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Required essays in a physics class

In my search for signs of serious writing instruction in America high schools, I have stumbled across a rare creature: a physics teacher in Fairfax County who makes everyone in his honors classes enter a national science essay contest.

The 67-year-old West Springfield High School instructor, Ed Linz, is unconventional in other ways. He is a retired naval officer who once commanded a ballistic missile submarine. He was an All-Met Coach of the Year in cross country. He had a heart transplant 16 years ago. (When I asked how that was going, he said, “I woke up this morning.”) He wrote a book, “Life Row,” about the experience and does a weekly column for a newspaper in Spokane, Wash.

Teachers with dynamite résumés are not uncommon in the Washington area. Like Linz, they don’t take any nonsense from me. When I gushed over the writing he was teaching his students, and mentioned my view that all schools should require major essays, he said that showed how naive I was about demands on teachers’ time.

I think public high school students need to write a serious research paper before they graduate. Private schools insist on it. Students who do the International Baccalaureate program write 4,000-word essays, and many say it was their most satisfying academic experience. But Linz snorts at the notion of essays for all.

“I cannot imagine how any high school teacher with five classes can do a 4,000-word project,” he said. “To be done even semi-correctly, the teacher would have to do virtually nothing else for much of the year.”

Still, Linz has had success requiring his honors physics students to enter the DuPont Challenge, an annual competition requiring a researched 1,000-word science essay. I have never encountered a science teacher who insists on a major writing project, but it works for Linz. He likes the essay contest much better than the science fair. To him, competing experiments mean stacks of liability forms and debates about outside help. “I got tired of judging parents’ work,” Linz said.

He has no honors classes this year, but last year he had three. “We began by choosing appropriate topics in late October,” he said, “and then worked our way through at least three drafts before submitting the documents in late January. This assignment consumed at least half of my outside-of-class time for the second quarter of school to assess the work and four full class periods to discuss the papers with the students.” Having students do much of the work in class reduced the parental over-involvement he found with science fairs.

Like IB essay writers, Linz’s students groan about the high standard they are forced to meet but eventually admit it was good for them. Topics are as varied as why there are no square drums and why botox is more than a beauty treatment. Five Linz students have received DuPont honorable mentions in the past three years, more than in any other high school in the United States or Canada, he said.

“The real benefit for high school students is to sit with the teacher and receive critical feedback,” he said.

Exactly. I want Linz, who solved much more daunting organizational problems as a nuclear sub officer, to design a way to make that happen for everybody in high school.
If we increased class sizes for courses that did not require research papers and freed time for teachers with writing skill to meet with students as they wrote their successive drafts, it might work. Linz has handled a heavy load of writing students even though he is older than even I am and on his second heart.

Good writing is crucial to success in the era of the keyboard. High schools should teach it.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | October 13, 2010; 9:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  Dupont Challenge essay contest, Ed Linz, Fairfax County Va., Linz rejects Mathews call for essays for all, West Springfield High School, physics teacher requires essay writing  
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This great idea spawns a similar one: how about having algebra and geometry students write papers at the beginning, middle, and end of the year reflecting on the value of mathematics to them and culture/society. Since we don't always provide an opportunity to students to understand the context of a course in the world,school, and the student's life, this would be a valuable exercise.

Posted by: JDunning | October 13, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

When is the last time you wrote a 4,000 word essay? I believe that everyone should have excellent writing skills, I don't necessarily agree that writing essays is the answer. Increasing class sizes where there is no essay requirement is not a logical solution. Ever taught a math class where students are struggling? Adding more students is not the answer.

Posted by: 12345leavemealone | October 14, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

Absolutely unbelievable how Jay can take the focus off of a science research paper and use it as an opportunity to advertise (the educational choice of plagiarists around the world), International Baccalaureate.

C'mon Jay! Did you even LOOK at the IB EE grades I sent you from my HS? Did you? Deplorable! You keep touting IB's EE as though it is the be all and end all of education. Less than 8% of any IB graduating class even writes one! It's a joke! The IB program is an outrageously expensive UN scam and you are its #1 snakeoil salesman. Shame on you!

Posted by: lisamc31 | October 14, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

I could see requiring this if the papers are about physics, but as a parent, I got tired of school assignments that had little or nothing to do with the subject that was supposed to be taught. Art projects in math classes and reading projects in music classes are not a good use of a kid's time in school. I expected my kid to get math instruction in math class, and music instruction in music class, but this is apparently a radical notion in today's public schools.

