Dr. Jay Wile: Real Science in the Homeschool
An Exclusive TOS Interview by Christine Field
TOS: Dr. Jay, Thank you for being with us today at The Old Schoolhouse Magazine! We look forward to learning about your company, your vision, and you in general. Apologia Science is taking the home schooling community by storm!
Dr. Jay: Is that a good thing? I live in the Midwest. We hate storms!
TOS: Awww, come on! (smiling) Well, to start off, could you tell us a little about your own educational background?
Dr. Jay: I went to public high school and then to the University of Rochester in Rochester, NY, where I received my BS degree (Magna Cum Laude) in chemistry and my Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry. After receiving my Ph.D., I started on the “professor track” at Indiana University where I was an assistant professor of chemistry. I then transferred to Ball State University. Although I was appointed as an assistant professor in the chemistry department, I went there to help design the science curriculum for Indiana’s only residential high school for gifted and talented students. It was called “The Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Humanities.” I taught there for two years and then went back to teaching at the college level, still at Ball State University. I taught both university chemistry and physics courses for the next three years. During that time, we adopted a teenage young woman, and I decided I needed more time to spend with her and more money to spend on her, so I left the university and worked in a medical diagnostic lab for three years. I spent most of my time there developing automated testing and result delivery systems. On January 14, 2000, I stopped working for the medical diagnostic lab and started working full time on Apologia.
TOS: How did you become interested in homeschoolers?
Dr. Jay: After I left the Indiana Academy and went back to teaching at the university level, I began experiencing home educated students for the first time. I really knew nothing about home education, and I even wondered how home educated students got accepted at Ball State University, but I was impressed by what I saw. One day, on my drive into work, I came to the startling realization that my top three students at Ball State were all products of home education. Two of them had been homeschooled K-12, and the other had been homeschooled until high school. I wondered whether or not these three students were “normal” products of home education. To determine the answer to this question, I went to the library to try and find out if there were any studies on the academic abilities of homeschooled students. Well, there were several studies, and they all indicated that as a group, homeschooled students are academically (and socially) superior to their publicly and privately schooled counterparts. This, of course, agreed with my personal experience, so I was quite intrigued. I decided that I wanted to meet some homeschooling parents so that I could learn why they were producing such excellent students when the “experts” in public education could not, so I talked with the Indiana Association of Home Educators. They set up seminars for me to do in which I talked to homeschooling parents about my experiences with homeschooled students, told them how to make their students more attractive to colleges, and gave them general encouragement about their decision to homeschool. During these seminars, parents would always ask me to recommend science curriculum. I did some looking at what was available to homeschoolers, and I did not like what I saw. Either the courses were solid, college-prep courses designed for the school, or dumbed-down silly courses designed for the home. Some home educators asked me to teach a co-op class in chemistry, but I did not like that idea, as I think that the strength of home education lies in the fact that it encourages independent learning. Thus, I told them that if they were interested, I would write them a chemistry course and send it to them chapter-by-chapter. In addition, the students could call me if they had any questions. Before I was even done with the course, people began calling me saying that they had heard about an incredibly user-friendly chemistry course that I had written, and that they wanted to purchase it. That’s how Apologia Educational Ministries, Inc. was born.
TOS: What great encouragement for you! You were clearly led to fill a need in the homeschooling community, for which we are all grateful! So the path you have taken was really born out of personal as well as professional experience. What happened then?
Dr. Jay: Interestingly enough, our life was turned pleasantly upside down the year I was writing the chemistry course, because we adopted the young woman I mentioned previously. She had been “educated” in the public school system all of her life, but we pulled her out of school and homeschooled her for the final two years of her high school education. This year, she graduated from Butler University with a BA in sociology. She plans to get her master’s in social work (MSW) and go into counseling.
TOS: You must be thrilled! You have obviously been a blessing to your daughter-as well as to tons of homeschooling families. Tell us your thoughts on science teaching methods in the United States today. What’s good; what’s lacking?
