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An exerpt from "Textbooks flunk out"

When science books are put to the test, it's hard to decipher fact from fiction

By David L. Chandler, Globe Staff, 05/17/99


When electrical engineer William Beaty was working on the design of an electricity exhibit for the Boston Museum of Science, he decided to check out some elementary school science textbooks in search of good ways to communicate fundamental concepts on the subject.


Bad idea.

What he found was a morass of misconceptions, mistakes and misinformation in one text after another. Not one of the books, he found, even contained what he considered to be a valid definition of what electricity is, much less how it works. And he discovered something else: Even his own understanding of the subject, despite his years in the profession, was flawed; he was still the victim of deeply-help misconceptions that he had learned in grade school.


''The majority of my misconceptions had been specifically taught to me,'' he said. ''[They] were in my science textbooks long ago, and they were still inmost modern textbooks.''


Unfortunately, what Beaty found is not at all unusual. Scientists and educators say that many of the textbooks used today in US elementary and high schools contain significant errors, fabricated history, erroneous diagrams and misleading explanations. Beaty, in a lengthy Web page he setup to try to dispel scientific misinformation, cites examples of the kind of misleading claims about electricity found in numerous textbooks. For example, many texts describe an electric circuit as consisting of charges that come from a battery, flow through a wire, turn into light inside a bulb, and then flow into the battery's other terminal.


There are several things wrong with that story, Beaty explains. The chargesare already inside the wire, not supplied by the battery, and they are not turned into light; if they were, they couldn't keep flowing. And this version leaves out the connection through the battery, where charges flow through and back out again.


Beaty suggests that a better approach is to use analogies that help clarify the fundamental concepts, such as this: ''A battery or generator is like your heart: it moves blood, but it does not create blood.''


FOR THE COMPLETE ARTICLE:
Search the Globe archives for "Textbooks Flunk Out", in 1999
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