, bogus form of "biology" that reflected the religious doctrines and demands of fundamentalists. Corrupt publishers -- e.g., Addison-Wesley, D.C. Heath and Company, the Macmillan Publishing Company, and Holt, Rinehart and Winston -- issued books which strictly concealed the fact that modern biology is a coherent science unified by the central concept of organic evolution. The books said nothing of evolution or the history of life on Earth, or they buried those topics under mounds of double-talk, equivocation and falsehood.

In many cases, the schoolbook-writers went out of their way to teach students that scientific statements about the history of life were nothing more than speculations. For example, Heath Life Science (1984) depicted the ancient dinosaurs as mere figments in which "Some scientists believe," and Scott, Foresman Life Science (1987) taught that no one knew whether ichthyosaurs and pterosaurs had really existed.

Some writers made vague allusions to evolution while replacing the word evolution with false synonyms, such as development or natural selection or even environmental change. Others mentioned evolution explicitly, but they presented it as an eccentric "theory" left over from the 19th century, and they taught that a theory was just an idle notion or belief. Still other writers -- like the ones who cobbled up Laidlaw's Experiences in Biology (1981) or Holt, Rinehart and Winston's Holt Science series (1986) -- rejected evolution entirely. They didn't mention the word, they didn't refer to the concept, and they categorically excluded the biology of the 20th century.

In the late 1980s, however, the major schoolbook-publishers sensed a demand for biology textbooks and life-science textbooks that would present some real science. Since then, they have undertaken -- with greater or lesser success -- to produce lots of new books which include conspicuous passages about evolution and the evolutionary histories of important lineages. Some of today's biology books even tell explicitly that evolution is biology's central organizing concept.

In South-Western's pair of Science Probe textbooks, we observe a return to the 1970s. South-Western's writers, evidently intent on pandering to fundamentalists, have excluded the idea of organic evolution from these books and have shunned any effort to teach real biology. They have merely made some haphazard efforts to cover some biological topics, and the results are aptly described by Theodosius Dobzhansky's phrase "a pile of sundry facts -- some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole."

The zealous avoidance of evolution is particularly conspicuous in chapter 12 of Science Probe II, where the writers present a short passage about fossils. "Every period in the Earth's history," they say, "appears to have had its own characteristic collection of life forms. The fossils of these organisms provide important clues to finding the relative and absolute ages of rock layers."

The sentence about "Every period in the Earth's history" is silly and misleading. The writers don't know, or don't want to tell, that the periods are associated with characteristic complements of fossils because scientists have used fossils to define and delimit the periods. That every period is linked to "its own characteristic collection of life forms" is not a puzzle, is not a matter of chance, and is not something that merely "appears" to be so.

But what makes the entire passage ridiculous is that the writers refuse to acknowledge any modern interpretation of the fossil record, refuse to acknowledge any genealogical connections among the organisms of different periods, and imply that each period's "characteristic collection of life forms" originated de novo. If I were asked to cite a few examples of how unscrupulous writers turn important science into mystery-mush when they pander to creationists, I would certainly include the Science Probe passage about fossils.

In one of its ads for the Science Probe series, South-Western says that these books are "Aligned With The Science Education Reform Movement." The company does not provide any evidence to support that claim, and I myself am not aware of any "Science Education Reform Movement" which seeks deliberately to reduce biology to an unorganized mass of facts, or which denies that the Darwinian revolution ever occurred.

I can't imagine that any honest teacher would consider using these books, and I see no need to say any more about them.

Lawrence S. Lerner is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at California State University, Long Beach. His specialties include condensed-matter physics, the history of science, and science education.

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.


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