Dr. Jay: Science teaching methods in the United States vary considerably from school to school as well as from curriculum to curriculum. Some of these methods are very poor, and others are quite good. As a result, we tend to have a “two-tiered” society: those who understand science and those who do not. Although not everyone could (or should) become a scientist, every person should have a reasonable knowledge of the basic principles of science. Let me start with the good things that are going on in science education. First, there are still schools and curricula which hold to strict, college-preparatory guidelines. They require the students to retain information, they require the students to think critically about the information given, and they present the sciences in their full mathematical rigor. These programs adhere to the “old school” of science education, which is the one that produces results. In these schools and curricula, laboratory exercises are an integral part of the course but not the main focus. A truly rigorous science course will always treat the laboratory component of the course as a sidelight that enhances the book learning rather than a focus in and of itself.
The Internet is another very positive aspect of science education in the United States. There are “Ask a Scientist” websites where you can ask a scientist to answer a question you have never understood. There are homework help websites where students can get help with their studies. There are even high school and college classes students can take via the Internet.
The last (but probably most important) positive aspect of science education in the United States is the growing movement away from evolution. School systems in Kansas and Ohio are actually questioning whether or not students should be indoctrinated in evolution as part of their public school experience. The “Intelligent Design” movement is making real inroads in both secondary schools and universities. This movement away from evolution in both science and science education is mostly centered in the United States and is a positive development both for the progress of science as well as the effectiveness of science education.
Now let’s go to the negative. As is the case with other subjects, there is a growing trend to dumb-down science. Many are trying to teach “conceptual” science in which the rigor of mathematics is completely ignored. This not only detracts from the science that the students are supposed to be learning, but it also gives a completely unrealistic view of science. I can’t tell you how many students would come into my university chemistry course thinking that they wanted to be chemistry majors because chemistry was so “fun” in high school. However, when these students saw what real chemistry is (in all of its mathematical glory), they quickly changed majors.
The “discovery” approach to science in junior high and high school is another negative trend in science education. In this model, students are continually doing experiments trying to “discover” scientific principles for themselves. The idea is that if they “discover” the principles for themselves, they are more likely to remember those principles. Although this approach can be used in some specific areas of science education (especially in the elementary years), it becomes less and less effective in the junior high and high school years. That’s because the amount of information that the students need to learn in junior high and high school is simply too large. It took us three thousand years to learn science by discovery. Most students just don’t have that kind of time. Along with the “discovery” approach to science education in junior high and high school, there is a disturbing growth in the importance of laboratory work in some programs. The reason, of course, is easy to understand. Lab work is “fun,” while bookwork is “hard.” Thus, to make the students “enjoy” science more, some schools and some curricula spend way too much time on laboratory exercises and not enough time on bookwork.
You might be surprised that a scientist would say something like this, but please understand that it comes from experience as both a scientist and a science teacher. A student must spend the majority of his or her science education doing book work, not lab work. There are three reasons for this. First, it is simply impossible to do classroom experiments that will teach most of what a student needs to learn at the level of rigor that is necessary. Although some scientific principles can be taught in the lab, the majority of subjects in science are simply too detailed to fit into a reasonable high school laboratory framework. Although the quantum-mechanical model of the atom is based on detailed experimental evidence, you simply cannot do a high school experiment that will show the student how to determine electron configurations, a basic step in the quantum mechanical model. Second, lab work takes an enormous amount of time compared to bookwork. Experimentation, data analysis, and reporting of results is a time-consuming process. As a result, it takes a long time to learn just a little in the lab. While doing bookwork, you can learn quite a bit in a short amount of time. Finally, the scientists who developed the science we study today did very little lab work as a part of their secondary (and sometimes college) education. Their science education was mostly bookwork for the vast majority of their schooling, and they seemed to learn science pretty well!
There is one more disturbing trend in science education that I must mention: the “physics first” approach to high school science. In this approach, students are taught physics first, then they are taught chemistry, and then they are taught biology. The reasoning behind this approach is that physics is the most fundamental science, chemistry is built on physics, and biology is built on both chemistry and physics. Thus, some science educators think that students should take physics first as a basis for chemistry. Then, the students can take chemistry, and those two courses will serve as a basis for biology. Although it is true that physics is the most fundamental science, chemistry is built on physics, and biology is built on both chemistry and physics, you cannot effectively teach science that way. First of all, in order to have a proper physics course, a student must know the basic trigonometric functions so that he or she can do vector analysis. Without vector analysis, physics is just an idealized, one-dimensional subject. Thus, to teach physics first, it must be dumbed down by removing the trigonometry. This takes away from the science and gives the student an unrealistic view of what physics is. Second, if you ask a group of students to order the three basic sciences in terms of difficulty, the vast majority of them will say that biology is the easiest, chemistry is harder, and physics is the hardest. When taking physics as their first science course, some students get easily discouraged and decide that they do not like science. As a result, they stop taking it as soon as possible. Some of those students, had they taken biology first, would have “eased into” physics, because they would have been given a “stair-step” approach in terms of difficulty.
