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Improving Science Curricula through Research, Leadership, and Teacher Education
U.S. Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.) speaking at a Capitol Hill reception for conference participants
Photos courtesy of Pepe Gomez
Helping America's school children achieve science literacy is a major educational challenge that could seriously affect the nation's future, experts said at a conference of science educators in Washington.
In test after test, U.S. students are scoring far behind students of other countries in their understanding of basic scientific ideas and principles, a number of experts said. The deficit is affecting the American work force and threatens the nation's ability to thrive in a world of increasing technical complexity, they said. Meeting this challenge requires, among other things, high-quality textbooks and other kinds of instructional materials that can help an increasingly diverse range of students to succeed in science. The Center for Curriculum Materials in Science was created to respond to that need.
About 100 researchers and educators attended the Center's July 22-25 Knowledge Sharing Institute at AAAS headquarters in Washington D.C., for a range of symposia and presentations related to the work of the Center, which is led by AAAS's Project 2061. Top experts in the field, along with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows supported by CCMS, reported on their latest research into innovative curriculum and strategies that teachers can use to help students learn important science ideas and skills. The gathering included a Capitol Hill reception featuring remarks by U.S. Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.), a member of the House Committee on Science and Technology.
AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner, speaking at the reception, said that "science education has probably never been more important... for this country and for everybody else in the world as well."
Leshner also noted a National Academy of Sciences study that "calls for a tremendous effort to invigorate science education in this country and bring it to a level that will provide us with a future that we all hope for ourselves and for our children and our grandchildren. This is not a small task."
The Center for Curriculum Materials in Science is a collaborative effort by AAAS, the University of Michigan, Northwestern University and Michigan State University, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). It was started five years ago after a study by Project 2061, the AAAS science literacy initiative, showed that the quality of science textbooks in American schools was "dismal."
Jo Ellen Roseman, director of Project 2061, the AAAS science literacy initiative
"The need for a center that focused on science curriculum and materials was really clear," said Jo Ellen Roseman, the director of Project 2061. "We also recognized that not a single institution, not any university, not AAAS, has the existing knowledge base and the capacity to do it alone. So we assembled a team of able partners to see what kind of progress we could make.
"The Center's mission," said Roseman, "is to improve the design, selection and use of science curriculum materials through research, through leadership development and through the education of teachers."
Roseman said the center has already produced a number of new leaders who have accepted faculty and research positions at other universities and institutions where they will continue to make important contributions to science education. Some have received new grants from federal agencies and private foundations to support their work.
Ravit Golan Duncan, a CCMS graduate student, finished her Ph.D. at Northwestern University and accepted an assistant professorship at the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. Duncan credited her CCMS experiences as having taken her research in new directions... Her current work includes the creation of a web site that will help teach ocean sciences "in a really powerful way." University of Michigan postdoctoral fellow Aaron Rogat also found that his work at CCMS paved the way to his new position at the University of Pennsylvania. A molecular biologist by training, Rogat said he has learned through the Center new ways to teach the science of genetics and to hone his understanding of how children learn science.
"I realized I couldn't complete my education until I understood how kids learned," he said. Rogat said his time at the Center has helped him learn to organize and develop basic education research projects, skills he intends to use in further in his work at the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania.
At the Knowledge Sharing Institute conference, researchers presented new findings on methods of teaching core science principles and ideas to American school children. Research reports analyzed methods of teaching, the design and use of specific types of materials, and the use of assessment to evaluate student learning and gauge the effectiveness of instructional materials and teaching strategies.
Kathryn Drago [facing camera], a graduate student at the University of Michigan
Joe Krajcik, an associate dean and professor of science education at the University of Michigan, said that when he and others helped to organize the Center, it was clear that there were serious deficits in the materials used to teach science in public schools.
"A lot of the curriculum out there did not focus on how kids learn," he said. "Often we didn't use what we knew about kids learning or what kids were bringing to the classroom."
In elementary and middle schools, said Krajcik, center researchers found that often science ideas were just presented to students as known facts.
"That is not how kids learn," he said. "The major difference now is that rather than presenting the information once and assuming that the kids understand it, we build ideas gradually over time so they can actually make use of those ideas to solve problems that are meaningful to them."
Krajcik said that new teaching methods now present core scientific ideas over a period of weeks, gradually building an understanding, and then helping the students to use this understanding to solve problems they might encounter in their everyday lives. This new approach is designed to help the students master the science.
Center scholars, Krajcik said, are doing follow-up studies to evaluate the effect of these new teaching methods and materials.
"There are several studies nationally with control groups comparing these kinds of curricula," he said. "Those are just starting and we don't have the results back."
The Capitol Hill reception, held 24 July, showcased the Center's efforts to improve science teaching by fostering the next generation of science education leaders; it also the scholars and educators a chance to get acquainted with members of Congress, congressional staff and staff from NSF and the U.S. Department of Education. In addition to Ehlers, Maine Democrat Tom Allen, a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, also attended the reception organized by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Congress. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows were on hand to discuss posters presenting what they have learned about how to design and use science curriculum materials most effectively.
"Congress has introduced over 15 bills that address science education, professional development, science education research, and science standards in some form or another," said Joanne Padrón Carney, the Center's director. "The reception provided an opportunity for Hill staff and members of Congress to meet with scientists who are making a difference in the future of science education."
Ehlers, one of the leading advocates in Congress for improved science education, said in remarks at the Capitol Hill reception that American urban students often arrive in the classroom less equipped to understand science than did their more rural ancestors a century ago.
"One hundred twenty years ago, we didn't have to worry that much about education of students in math and science," he said. "Most people lived on a farm. They learned an incredible amount of physics on the farm, also good chemistry and biology.
"Today is different," Ehlers said. "Many of the kids who take science and math are encountering for the first time ideas that had never occurred to them. There is now much more to learn about science because there is much more science.
"So we have a double problem—we are starting from a lower base and they have to learn more."
The Center for Curriculum Materials in Science was built to deal with such challenges, and many at the conference say it has had a strong, constructive impact.
The Center "is doing exactly what we hoped that these kinds of programs would do," said Janice Earle, senior program officer in the NSF Directorate for Education and Human Resources. "[It] has done a splendid job of attracting and training doctoral students and post-doctoral students so there is a next generation of folks out there who can provide the leadership, do the research, and lead the policy directions for science education in this country."
22 August 2007