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Fall 2011 Vol. 11 Number 2

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Envisioning A New Path For K-12 Science Education

©Stockbyte/ThinkstockIn recent years many policymakers and organizations — the National Research Council among them — have sounded alarms about the need for better science and engineering education in the United States. But what can actually be done to improve it? What needs to change in American classrooms? A new report from the National Research Council offers a framework to serve as the basis for new K-12 science education standards — one that embodies a significant shift in how science and engineering are taught.

“It has been 15 years since the last science standards were developed, and our understanding — both in terms of science itself and how students learn about it — has progressed a great deal since then,” said Helen Quinn, chair of the committee that wrote the report. “We hope the framework we developed will guide improvements in standards and in science education over many years.”

Currently, the report says, science education in the U.S. tends to place too much emphasis on having students learn an unconnected array of facts, and too little on helping them understand how scientists established those facts. Students need to learn the processes of science, not just the products. The framework describes key practices — for example, engaging in argument from evidence and designing and conducting investigations — that all students should learn and be able to do by the time they graduate high school.

The framework also identifies eight “crosscutting concepts” that students should learn and be involved with over the course of their education. The concepts are ideas that have value across many fields of science and engineering which should become famil iar touchstones to students as they progress from grade to grade, the committee said. By encountering the same ideas in different fields, students can connect knowledge across many disciplines into a coherent, scientific view of the world.

©Ableimages/Photodisc/ThinkstockAs another step toward increasing coherence, the framework also identifies core ideas in each of four disciplinary fields — physical sciences; life sciences; earth and space sciences; and engineering, technology, and the applications of science — that should be the focus of K-12 science education. Examples of core ideas in physical sciences include “matter and its interactions” and “energy,” while the life sciences’ list includes “heredity” and “biological evolution.” Students should revisit the ideas over subsequent grade levels at increasing levels of sophistication.

And if students are to truly understand how science works, all three parts of the framework — the key practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas — need to be integrated, the committee said. For example, students should use the scientific practices, such as conducting an investigation and then interpreting the data, to help them acquire new knowledge about the core ideas.

To implement the framework, 20 states have committed to work with nonprofit education group Achieve to develop new K-12 science education standards, which will describe in detail what students should learn at various grade levels. It will then be up to each state whether to adopt the new standards to guide science education in its public schools.

Although the new standards will be crucial, they are not the only facet of the science education system that needs to change, the report says. Curricula and assessments will need to reflect the ideas and practices laid out in the framework, teachers will need opportunities to deepen their own knowledge, and adequate classroom time will need to be devoted to science education — changes that will not happen overnight, the committee acknowledged. “What we’re prescribing is evolutionary — not revolutionary — change,” Quinn said.
 -- Sara Frueh

A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Committee on a Conceptual Framework for New K-12 Science Education Standards, Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2011, approx. 320 pp.; ISBN 0-309-21742-3; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $39.95 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Helen R. Quinn, professor emerita of physics at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif. The study was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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Copyright 2011 by the National Academy of Sciences