NSF: Redesign science curriculum

Improving Advanced Placement (AP) science classes and redesigning high school science curriculum to incorporate the latest developments in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and other fields were the focal points of a panel discussion hosted by the College Board and the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Washington, D.C., last week.

The NSF has awarded a $1.8 million grant to the College Board to redesign AP courses in biology, chemistry, physics, and environmental science. The funds will be used to develop a process for making continual changes in the courses and exams to incorporate the latest scientific developments and to leverage best practices in the teaching of science.

Commissions appointed for each of the four AP science disciplines will carry out the redesign, which will commence this summer. The commissions are expected to finish their work in December 2007, allowing for several years of professional development prior to the launch of the new AP science courses in fall 2009.

These efforts come amid a chorus of calls to improve the nation’s science and math instruction to strengthen America’s global competitiveness.

During the discussion, moderator Jay Mathews, an education reporter and online columnist with The Washington Post, asked the panelists to share their greatest concerns with the state of science education today.

“[We have] a cafeteria-style approach to science instruction,” said Shirley Malcom, head of the directorate for education and human resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Also, our expectations are way too low.”

“Students don’t get to understand what science is,” said Jim Pellegrino, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

David Ely, a biotechnology and AP Biology teacher at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, Vt., said the typical science curriculum is broad and shallow, and many teachers sacrifice inquiry to get through it all. This takes away from the spontaneity of teaching, he said, noting that instructors might want to devote class time to a new scientific discovery, but they often are unable because they lack the time.

“The College Board is grateful to the National Science Foundation for this grant, which will enable us to draw on expertise from the scientific research community to make an excellent program even stronger,” said Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board. “Education is the key to our ability to maintain our nation’s competitive edge, and high school science instruction is crucial to our country’s economic growth. Improved AP science courses, exams, and labs will do a better job of training the next generation of scientists and engineers, while driving overall academic reform by raising standards and achievement for all students.”

“The challenge is not to find better ways of teaching facts,” said Arden Bement, NSF director. “Rather, it is to find better ways of teaching students how to observe, imagine, frame questions, and learn by experimentation. These are the fundamentals of science–the principles that can prepare students for a world in which change comes faster than any course or test could ever change.”

Changes to the AP science program will reflect the latest research on how students learn, organizers said. The redesign will emphasize depth of understanding so students will be better equipped to navigate complex content and to transfer their knowledge during assessments. The long-term goal is to increase scientific literacy and encourage more students, especially those from groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences, to pursue advanced-level study in high school and college and, eventually, to pursue science-related careers.

“Rethinking AP could open it up for success for more students,” said Judith Wurtzel, the senior fellow of the Education and Society Program at the Aspen Institute.

Added Malcom of the American Association for the Advancement of Science: “AP is part of what has to be a larger effort to change. [Students] need a good fundamental background. You can look good on a test and not know anything.”

“This grant aims to give students a better sense of the inquiry process in science and how to reason using scientific evidence,” said Pellegrino, who serves as principal investigator on the grant. “It will promote a more interdisciplinary approach to the study of science, as some of the most important scientific advances–such as biotechnology and nanotechnology–are happening at the intersection of different disciplines. This redesign is an opportunity not only to build the AP program, but to set a benchmark for science education in high school and middle school and to further integrate assessment with the processes of teaching and learning.”

While science instruction in the U.S. must change in light of an increasingly global society, panelists said, there are some exciting elements to revamping the way science is taught.

The extent to which teachers and scientists are collaborating is encouraging, Malcom said.

Being able to help teachers–and, in turn, help students become and stay interested in science–is a more realistic goal now, said Pellegrino.


National Science Foundation

The College Board

Laura Ascione

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