Project 2061 Pilot Tests New Curriculum on Energy

AAAS’ Project 2061 used interactive simulations, virtual labs, models, graphs and written activities to try out a new science curriculum unit. | Juan David Romero/AAAS

Four high school students participated in a AAAS program aimed at developing curriculum materials to help high school biology students understand similarities in the ways living and nonliving systems transfer and conserve energy.

In a three-week series of after-school sessions hosted by Girls Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, the participating students were introduced to basic concepts of matter and energy as they tried out classroom activities focused on the process of weight gain and weight loss and their health implications. In the process, the students learned how chemical reactions in humans and other animals result in matter and energy changes.

The program was funded by the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and is part of Project 2061, AAAS’ longstanding science literacy education initiative established in 1985.

“This new curriculum unit is being designed to take on high school-level ideas about atom rearrangement during chemical reactions that build on ideas that are introduced in a companion unit that we developed for middle school students. What’s new in the high school unit is the addition of ideas about the relationship between matter changes and energy changes,” said AAAS’s Jo Ellen Roseman, Project 2061 director.

What makes developing such a curriculum challenging is finding ways to help students understand changes in energy without using physical models to represent energy. The models often introduce or reinforce misconceptions about energy that many students have, including the incorrect notion that energy is matter. In Project 2061’s middle school unit, students use LEGOs and ball-and-stick models to make sense of the production of new substances in terms of atom rearrangement and conservation.

In the high school unit, Roseman noted, similar atomic and molecular models are also used but in conjunction with bar graphs and energy transfer diagrams to help students understand that the energy changes they observe during chemical reactions are associated with changes in the arrangement of atoms.

The pilot testing of the new curriculum engaged students in using evidence from observations and data and modeling activities to help them make sense of phenomena, such as the ability of a trained athlete to run a 100 meter sprint but not a marathon and the ability of yeast to stay alive but not reproduce without requiring additional oxygen.

“The past three weeks here I’ve learned a lot about stuff that I didn’t really care for, but now that I know about it, I care about it a lot now and the science that goes into it. I want to be a pharmacist one day,” said Jordan Montez, a ninth grader who attended the after-school classes hosted at Girls Inc. Preliminary results show that, overall, scores for the group of students increased by 23% from where they stood before participating in the classes.

Project 2061’s middle school unit on matter changes in nonliving and living systems, is currently being taught by 14 teachers in seven Maryland middle schools and reaches over 1,500 students each year.  Because the unit aligns with three-dimensional learning outlined in K–12 science content standards developed by states to improve science education and known as the Next Generation Science Standards, NGSS, teachers in several states that have adopted the standards are planning to use the middle school unit in the 2017-2018 school year.

Research studies on effective learning show that students lack ways to conceptualize chemical reactions, and NGSS calls for students to develop an understanding of energy principles that they can apply consistently across life and physical science. That vision is what Project 2061 aims to support, added Roseman.

“What’s been so helpful about working with Girls Inc. is that the students get a lot of individual attention and we are able to work closely with each girl to find out what she’s thinking and which phenomena seem convincing to her,” Roseman said.

The percentage of 12th graders taking courses in biology, chemistry, and physics since 8th grade increased to 41% in 2015 from 34% in 2009, said Mary Koppal, Project 2061’s communications director, citing the most recent results for science from the National Assessment of Education Progress, which serves as a national report card on student achievement.

However, the nationwide student achievement test scores in science for 12th graders have not changed since 2009, according to Koppal, and only 22% of 12th graders scored at the proficient level, lower than the levels achieved by  4th and 8th graders.

Roseman is looking to improve the new energy curriculum with the help of teachers in Virginia and Maryland who will participate with their students in pilot testing of the unit next spring. Eventually, Roseman’s goal is to encourage high schools to make the energy unit part of their biology curriculum, just as Project 2061 has been able to do with its middle school unit. 

[Associated image credit: Juan David Romero/AAAS]