Why Johnny Thinks E=mc3

Education: The problem, one critic says, lies with science textbooks. They stink.

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SCIENCE IN THE DOLDRUMS
Physicist John Hubisz shows off one of countless errors he's discovered in middle school science textbooks. In this illustration, the equator is shown running through Florida. It actually runs more than 1,500 miles to the south.

Far too many of America's middle school science textbooks are just abominable. In recent years, some have featured maps that show the equator running through the southern United States, photos that don't match their captions, and misstatements of major laws of physics. Safety instructions for experiments (such as the use of protective glasses) are sometimes provided in the text but then ignored in accompanying illustrations. For decades, physicist John Hubisz of North Carolina State University in Raleigh has been campaigning to improve the texts, with little success. He now hopes to make some headway with a new Web site that reviews textbooks and posts their errors for all to see.

The site is necessary, he contends, because publishers aren't taking the issue seriously. He says he's written letters pointing out mistakes, only to find the same errors reprinted in subsequent editions.

Part of the problem may lie in the way schoolbooks are purchased. It's often handled at the state level, where politics is more important than quality of books. Individual districts face a choice of buying books with money from their own budget or ordering the state-purchased books at no cost.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is trying to improve science education under a program called Project 2061. "Middle school math (textbooks) are pretty good," says Mary Koppal, communications director for Project 2061. "But in science, it's just bad news all across the board." Working with educators and publishers, the project has been putting together its own science textbooks that will be tested in schools soon.

In the meantime, Hubisz hopes his Web site will not only warn teachers of errors, but also become a forum in which they can exchange ideas. Says Hubisz: "We'd like them to know that there are a lot of other teachers who are in the same boat."

-Harald Franzen