Project 2061 Curriculum Takes Holistic Approach to Middle School Science

Teachers involved in the testing of the new curriculum said that its use of models provided students with tangible examples of microscopic scientific processes. | Jo Ellen Roseman/AAAS

As summer draws to a close, participating middle school students will begin tackling chemistry concepts to prepare them for the rigor of high school biology courses.

Students will engage with scientific ideas and practices through hands-on activities and learn to write clear and concise explanations of real-world phenomena as part of a novel curriculum that the National Science Teachers Association Press is slated to publish in mid-September. The collection of 19 lesson plans, titled Toward High School Biology, will be available for purchase and use by teachers in the United States and abroad.

The emphasis the unit places on writing is particularly appealing to Leah Donovan, a science teacher at Oakland Mills Middle School in Columbia, Md., who participated in early tests of the curriculum and has been using the lesson plans in her classroom ever since.

Donovan said her students’ writing skills have improved as a result of the curriculum’s emphasis on teaching them to explain scientific concepts. Her favorite example of how such skills are built relates to the chemical makeup of the Statue of Liberty.

Students study images of the Statue of Liberty, paying particular attention to the 31 tons of copper sheeting that covers its surface and taking note that it is green instead of brown. They are told that, after years of exposure to the air’s oxygen and carbon dioxide, a layer of green copper carbonate has formed on the statue. Students then explain how the chemical reaction responsible for the statue’s green hue takes place.

Donovan said that this lesson gives students a chance to explain a scientific phenomenon using evidence and specific science ideas learned earlier in the curriculum to support their answer. In later lessons, students will use what they have learned to explain more complex and hard-to-observe phenomena that take place in the bodies of living things.   

She credited these writing exercises with improving her students’ understanding of science and noted that she has received positive feedback from the high schools which her students went on to attend.

“They could tell a difference between my students and those who came from another middle school that did not use this curriculum,” said Donovan.

Donovan, who has been a middle school teacher for more than 20 years, explained that other science curriculum materials are often subject-specific, focusing lessons on individual scientific fields like biology and excluding disciplines like chemistry that can provide an essential foundation for students.

By contrast, Donovan said, the Toward High School Biology unit incorporates chemistry lessons that inform her students’ understanding of biology.

“That’s been the whole purpose of this unit, to provide this extra chemistry that belongs with biology,” said Donovan.

Other teachers who were involved in curriculum testing, such as Damisha Drakes of Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia, Md., found the unit’s modeling activities to be particularly effective with students.

Students assembled models of molecules of elements and compounds using balls to represent atoms and sticks to represent connections between atoms. Then, they reassembled the balls and sticks in a new pattern, illustrating how molecules form new substances during a chemical reaction without creating or destroying any atoms.

“That activity was something that really opened their eyes,” Drakes said.

Memorizing the expression “atoms are not created or destroyed” and balancing chemical equations – a common approach to teaching chemical reactions – has proved to be insufficient for helping students explain how living things gain mass, said Jo Ellen Roseman, director of Project 2061, a long-term initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to improve science literacy and education.

The preparatory curriculum began development in 2010, when Project 2061 and the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, a non-profit organization that develops science and technology curriculum materials, received a grant from the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences.

The unit’s lessons incorporate hands-on activities such as using LEGO bricks to help students visualize atom rearrangement and other processes that cannot be seen by the naked eye. “These modeling activities help students think about some key questions – such as why mass increases when iron rusts in an open container and why plants gain more mass when grown in an atmosphere enriched with carbon dioxide, Roseman said. “The models help make the underlying molecular events concrete.”

“High school biology is pretty molecular,” Roseman explained. “There has to be something in middle school to give [students] the background they need for thinking about what is happening.”

Toward High School Biology is designed to align closely with a new set of science education standards, called the Next Generation Science Standards, which were developed with help from 26 states and organizations like AAAS and the National Research Council, in an effort to teach students to read scientific texts, analyze data and construct coherent explanations of scientific phenomena.

Curriculum developers also worked to present these chemistry and biology lessons in a way that would be clear and intuitive for teachers incorporating the unit in their classrooms.

“It does no good for just a few researchers to do it,” Roseman said. “It has to be something that real teachers can and want to use.”

As a result, the Project 2061 team drew on the experiences of teachers like Donovan and Drakes to develop a teacher’s edition of the curriculum.  Rather than just listing step-by-step procedures for each activity, the teacher’s edition describes the specific observations that students should make and how those observations can be used to explain phenomena.

Drakes, who plans to use the curriculum in her classroom this year, studied biology in college and found the lessons easy to understand. She noted, however, that lessons are also accessible for educators who do not specialize in science.

“If I were a teacher who didn’t have a biology or chemistry background, I could still look at this and explain it,” said Drakes.

In October, Drakes and Donovan will be among a group of teachers giving a presentation on their experiences using the Toward High School Biology unit and helping to lead a workshop to introduce the new unit to attendees of the 2017 Area Conference of the NSTA, the world’s largest organization of science educators.

Roseman said that teachers have much more credibility than those developing classroom materials in conveying the suitability of the curriculum.

“They decided on their own that they’d like to share their experiences using the unit with their fellow teachers,” said Roseman.

[Associated image: Jo Ellen Roseman/AAAS]