Posted by: owlice | October 14, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

for lisamc31---If my choice is 8 percent writing an essay under IB, or nobody writing an essay without IB, I will choose IB. Just a spark can start a prairie fire, as the saying goes. Once you have a few kids doing essays in a school, there is a chance it will catch on. Right now almost NO public schools require major research papers. That is not good.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 14, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

To Jay - Remind me never to go camping with you. ;-)

Why should our well-paid, union public school teachers need IB in order to assign a term/research paper? How is it when I went to high school teachers were able to assign term papers, students were able to go to the library to research for the papers and then went home and typed them on a manual typewriter?

In 40 years, our schools have been so dumbed down as a result of Progressive ideology many are intellectually bankrupt. This needs to be turned around and the way to turn it around is NOT by buying a foreign designer label elitist program that only benefits a very few, but is paid for by ALL. No. Local school boards need to demand that their teachers be held to higher standards for ALL students. Negotiate those standards as part of their contracts. Our teachers don't have a contract right now, poor babies. Every Tuesday is "black and white" day. It's disgusting. No accountability, no responsibility, fail to deliver education in a manner that enables students to PASS advanced exams and whine about no contract in this economic environment.

IB is a bandaid on a necrotic flesh eating disease. Your "trickle down" (or forest fire from a spark) theory only leads to mold in the basement and charred ashes.

Posted by: lisamc31 | October 14, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

I want you to know that I AGREE with you that research/term papers are an important component of HS. They are. In fact, I can still remember all these years later what I wrote about:

Biology - Huntington's Chorea

Social Studies - The Confederate Papers

English - A Study of Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Latin - (written in Latin) - The Iliad (focus on the Sirens)

My favorite English teacher was a graduate of Oxford. He was Dutch actually, Mr. Van SantVoord. (See how internationallyminded I am?) He was phenomenal. Strict as strict could be. He had this godawful combover that would flop over his eyes and he would try to blow it away, several times, before giving it a grand swipe back with his hand. He demanded perfect grammar. We diagrammed sentences till we wanted to scream. Teachers today don't teach grammar. They don't teach diagramming sentences. They don't even know how to use the Dewey Decimal system. IB doesn't fix any of that - and without the BASICS, you can never achieve proficient critical thinking or writing. Then these kids get to college and all of the professors think they should have been TAUGHT those basics long ago. Your IB method overwhelms these kids with ONE stupid paper on a subject they get to CHOOSE while having their hands held by the EE Coordinator.

The assignment of a major essay paper should be required across subjects (with the exception of Math) spread throughout HS. It should become something that is rewarding to the student, but also something that while requiring work, is as expected as homework and not something "out of the ordinary".

Posted by: lisamc31 | October 14, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse


(just a sampling of how IB messes with our English ;-))

Posted by: lisamc31 | October 14, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Writing accross the curriculum is assumed at my university, even in Math. It is more difficult in HS, but could be coordinated between departments.

Posted by: mcstowy | October 14, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

A 1,000 word essay in a physics class describing a physics topic is really not too demanding. Glad to hear that Ed Linz is doing his bit to prepare these students for life beyond high school, presumably in college.

Aiming for submission to a scholarship program is even better!

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | October 14, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

Essays in physics - wonderful. There should be essays in physics and other science classes too. The interdisciplinary approach would provide added depth. The political, medical, or other issues in history (or current) propelling scientific advances certainly add interest. Realistically - a battle with students, parents, teachers, and administrators who see clear lines between the disciplines and competing interests (time) amongst them. And how would the papers be graded, having shared stock between two teachers? Oh, but what fun it is, a full and well developed reseach paper, to write and to read.

Why center writing around the DuPont Challenge? If the DuPont Challenge became defunct next year, would Mr. Linz still require an essay? Okay, I'm still holding a grudge against DuPont and its mess of a product, Teflon (C-8), among some other not-so-great gifts to the world. Yes, DuPont does make some fine products among the awful.

However, if Mr. Linz would like to somehow post links to several of the papers that received honorable mentions, I would enjoy reading them.

Wait, I've got it. Scrap the bulk of the standardized test (and prep thereof) and all of their time sucking, money robbing, brain numbing glory, and with this newly carved out chunk of several weeks of the school year, pull that research together and write those papers. Bon appetit.

Posted by: shadwell1 | October 14, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

for lisamc31--- If you know of some other way to get researched essay writing into schools that has actually worked, and has potential to grow, please tell us about it. Many of the readers of this blog are practical people who don't have time for theories on WHY things haven't worked in school, but prefer to hear about what has worked, and how to spread it around.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 14, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

For mcstowy---You are exactly right.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 14, 2010 4:37 PM | Report abuse


You posed a question to lisamc31. If I may answer too...

