Acoustical Society of America
ASA/EAA/DAGA '99 Meeting
Lay Language Papers

Acoustics: A Route to Science Literacy in the 21st Century

Thomas D. Rossing - Rossing@physics.niu.ed
Physics Department, Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, IL 60115
Popular version of paper 1pED10
Presented Monday afternoon, March 15, 1999
ASA/EAA/DAGA '99 Meeting, Berlin, Germany

In American education, two trends have been apparent during the second half of the 20th Century: the disappearance of acoustics from physics curricula and the decline in the percentage of students who take physics, both in schools and universities. If you are diligent enough in gathering data, it is easy to make meaningless correlations, such as the high correlation found between the number of Republicans in the Congress and sunspots during the past century. However, I happen to believe that there is at least some causal relationship between the disappearance of once popular subjects, such as sound and light, from physics curricula in our universities and the general feeling in our society that physics is too difficult and uninteresting for the average student.

Many high school teachers are recognizing the appeal of sound, and featuring it in their high school physics courses. I bring extra copies of Echoes to meetings of high school teachers, and they are enthusiastically picked up (and read). The ASA Technical Committee on Musical Acoustics has organized several successful workshops on teaching acoustics for high school teachers. Teachers who participated in these workshops went home with both hardware and software they could use in their classes. At these workshops, teachers assembled apparatus for acoustics laboratory and demonstration experiments using pre-cut materials supplied.

Some educators consider science in elementary classrooms as the most important (and until recently, the most neglected) vehicle for increasing science literacy in our society. There is a groundswell of support for improving elementary science education in the United States (and elsewhere), and the acoustical societies ought to be intimately involved in this movement. The numbers of elementary schools is so large, however, that I doubt whether a substantial impact can be made by volunteers alone. Several series of workshops in acoustics for elementary teachers have been held in various parts of the United States, including workshops in Maryland (by Richard Berg) and in Indiana (by Uwe Hansen).

Since the time of Pythagoras, if not before, demonstration experiments have been used by teachers to illustrate acoustical phenomena and important acoustical principles, and to arouse curiosity about the science of acoustics. We owe much to Michael Faraday, who established a rich tradition of lecture demonstrations at the Royal Institution in London. Such stalwarts as John Tyndall and Charles Wheatstone frequently illustrated their Friday evening public lectures at the Institution with demonstrations experiments, and lecturers such as Lissajous came from other countries to give lectures on acoustics. Many demonstration experiments of Faraday, Tyndall, Wheatstone, and others are described in two books published by the Institute of Physics: Michael Faraday and the Royal Institution by John M. Thomas (IOP Publishing, Bristol, 1991) and The Art and Science of Lecture Demonstration by Charles Taylor (IOP Publishing, Bristol, 1988).

Although some people are questioning the value of teaching by the lecture method these days, I believe that what they are really questioning is "chalk and talk" lecturing. Lecture demonstrations are as valuable as ever, I feel, in teaching the concepts of acoustics. They rate just below hands-on laboratory experience as a tool for understanding acoustical phenomena. More high school students than ever are experiencing demonstration experiments, thanks in part to enthusiasm of high school teachers who are active in the American Association of Physics Teachers and such activities as the PTRA program and local alliances of high school teachers, college and university teachers, and others interested in physics education. Some of these alliances in such places as Detroit and Chicago have been active for 25 years, but hundreds of others have come about during the past decade. Many of them publish regular newsletters which are rich sources of ideas for demonstration experiments.

Laboratory activity, scheduled or unscheduled, should be associated with every acoustics course. "I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; I do, I understand." Acoustics experiments appeal to most students. Acoustics experiments should be a part of intermediate and advanced laboratories in physics.