Teachers Try Out New Curriculum Unit

Project 2061’s new Toward High School Biology curriculum unit asks students to consider two central questions:  How do living things grow bigger? Where does all the extra stuff come from as living things grow bigger?

Earlier this month, teachers attending a workshop at a National Science Teachers Association conference in Baltimore had a chance to explore these questions themselves as they examined the new unit, which has just been published by NSTA Press, and tried out some of the same activities as their students would.  The workshop participants first observed rust form when steel wool was exposed to air and then used LEGO bricks to model what happens to the iron and oxygen atoms during the chemical reaction they just observed. Next, they used ball-and-stick models to show how chemical reactions involving water and carbon dioxide can produce glucose and from that the cellulose that makes up the body structures of plants. In both examples, molecules of a gas from the air reacted to form a new substance and an increase in mass. Finally, the teachers used data, science ideas, and models to explain how animals are able to make the protein polymers they need to build their bodies from the completely different proteins that are in the foods they eat.  

These activities were selected to highlight the overall goal of the unit, which is to help middle school students connect core ideas about chemical reactions to the biological phenomena of growth and repair in plants and animals.  “The whole sequence of developing an understanding of growth will be very helpful,” said one teacher who participated in the workshop.  Others liked the use of models to “make invisible events visible” and the unit’s approach to “phenomena-based learning.”

Leading the workshop were members of the Project 2061 team that developed the unit, along with several teachers who had worked closely with the team as they tested the unit in their classrooms and provided feedback over six years. These partner teachers also presented another session at the NSTA conference in which they highlighted some modeling activities in the Toward High School Biology unit and shared their experiences using the unit to improve their students’ writing skills. 

Toward High School Biology  was developed with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and is one of the first curriculum materials to be designed from the start to support the three dimensional approach to science teaching and learning that is called for in Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). All three dimensions of the standards—core disciplinary ideas, science practices, and crosscutting concepts—are integrated in each chapter, and a detailed Teacher Edition, video demonstrations, and online tutorials provide guidance for carrying out classroom activities and insights on how students’ understanding is likely to develop. Both the Teacher Edition and Student Edition are available in print and digital formats from the NSTA Science Store. 

“Given the increasingly molecular nature of modern biology, even at the high school level, it’s critical that middle school students build a strong foundation in chemistry,” said Jo Ellen Roseman, director of the project.  “Too many students struggle to understand basic concepts about atom rearrangement and conservation during chemical reactions, “she explained. Without this knowledge, students are likely to have difficulties in understanding how food can provide new molecules for growth in animals or how carbon dioxide in the air becomes the mass of a growing plant.

Toward High School Biology is designed to help students overcome many of these conceptual difficulties and improve their understanding. Findings from a small-scale randomized control trial comparing matched pairs of classrooms showed that students using the THSB unit had significant learning gains compared to those using their district curriculum and held fewer misconceptions than their peers who did not use it. Another study demonstrated how the new unit provides a range of supports to help teachers understand and use NGSS.

By the end of the Baltimore workshop, many of the teachers were already planning to use the new unit in their classrooms. “Making the transition from junior high to high school can be made easier using these materials,” said one, while another saw the new unit playing a role as her district began to implement NGSS.