A decree. The superintendent issues a decree. Immediate and effective (for next year anyway). Weave it into future graduation requirements. The school board must be supportive. I know of a biology teacher that assigned an essay in high school and got plenty of resistance from students and parents. The principal also received plenty of complaints about this assignment, but found the assignment to have merit and thus supported the teacher. Since this was an advanced biology class and the parents had some clout with the superintendent, the easier path would have been to pressure the teacher to back down on the assignment. Surely, such would not be a isolated reaction across high schools. So, especially in this unstable employment environment, most principals would fold and given in to the bothered parents. Plus, some teachers would rather not deal with research papers. Thus, a decree would be most effective - simple and eloquent. Oh, what is that KIPP motto that you so adore? Oh, yes, "no excuses."

Of course, you could assist in this endeavour by using your clout with the Washington Post to urge superintendents and school boards around the country to issue this decree. Gather some support from university professors, especially within the sciences.

Ta-da, researched based essays.

Posted by: shadwell1 | October 14, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

Here's a worthy challenge for Mr Linz's Physics classes: enter an essay on gravity in the 2011 contest sponsored by the Gravity Research Foundation:

Competition is stiff, but there are a lot of nice cash prizes. And if you don't win a cash prize, then you might get an honorable mention. Think how that would look on a college application!

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | October 14, 2010 6:40 PM | Report abuse

I fully support doing substantive research papers in high school. However, the reality is that teachers just don't have the time to support these projects.

This 2002 report gives some insight.

And, of course, in the eight years since this study was done, the number of teachers taking on time-intensive AP classes has soared, allowing even less time for teachers to take on the task of assigning, guiding, and grading student research projects.

Meaty research projects can help students not just research and write, but also develop and clarify personal interests. But research projects, like many other things, seem to have been lost in our "Race to Nowhere," a race which your unswerving advocacy for the College Board's boxed AP curricula has helped intensify.

Posted by: 4post_readers | October 14, 2010 8:49 PM | Report abuse


Agree - the following AP view is that of Eric Mazur, professor of physics at Harvard:

....Well, for a start, we need to rethink entrance exams and/or how advanced placement (AP) records are considered by undergraduate institutions. We should be teaching less, at greater depth, and instruments like the AP exam locks the process of education in place, preventing change from happening. We need to be working more closely with high school teachers in thinking this through; they should be asking us, "what can we do to better prepare our students for your courses,?" and we should be asking them for ideas about how to work with their students who are coming into our introductory level courses and labs. What I find disturbing is that the students who come into my classes with high AP courses think they are entitled to a good grade from me. They are not, generally, interested in doing real physics.

Posted by: shadwell1 | October 14, 2010 9:25 PM | Report abuse

Oh, one more, an article from The Harvard Crimson:

Study: AP Science Courses Are Poor Substitutes for College Work

Posted by: shadwell1 | October 14, 2010 9:34 PM | Report abuse


Exactly right. I had already made that suggestion minus your important inclusion of the Superintendent. Now this:

"Of course, you could assist in this endeavour by using your clout with the Washington Post to urge superintendents and school boards around the country to issue this decree."

... is a fabulous suggestion. Unfortunately, Jay is too busy running around selling IB to Superintendents. (right Jay, weren't you just at the NYS Council of Superintendents?)

4post_readers -

You said:
"However, the reality is that teachers just don't have the time to support these projects."

Why not? What do you mean they don't have time? No time to grade the papers? What baloney!

Posted by: lisamc31 | October 15, 2010 8:06 AM | Report abuse


The way to "spread around" good educational practice, is to encourage local responsibility for the results, not to slap an expensive global hoidy toidy label on a school that is still failing to prepare students to write, research and obtain a broad and solid knowledge base.

Look at Jericho HS compared to Locust Valley HS. Jericho rejected IB and offers in excess of 20 AP courses. Every year, close to 15% of Jericho's graduating class is accepted by the Ivies. I would have to check with my neighbor who is a teacher in Jericho, but I'm sure they assign term papers. I'm sure the quality of the college application essays written by Jericho students blow away those out of Locust Valley. When Locust Valley brought in IB in 2004, the first thing I asked was, "Why weren't the "best practices" of top school districts like Jericho, Manhasset and Cold Spring Harbor investigated before wasting all of this money on IB?"

I never did get an answer to that question.

Posted by: lisamc31 | October 15, 2010 8:20 AM | Report abuse

...the following AP view is that of Eric Mazur, professor of physics at Harvard:
... What I find disturbing is that the students who come into my classes with high AP courses think they are entitled to a good grade from me..."

This is clearly the down side to AP courses. AP students really need to be cautioned that there is no quid pro quo for taking AP courses and achieving a high grade in a college course.

AP courses are like the training for an athletic event. The better you train - and the better the coaching - the more likely you are to score high when it counts ASSUMING a high level of effort.