TOS:I understand that Apologia Science books are for grades 6 or 7 and above. What do you recommend for the earlier years of science education?
Dr. Jay: I recommend unit studies. I love the KONOS curriculum. If you are not a KONOS user, I like “Considering God’s Creation” by Eagle’s Wings Publications as well as “Developing Critical Thinking Through Science” by Critical Thinking Books and Software. For junior high, there is another homeschool science curriculum that you should look at. It is called “The Rainbow,” and it is produced by Beginning Publishing House. Many students have taken The Rainbow’s junior high courses and then done well in our high school courses.
TOS: So clearly a parent need not feel intimidated by science with all the help available! Can you briefly describe the levels currently available?
Dr. Jay: Our courses start at the seventh grade, which is the first grade in which I think the student should have a structured science course. Prior to seventh grade, I would stress mathematics. I would make science a once-a-week or once-every-other-week activity based on unit studies. The seventh grade course is a general science course in which the student is introduced to the methodology of science, creating and analyzing experiments, the difference between science and technology, the science of history, archaeology, fossils, creation/evolution, biological classification, and the human body. The eighth grade course is a physical science course that covers air, the atmosphere, water, the hydrosphere, earth, the lithosphere, weather, the basic laws of motion, the basic forces in Creation, the solar system, and some basics about the universe. The ninth grade course is a biology course. It is a rigorous, college-preparatory course that requires a great deal from the student. It requires the memorization of about twenty-five vocabulary words every two weeks, and it requires the student to retain the information he or she learns. It is a survey of the five kingdoms in Creation, concentrating on cellular biology and genetics. Human anatomy and physiology are specifically not covered in the course, as they are not considered college-prep topics.The tenth grade course is a rigorous, college-prep chemistry course that covers thermochemistry, chemical formulas, nomenclature, the mole concept, stoichiometry, models of the atom, molecular structure, kinetics, thermodynamics, equilibrium, acid/base reactions, and reduction/oxidation reactions. It is very mathematical in nature. Students must have completed Algebra 1 to take the course. The eleventh grade course is a rigorous, college-prep physics course. It is also very mathematical, covering kinematics, Newton’s Laws, vector analysis, energy, momentum, harmonic motion, waves, electromagnetism, electrical potential, and basic circuit analysis. The student needs to have seen the three basic trig functions and how they are defined on a right triangle to take this course. Some math courses cover that near the end of geometry; Saxon covers it in Algebra 2. In twelfth grade, the student gets a choice. He or she chooses the subject that he or she most enjoyed and takes an advanced course in it. When combined with the first-year course, the advanced course “fills in the gaps” and completes the first year of college in that subject. Thus, if the student takes biology and advanced biology, the student has covered everything that is covered in a first-year college biology course. This is called an “AP” (Advanced Placement) course. In other words, two years of the subject with our curriculum gives the student an AP course in that subject.
TOS: The people who I know who use your books absolutely rave about them. I have heard it confirmed time and time again that the programs speak to the student and are wonderfully understandable. Where can we purchase the Apologia Science books and learn more about the program?
Dr. Jay: You can call us toll-free at 888-524-4724 to get a free catalog. You can also visit us online at www.highschoolscience.com. The website has tables of contents for each course as well as a free sample of each course.
You can also look for us at your local homeschool conference, as we visit several conferences a year. In addition, over one hundred homeschool retailers carry our product. If your local Christian bookstore has a “Homeschool Headquarters” in it, you can also find our materials there.
TOS: What a wealth of information about you, your books, and your approach! We want to take the opportunity to thank you for your work. Your books are classics-we can only pray that our children’s children will have the same high quality work available for them when they home school. Thank you for being a blessing!