Applying Historic Lessons to Current Educational Reform
Importantly, almost all of these newer influences in determining new directions for science education have combined to exert a force in the same general direction: toward more practical work for students. Both to engage a more diverse student population and to achieve more instrumental goals like enhancing economic productivity and improving public health, curricula in science are being revised to relate more closely to proximate needs.
The result is a clear educational trend that focuses on studies that relate explicitly to the lives of students and the communities in which they live. This trend characterizes not only educational developments in the United States but also in many countries abroad. In a recent study of innovations in science, mathematics, and technology education conducted under the auspices of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) , it was found that in every one of the 13 of the participating countries the clearest general trend was a move toward topics that relate to students lives, not only in the sense of more first-hand experience with science but greater relevance of the content to real-world issues.
In designing such courses around the world, teachers often meet with scientists but it is the teachers who determine the focus. In Germany, for example, teachers of students in grades 5 through 8 in Schleswig-Holstein, after that state moved entirely to untracked secondary schools, embarked on a program to fashion a more relevant curriculum. They chose to focus on water, with an emphasis on how this substance relates to humans and other organisms. Fifth and sixth graders are asked to think about questions like, What do I need water for? and How do I use water? The aim is for students to understand that water is not a separate object of inquiry, but part of a system in everyday life. While this emphasis was chosen because of its presumed connection to the lives of the students, the teachers worked closely with scientists at the University of Kiel to be sure the content was sound. The topics may not have been those the scientists themselves would have selected, yet the partnership was intense, consistent, and genuinely collaborative. The German example highlights another feature of curricula often associated with real-life issues. It crosses conventional disciplinary boundaries. Physical and biological science were integrated as the students embarked on the new German course.
A similar development is evident in Japan. The new (1989) primary science curriculum developed under the aegis of the Ministry of Education is titled Environmental and Life Sciences. Because the Japanese are concerned about environmental deterioration, students study topics like acid rain. They go into the local community to find evidence of the effects of acid rain, then learn how it is formed and how its harmful effects might be mitigated. They study the subject not only understand it, but to try to do something about it. In the process, they draw content from chemistry, which explains the effect of pH levels on concrete and other substances; from physics, which helps explain the effects of acid rain on the strength of structures; from biology, which helps students understand how certain forms of life are affected in an acid environment; and from meteorology, which aids in figuring out how weather patterns determine sites of greatest damage.
They learn more. How do communities react to the challenge of reducing pollution? What happens if the smokestack industries that generate acidic gases are required to comply with new environmental regulations? What different interest groups are involved? What public policies about environmental protection make sense? Thus conventional disciplinary lines are crossed not only within the sciences and not only between the sciences and mathematics, but between these technical fields and subjects like politics, sociology, and anthropology.
In the United States there is a new high school chemistry course titled ChemCom, Chemistry in the Community. It was initiated by and developed under supervision of the American Chemical Society and carries its imprimatur. (It may be noteworthy in the context of this analysis to note that a majority of the ACS membership consists of chemists from industry and government laboratories.) The ChemCom text begins with a toxic spill, and a story unfolds that emphasizes how knowledge of chemistry is crucial in preventing such disasters and limiting the damage when prevention fails. The scientific elements of the course lead to consideration of community action. A major attempt is made to help the students understand, through role-playing, the perspectives of different interest groups. Chemistry is brought into the political deliberations on a need-to-know basis.
There is a new officially sanctioned integrated science program in Ontario, Tasmania, and Spain. An emphasis on practical work and integrated science, it should be emphasized, is not confined to courses for students who seem to have limited academic aspirations. Nor is it primarily for those not presumed to be interested in science and mathematics. The University of California now accepts integrated courses at high school level as meeting admission requirements, as does virtually every other university in the country.
Teachers in a special, public, residential high school created in North Carolina especially for students interested in science and mathematics developed a new precalculus program centered exclusively on applications. The teachers in the mathematics department believed that it was crucial for students in the course to learn how to apply mathematics to real-world problems and that this goal is at least as important as their learning mathematical concepts and procedures. In this shift from pure to applied mathematics, the aim was to teach students to solve interesting problems from daily life and various professional endeavors. The course makes extensive use of data analysis and relies heavily on data from actual observations or measurements. During the early days of developing the curriculum (which is now a commercially available textbook), the teachers subjected all topics considered for possible inclusion to the test of whether or not the mathematics had a direct application. Conic sections, a subject conventionally taught in precalculus courses was not included in the course.
These examples represent a far cry from science and mathematics curriculum reform of 40 years ago. At that time, content was selected that those in research universities thought most important. The emphasis was on the structure of the subject, rather than on applications. Efforts remained pretty much within the boundaries of the various science disciplines as they were taught in universities. Teaching the internal logic of the discipline as it was understood by researchers in universities was the guiding goal. In the physics effort launched by the pioneering Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) in the late 1950s, which served for many years as NSFs prototypical high school curriculum project, there was little mention of applications in the text. On the contrary, light was examined for its wave-like and particle-like characteristics, but there was scant attention to how such knowledge is used. Little mention was made of gasoline engines or refrigerator functioning, both topics that had received considerable attention in the textbooks that preceded PSSCs.
In 1960, I became co-director of one of the NSFs first two curriculum projects below the high school level. It focused on astronomy. The entire first summer of the project was devoted to developing a story line that astronomers and physicists (a Nobelist among them, which wasnt that unusual in those days) believed reflected the way they themselves conceptualized the subject. Afterward, teachers were brought in to devise methods of presenting the material to students.
Copyright 1997 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.