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AAAS’s Project 2061 Begins Effort to Develop New Middle School Materials for Chemistry, Biochemistry

Project 2061, AAAS’s long-term science literacy initiative, is embarking on a new three-year project to design and test classroom and teacher-support materials in the critical areas of middle school chemistry and biochemistry.

Understanding chemical reactions is essential not only in advanced chemistry studies, but increasingly in biology, where frontier research is focused on the chemistry of life. Test scores and other evidence show, however, that U.S. students in grades six through twelve are struggling to understand chemical reactions in such basic areas as evaporation, photosynthesis, and biological decay.

With a $2.44 million grant from the National Center for Education Research (NCER) at the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, Project 2061 and the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) will work to develop new materials for teachers and students, test them in four diverse school districts, and then refine the units based on their evaluations.

Jo Ellen Roseman

“An understanding of core chemistry and biochemistry concepts prepares middle school students for important and interesting high school biology topics,” said Project 2061 Director Jo Ellen Roseman, citing such areas as human body functions, the cycling of elements in ecosystems, the functioning of cells and proteins, and the molecular basis for heredity. “In addition to their significance for the study of biology, these same chemistry ideas are critical to other aspects of science literacy, such as understanding factors affecting climate change, alternative energy sources, and uses of nanotechnology…

“Today’s middle and high school students must be better prepared if they are going to succeed in college level biology courses, which demand a solid understanding of chemistry,” she added. “Existing curriculum materials and instruction are not getting the job done. A new approach is needed.”

Given the changing nature of the U.S. economy, and the increasing demand for workers with mathematics and science skills, success in educating middle schoolers today could have the long-term effect of strengthening the economy and keeping the nation globally competitive.

What worries Roseman and others is that students in the United States are struggling with science and falling behind their peers in other nations.

Elizabeth Albro, associate commissioner of NCER’s Teaching & Learning Division, cites the most recent student achievement scores. In the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 32% of fourth-graders scored below the level of basic proficiency in science. For eighth graders, the number climbed to 41%, and to 46% for high school seniors.

Another measure comes from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment. Among high school students in 49 industrialized nations, U.S. students in 2007 ranked 17th in science literacy.

According to Roseman, research into student learning shows that many struggle to understand phenomena involving either living or non-living systems at the molecular level. “This is true for systems in which matter seems to disappear, as in evaporation, burning, or biological decay,” she said, “and in systems where matter seems to appear from nowhere, as in condensation or biological growth.”

Research done by Roseman and colleagues, published in 2008, found that fewer than 25% of middle school students understood that a chemical reaction produces something with different properties than the substances before their reaction. Fewer than 20% understand that molecules change in a chemical reaction, but that atoms within the molecules do not. Other Project 2061 research found that in a national sample of some 3000 middle school students, fewer than one in five correctly answered questions about the link between matter transformation and growth.

That lack of understanding at the middle school level appears to carry over to higher grades. A Project 2061 study of students at an elite New England private high school found that, while most seniors would have had at least a basic chemistry course, only 37% of them correctly answered questions about the transformation of matter and energy in living systems.

The Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences supports projects to develop innovative education interventions. NCER, which operates within the Institute, was formed to explore and help solve significant learning issues in several sectors, including science education. It recently awarded 36 new education research grants on a range of topics, including the grant to AAAS’s Project 2061.

“The peer reviewers found it (the AAAS proposal) to be of very high quality, which is why it was recommended for funding,” Albro said.

In a detailed written description of the new initiative, Project 2061 says that, to understand why students struggle with chemistry and chemical reactions, it’s essential to consider the broader context: Science teachers often lack detailed background in chemistry and the latest teaching methods. And even leading textbooks lack discussion of biochemistry; they offer students little if any insight into how atoms and molecules behave during chemical and biochemical reactions.

“New approaches to connecting core chemistry and biochemistry ideas are urgently needed,” Roseman said.

The new prototype units will be based on the latest research insights into how students learn, and the most effective methods of supporting students as they build understanding. The materials will help students connect their existing knowledge to new ideas and replace their alternative explanations of phenomena with ones that are more scientifically accurate. In addition, the project will develop materials to help teachers understand the science and new ways of teaching it to their students.

“The units will organize the scientific ideas into a coherent story for teachers and students,” said Roseman. “The scientific ideas will be more likely to be taught coherently, by which we mean that the ideas will be tied together and linked to carefully chosen phenomena and representations.”

According to the written description of the new initiative, the two new classroom units will ask students to consider questions like these: Why do chemical reactions that produce gases in an open system appear to lose mass but not in a closed system? How is this similar to what happens when people go on a diet to lose weight? Why do chemical reactions that involve gases as reactants in an open system appear to gain mass but not in a closed system? How is this similar to what happens when plants grow?

The materials will be designed to help students progress toward understanding how biological, chemical, and physical phenomena are explained by changes in the arrangement and motion of atoms and molecules, Roseman said. “The point is to involve students in reflecting and building on what their models have shown so that they can predict and explain the natural world.”

The first year of the project (beginning 1 October) will include drafting the chemistry and biochemistry units and developing measures of their promise and feasibility of use. The units will be tested first at schools in Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., in classrooms involving 18 local teachers and nearly 2000 students.

To assess the students’ response to the new curriculum units, project directors will observe students in the classrooms, analyze their written work, test them, and conduct one-on-one interviews.

In the second year, Project 2061 and BSCS will revise the curriculum units and measures, based on data gathered from the first year. In addition, they will complete drafts of the teacher guides and professional development materials.

In the third year, they will test complete prototypes of the units, including both student and teacher materials. That phase of the project would end in September 2013.

Learn more about Project 2061, AAAS’s long-term science literacy initiative.

Learn more about the National Center for Education Research at the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.