Toward a More Open Science Curriculum

There was a very interesting article in the New York Times entitled High Schools to Cultivate Interest.  The article focused in on a school district that is experimenting with “redefining traditional notions of a college-preparatory education and allowing students to pursue specialized interests that once were relegated to after-school clubs and weekend hobbies.”  As one student, who was interviewed for the article said:

It’s letting people learn about what they love rather than dictating what they should be learning.

In the case reported in the article students can take courses such as cardio fitness, advanced Java programming and Mandarin.  Other schools are expanding their curriculum as well, adding business and entertainment courses, courses in investment and accounting and sports.  

Curriculum design has been impacted enormously by the recent No Child Left Behind Act.  Schools felt they had to reign in variety and choice in curriculum, and have students regimented to a strict curriculum that included courses in the core areas of the curriculum.

An interesting implication of a school curriculum that gives students more choices in courses electives is to apply this principle to the way we look at the organization of the science curriculum.  How can student choice be built into the content of the science curriculum?  Are students capable of choosing content that is relevant and important, not only toward understanding science, but toward building up confidence and interest in science.

More to come….

Human Side of Science: The ScienceDebate 2008 Conference

Last week, ScienceDebate 2008 held a conference at the University of Minnesota.  The conference was the result of a grass roots campaign hoping to engage Barack Obama and John McCain in a real debate on science and technology.  That conference never happened, although each candidate answered 14 questions posed by the ScienceDebate 2008 organizers. 

ScienceDebate 2008 interviewed many scientists, and posted videos in which the candidates were urged to participate in a live debate.  As I said, it never happened.  Here is an example of a video invitation, this one by Dr. Peter Agre, Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, Bloomberg School of Public Health; Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2003. 


However, on October 20 – 21, the organizers held a national conference to explore some of the problems that the next president should be aware of.  Sessions were held on Innovation, Education, Health, News & Culture, Energy, and keynote speech by Peter Agre on the human side of science.

Your students might be interested in sharing this resource with your students. It will give them an idea of what a conference is like that brings together science educators, politicians, and scientists exploring and discussing science and technology, and what the next president might consider important in these realms.

I thought Dr. Agre’s keynote speech was interesting.  If you click on the image shown below, you can listen to Dr. Agre’s keynote speech: The Human Side of Science.


Project-Based Science Instruction

The focus of the November issue of The Science Teacher is Project-Based Science (PBS), and it includes several articles written by science teachers and researchers.  In addition to articles on the theory underlying PBS, there are three articles that focus on specific classroom examples of projects: How Do Geckos Stick?; The Herpetology Project; and Investigating Invasives.

For many years I have worked with colleagues on Internet-based PBS, and have found that involving students in investigative activities with students in other cultures can have powerful consequences.  This work has been summarized in various publications, including Teaching Students to Think Globally and Environmental Science on the Net: The Global Thinking Project.

In our work we saw problem-based science as an authentic model of teaching in which students planned, implemented and evaluated learning activities that have real-world contexts, and applications.  In this sense, these kinds of projects depart from traditional science curriculum efforts which typically lack real-world contexts, resulting in many students being turned off to science.  Context-based or science-technology-society (STS) are the basis for our approach to PBS, and indeed underscore our efforts a humanizing science teaching. 

There are many examples of project-based science teaching.  Here are some that I think you might find helpful, and worth pursuing.

iEARN: The International Education and Resource Network (iEARN) is a global network of educators that enables youth to use the Internet and other resources to engage in collaborative projects that in words of iEARN, “enhance learning, and make a difference in the world.”  

Investigating and Questioning Our World Through Science and Technology.  This site investigates middle school science curriculum materials based on PBS.

Project-Based Learning Projects at WestEdRTEC.  The consortium has identified many projects such as the Human Disease Project, Online Science-athon, & Science Fair Projects. 

Web-Based Projects, including Hurricane Katrina, Project Ozone, and Mission to the Blue Planet

Should Student (Science) Test Scores be used to evaluate teachers?

