Project 2061 Launches New Biology Curriculum at AAAS Annual Meeting

Project 2061, AAAS’s long-term science literacy education initiative, launched a new middle school curriculum unit 12 February at the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting. The new unit, called Toward High School Biology (THSB), is aimed at better preparing students to understand the key chemical concepts that are essential to modern biology and ensuring that students transition into high school with an understanding of how science happens in the real world.

The curriculum is one of Project 2061’s most recent endeavors. Since 1985, Project 2061 has led the way in science education reform by first defining adult science literacy in its influential publication Science for All Americans and then specifying what K-12 students need to know in Benchmarks for Science Literacy, which helps educators implement science literacy goals in the classroom; the AAAS Science Assessment website with more than 700 middle school test items; and WeatherSchool @ AAAS, an online resource where students can use real-world data to learn about the fundamental principles of weather and climate.

More than 25 teachers and 2,000 students from Colorado, Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Massachusetts participated in the development and testing of the THSB unit. Supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, the unit was designed in collaboration with curriculum developers at the nonprofit Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS).

The new THSB unit includes a student edition with activities for 19 lessons but also a teacher edition, with instructions for carrying out all of the activities, molecular model kits, print and digital resources, and assessments for measuring student understanding.

Consistent with recommendations in the Next Generation Science Standards, the new THSB unit is designed to help students understand and use scientific practices of reading scientific texts, analyzing and interpreting data, building and using models, and constructing explanations along with a coherent set of core ideas about chemical reactions to make sense of interesting physical and life science phenomena.

According to Jo Ellen Roseman, director of Project 2061 and the principal investigator for the new curriculum project, textbooks rarely take advantage of the opportunities to help students make connections across physical and life sciences, nor do they provide experiences to challenge the misconceptions that many students bring to the classroom. The new unit is developed to dispel commonly held misconceptions about real-world phenomena, such as where a plant’s mass increase comes from or the fate of food and animal eats.

“When a new substance forms during a chemical reaction, many students think that the atoms and molecules have actually changed into something new, whereas they simply rearranged, that the mass increase of plants is due to minerals in the soil, or that cell division alone accounts for animal growth,” said Cari Herrmann Abell, a senior research associate at Project 2061.

According to Roseman, data from Project 2061’s assessment studies show that these types of misconceptions can persist for a very long time.

One example is the question: “A table is made from wood that is cut from a tree. Where did most of the material that makes up the table originally come from?” The students are given four options: From sunlight, from oxygen in the air, from minerals in the soil or from carbon dioxide in the air.

According to Roseman, when testing this question on students from middle school, high school, undergraduate, and graduate school, it’s not until grad school that the majority of students are able to select the correct answer, which is carbon dioxide in the air.

Ellen Roseman, director of Project2061 and the principal investigator for the THSB curriculum project | Juan David Romero

Citing The Economist, Roseman said that one of the reasons why the new THSB curriculum is so critical for students is that the majority of the problems faced today, such as climate change, are fundamentally biological in nature. She also said that citizens should realize that whether they are cutting down trees or burning fossil fuels, they are putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than plants can remove.

Speaking at the launch event, Barbara Schaal, AAAS president-elect and distinguished professor in the department of biology in arts and sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, praised the THSB curriculum because it begins to introduce students to an interdisciplinary way of looking at the world. “You don’t have physics isolated from chemistry and biology and they all interact with each other.”

Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources Programs at AAAS, also participated in the launch event. She provided attendees with historical context on AAAS’s involvement in education since its 1848 inception its commitment to science literacy for all students that Project 2061’s efforts are working to realize.

“At the end of the day, we need exemplars. We need examples of curriculum materials that are informed by practice and research and by what we know about how students learn, and the core concepts that we've agreed all students should learn," said Malcom, an advocate of a more diverse and inclusive educational approach for students, including those from backgrounds underrepresented in the sciences.

With another grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Roseman and her colleagues are leading work on a new curriculum project that builds on the THSB project to focus on energy concepts in high school biology.

The THSB curriculum is expected to be available for use in the 2016-2017 school year.