Other than this, there are no guarantees. Such is life.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | October 15, 2010 8:44 AM | Report abuse


I don't think inflated grades at Harvard has anything to do with AP. Your post reminded me of this article from 2002:

Posted by: lisamc31 | October 15, 2010 9:15 AM | Report abuse


My post wasn't about grade inflation, but about unjustified expectations of entitlement in college courses stemming from high performance in AP courses.

But since you raised the subject of grade inflation in college, I have an opinion about that too since I've often been in the role of job interviewer. GPAs have generally lost all credibility with businesses looking to hire college graduates. As your USA Today article says, with GPAs non-credible job hirers turn to other "metrics" to judge the aptitude of job seekers.

I heard of one Wall Street firm that asks for the SAT cores of Ivy League college grads. That speaks volumes about college GPAs doesn't it?

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | October 15, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

I am a biology teacher who teaches two different levels of biology at the high school level. This year, those are the two lowest levels. There are four levels at our high school: AP, Honors, Academic, and Biology for Life (essentials level). I have taught all but AP. I require my Academic/Honors students to write an extensive essay that requires a good bit of research, pre-planning, review, etc. I have received mixed levels of support from parents and administrators. I agree that writing is an important skill that many students are losing. I also agree it should be required across the curriculum. Students today have a very compartmentalized view of education, as do their parents. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard "This isn't English class" when giving a writing assignment. Since when is communication via the written world solely the province of English class? Students need to have the ability to communicate their ideas effectively in all subject areas. However, I take great issue with the idea that those classes that do not have a writing requirement should be increased in size. My essentials level class contains all the students with the greatest needs in the school who are taking biology. This year, I have several who are mentally retarded, two on probation, and three who have failed biology before at least once. The remainder all have special needs - learning support, emotional support, abuse, etc. Many are not allowed to have an extensive writing assignment due to their disability. These kids are often the overlooked, uncared for student population. Particularly those who are in the class because of social or emotional issues. They need to have a small class size with a teacher who can individually work with them each day. I have 18 students this year and it is honestly a struggle to get to all of them. Their needs are so great. Increasing the class size would be an extreme disservice to these kids. Just because they can't write an essay doesn't mean they don't deserve a quality education. If anything, it is the honors classes that should be larger. At least those kids are somewhat capable of learning on their own.

Posted by: evane1 | October 15, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

Linz is right on track. Students taking these types of courses need to be able to do more than just complex problem solving. It sounds like he is seeking for students to be well-rounded. Good for him!

Clay Boggess

Posted by: clayboggess | October 15, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Linz is to be commended for directing his students to expand their exposure to science by a method directed at also increasing their writing capabilities. This exercise also fulfills a Fairfax County Public School requirement to include a writing element with ALL classes. There are several techniques that can be used to increase the range of students considering science for a career. His is to pique his student’s interest by having them write essays on some development in science, which can stimulate interest by studying such controversies ranging from who discovered calculus to the philosophical implications of the uncertainty principle. By having students research some element of science, and the Dupont contest allows for a wide variety of scientific topics, with past winning essays included, these students have an opportunity to find a topic of interest, research it, and comment on it.
Mr. Linz has also worked to make the process less onerous for the students by allowing class time for the writing process (drafting, polishing, editing and revising) and, although not mentioned here, I assume some of the research. Mr. Linz also took on the onerous task of directing and assessing these essays – no small task. Part of the effort would be to direct his students to such research sources as encyclopedias, scientific journals, and science histories. The length of the essay, 1000 words, only comes to about 4 pages of double spaced 12 point type. By the time most students take physics they should be well versed in such writing, but that is not often the case as SOLs (Standards of Learning) for the social sciences and for English no longer stress this kind of proficiency. These are the subjects in which Mr. Linz and I would have developed this proficiency. This is the sort of skill that is needed for college. Even a science major will find that 50% or more of his classes are in the social sciences and humanities. The one recommendation I pass on to Mr. Linz is to apply this assignment to all his physics classes. Often those to steer away from honors physics are the better writers, and, also, most in need of an intellectual stimulus to “grab them” into seeing the importance of the physical sciences. And I thank Mr. Linz and Mr. Mathews for sharing this idea, as, should I be lucky enough to be hired to teach physics, I intend to apply this assignment to all my students as well as to making the design and creation of a science project a major component of their curriculum.

John Dickert
Mount Vernon Farms

Posted by: 12191946 | October 15, 2010 6:01 PM | Report abuse

You were well led to this instructor. He insists on doing only what he can do well.

When long essays, or research papers are a feature of HS programs, such as "academies", and the supervisor has no time but to wave through poorly done and badly reasoned work, the students arrive at good colleges and universities bewildered to learn their skills are anything but that.

Posted by: incredulous | October 18, 2010 1:57 AM | Report abuse

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