I ask this as a question, rather than making it a declarative statement.  But I was prompted to write about this topic based on a lead article in yesterday’s USA Today entitled Teachers take test scores to the bank as bonuses. The author described some examples of school districts offering bonuses to teachers if their students’ test scores improve or they work in “hard-to-staff” schools.

There is a link in the article in which you can read opinions of people who read the article. Readers were asked: Should teachers’ pay be linked to students’ scores? After reading the first ten responses, you’ll see that the readers have a definite opinion.  Does it agree with you opinion?

But lets explore the basic premise of the idea of linking student test scores to teacher performance. Is an increase in student achievement from the beginning of the year to the end of the year “direct” evidence tha the teacher did a good job.  Or, if student achievement decreased, can we say the teacher did not do such a good job?

The evidence from research shows that the best indicators of student achievement are the preparation teachers have and their level of certification.  Research also supports the notion that investments that made in the service of teachers also are connected to student achievement (See Linda Darling-Hammond: Teacher Quality and Student Achievement: A Review of State Policy Evidence).  There other research studies that show that trying to link teacher variables with student achievement result in very weak or now difference in student achievement.  Go to Google Scholar, and type in “student achievement teacher performance” and you will find a string of studies that don’t support the USA article.

We ought to be asking, How do students learn?  What do we know about classrooms and teaching that impact student learning?  What about the experiential knowledge that the teacher brings to the classroom?Can what students learn be determined with the kinds of tests that used in these examples?

Most of the thinking surrounding linking student achievement and teacher performance reflects very old thinking.  The underlying theory is based on B. F. Skinner’s behavioral theory of operant conditioning. Reinforcement, punishment and reward are part of its lexicon.

Supported by more than 30 years of research, our understanding of how students learn has turned away from a strict behavioral approach, and instead been supplanted by social constructivist views of learning, starting with John Dewey, and including the ideas of Jerome Bruner, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Ernst von Glasersfeld. Ideas from these theorists form the basis for The Art of Teaching Science.  In this view, students construct knowledge of science through interaction with the environment and as members of a community of learners.  The view that knowledge can be poured into the heads of students directly has gone and been replaced by more compelling views that learning is a more complex phenomenon and can not be measured by simple achievement tests.  Suggesting that teacher performance can be tied to a test score supposes that learning is fundamentally behavioral, rather can a social constructivist idea.

What is your view on this issue?

A (Crude) Oil Lesson

Gas prices are down in the $2 range, and Thomas Friedman says that it leaves him with mixed feelings.  In his bi-weekly New York Times column today, he reminded us that when gas prices went beyond $4, Americans changed a lot—drove less, polluted less, exercised more, used more public transportation, and there was lots of talk about hybrid and electric cars.  It also caused politicians to respond and give various solutions to the “oil” problem.  All seemed to suggest that the USA needs to be energy independent.  Others suggest that we need to drill (drill baby drill) off shore and in Alaska.  Others suggested we needed to be weened off of our addiction to oil, and develop “alternative” energy sources.  What do your students think needs to be done?  Of those who drive cars, what did they think when they were paying more than $4 a gallon for gas?  

One of the comments we typically hear is that we need to become less dependent on oil that comes from the Middle East (and other parts of world as well).  But I think the emphasis, and common lore, is the Middle East. And, the USA does import a lot of oil.  According to the US Energy Information Administration, the US imports about 10 million barrels of oil per day.  Do you know which country provides us the most amount of oil?  Is that country:

  1. Saudi Arabia
  2. Russia
  3. Nigeria
  4. U.K.
  5. None of these

If you selected #5, none of these, you would be correct.  The US imports more than 2.1 million barrels of oil per day from Canada, where as we import 1.5 million barrels from Saudia Arabia.  In fact, when you examine the data of the top 15 importers more carefully, the US imports more than 5.4 million barrels of oil from the Americas (Canada, Mexico, Venezuela), and only 2.3 million barrels from the Middle East (Saudi Araba, Iraq, Kuwait).  Put another way, 23% of our imports come from the Middle East, the rest comes from the Americas, U.K., Africa, and Russia.  

Is this data surprising to you?  How did your students react?