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Targeting Energy Concepts in High School Biology

Building on its work at the middle school level, Project 2061 has been funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to develop a six-week curriculum unit for high school biology students. The new unit will help develop students’ understanding of energy transfer and conservation in both living and non-living systems so that they can explain fundamental processes in living organisms, a major topic in most high school biology courses.

Led by Jo Ellen Roseman, Project 2061’s director, the AAAS team is building on the success of its innovative eighth-grade Toward High School Biology unit, which has produced significant learning gains for students participating in pilot and field tests in Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia.

“Energy concepts are quite abstract and can be very difficult for students, especially in a life science context,” reports Roseman. “Many middle school students and college undergraduates share some of the same misunderstandings about energy, so it’s clear that a whole new approach is needed.”

To help make ideas about energy more concrete, for example, the new unit will use a variety of analogies from more familiar physical systems (e.g., combustion and charging a cellphone battery) to help students understand those same energy-releasing and energy-requiring chemical reactions and energy transfer when they occur in living organisms (e.g., cellular respiration, creating a charge across a membrane in mitochondria and nerve cells) where the reactions are more complex and difficult to observe. According to Roseman, the unit will also make use of a wide range of models, including interactive simulations and virtual labs, to help students think about and explore energy phenomena and make sense of their observations.

The AAAS team is partnering with researchers and multimedia designers at the University of Utah’s Genetic Science Learning Center (GSLC) led by co-principal investigator Louisa Stark. Working together, they will develop and test a variety of learning experiences in which students use online simulations to model energy-releasing and energy-requiring reactions, analyze and interpret data to make predictions about energy phenomena, and use evidence from their own observations or from simplified versions of scientific articles to explain phenomena and construct and critique arguments.

Over the course of the three-year curriculum project, the research team will design materials for students along with a professional development program and materials for teachers and a set of assessments for evaluating students’ understanding of the energy concepts and science practices that are targeted in the new unit. With its focus on the three dimensions of science learning—core science ideas, science practices, and crosscutting concepts—the new unit will be well suited for use in classrooms that have adopted the recommendations in the Next Generation Science Standards.

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