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Taking a New Approach to High School Biology

How do our bodies get the “stuff” we need to grow bigger or to repair a broken leg? Where do we get the energy—even while we sleep—to keep us alive and functioning? Just in time for the new school year, Matter and Energy for Growth and Activity (MEGA) helps high school students explore questions like these while learning essential ideas about food, human body systems, matter and energy changes, and chemical reactions.

Published by NSTA Press, Project 2061’s new twelve-week multimedia MEGA unit supports the vision of three-dimensional learning and teaching in the National Research Council’s A Framework for K-12 Science Education and in Next Generation Science Standards. It focuses on important but often difficult core ideas and crosscutting concepts about matter and energy in nonliving and living systems while engaging students in the science practices of analyzing data, using mathematics, developing and using models to make sense and construct explanations of interesting phenomena.

The MEGA unit builds on ideas about atom rearrangement and conservation that are the focus of the middle school Toward High School Biology unit, which was also developed by Project 2061 and published by NSTA Press in 2017. With the new MEGA unit, high school biology students go on to apply ideas about matter and energy to explore how living things use food as a source of matter for building and repairing their body structures and as a source of energy for carrying out a wide range of activities.  

In Chapter 1 students investigate the role of atom rearrangement and conservation in chemical reactions that contribute to biological growth. They examine chemical reactions in simple physical systems that involve small molecules and then apply what they learn to chemical reactions in living systems that involve converting polymers from food into polymers used to build body structures. In Chapter 2 students build their understanding of energy changes during chemical reactions, energy transfer, and conservation, first in simple physical systems and then in complex biological systems involved in the motion and growth in living organisms. The last lesson ties together the matter and energy stories by having students consider how the body maintains a fairly constant internal environment during exercise despite chemical reactions that involve changes in matter and energy.

“One of the challenges we faced in developing the MEGA unit was the fact that many high school students have misconceptions about or gaps in their knowledge of atoms and molecules and conservation of mass,” said Jo Ellen Roseman, director of Project 2061 and principal investigator for the MEGA curriculum development effort. Lots of students also have difficulties with molecular aspects of food, human body systems, and energy, she added. For example, assessment results for MEGA reported on the AAAS Science Assessment website show that only about 35% of students who participated in tests prior to using the MEGA unit responded correctly to items measuring their knowledge of energy conservation.

To help students overcome these difficulties, each lesson of the MEGA unit begins with a guiding question designed to elicit students’ preexisting ideas and draw upon their experiences that may be relevant to the lesson. Students then investigate and make sense of phenomena and data by modeling and explaining them in terms of underlying molecular mechanisms. Additional activities in each lesson provide opportunities for students to apply or extend science ideas and practices to new phenomena, and, finally, help students synthesize their ideas and reflect on changes in their thinking.

Throughout the development of the MEGA unit, students and their teachers participated in pilot and field tests and provided critical feedback to Roseman and her team of scientists and education researchers. “Energy is a highly abstract concept, and teachers told us that their students struggled with how to model energy changes,” Roseman recalled. The team responded by adding more support in both the Student and Teacher Editions so that students could better understand and represent energy changes within systems and energy transfer between systems.

This innovation was particularly important to Erin Schiff, a special education teacher who participated in field tests of the MEGA unit. “The use of visual models such as energy system boxes and energy transfer models helped to give special needs students a way to quantify, represent, and make sense of phenomena (e.g., energy-releasing and energy-requiring reactions) that would otherwise be invisible to them.” (See the article “Classroom Perspectives on Curriculum” in the October 2019 issue of the Project 2061 Connections newsletter for more about Schiff’s experience with the MEGA unit.)

The MEGA Student and Teacher Editions are available for preorder from NSTA Press. A collection of online resources—videos, animations, and handouts—supplement the unit. The MEGA unit was developed with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. Multimedia resources were developed by the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah.