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Shirley Malcom, Other Experts, Cite Urgent Need to Improve AP Science Courses
Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, was among a panel of experts at a Capitol Hill briefing that urged new ways of teaching biology, chemistry, physics and environmental sciences to America’s high school students enrolled in Advanced Placement Program courses.
A $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) is funding a major redesign of the AP science courses and the panel said the emphasis will be on helping students to understand the essentials of science and what it means instead of concentrating on endless lists of facts. The 2 May discussion was sponsored by NSF and the College Board.
AP programs are designed to provide more rigorous academic training for high school students capable of handling college-level work.
Science education in high schools now, said Malcom, causes students to “leave high school with no real understanding” of the structure and core issues in the scientific disciplines. She compared today’s approach to science instruction to “cutting scenes out of a play” and never teaching the basic story of the play.
Malcom is widely regarded as a global leader in efforts to improve education and diversify the workforce in the science, engineering and technology fields. In 2003, she received the Public Welfare Medal, the highest award given by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. She also holds more than a dozen honorary degrees.
James Pellegrino, distinguished professor of cognitive psychology and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the new model for AP science teaching will focus on the important questions in science and less on committing facts to memory.
“I think the question is what do we want the students to understand, If you have an understanding of the deep principles then you can hang all of the facts on it,” said Pellegrino. He leads the national effort to redesign the AP science courses.
The redesign of the Advanced Placement Program science courses will incorporate the recommendations of a report called "Learning and Understanding: Advanced Study of Mathematics and Science in U.S. High Schools" issued by the National Research Council (NRC) in 2002. The NRC is a part of the National Academy of Sciences.
David Ely, a biology teacher at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, Vt., and one of the four experts on the 2 May discussion panel, participated in drafting the NRC report as a member of the Committee on Programs for Advanced Study of Mathematics and Science in American High Schools, an organization of the National Academy of Sciences.
The effort begins this summer with groups of scientists and educators named to revise curriculum in each of the four scientific disciplines. The work is to be finished by December 2007, and the new AP model will be launched in the fall of 2009. This will give AP teachers time for professional development and training before introducing the new curriculum in classrooms.
Malcom said that the effects of improving the Advance Placement science courses will ripple throughout the nation’s school systems.
“AP is part of something larger,” she said. The program will prompt better general instruction and educational experience so students will be prepared to take the more demanding AP courses, said Malcom.
“We have to think about summer programs…and how do we begin to utilize the resources of the community to amplify what the school is offering,” she said.
The availability of AP courses should be for schools in every corner of the nation, said Malcom.
“We want to make sure these classes are available to every student that can take them successfully,” she said. “And let us set as a standard…that we are able to provide some professional help for teachers in those schools that are serving poor and minority students.”
Malcom said she hopes that the AP redesign will look at the essential knowledge that will serve the students later in life.
“Let’s go for things that are important, for the knowledge that is significant,” she said. “That is the issue. Can we set them up for a lifetime of learning?”
The College Board is a non-profit association that organizes the Advance Placement Program. The organization also operates an academic testing program that includes SAT examinations.
The NSF is an independent federal agency with a 2006 budget of $5.5 billion. It awards grants to nearly 1,700 universities and institutions annually for research in all the basic sciences and in science education.
8 May 2006