Science Education Shift

A new educational framework swaps breadth of scientific disciplines for depth and emphasizes the process of science.

Aug 3, 2011
Megan Scudellari


Science education is ready for a reboot, the National Academy of Sciences announced last week. On Tuesday (July 19), the National Research Council, the working arm that carries out most NAS studies, unveiled the details of a new framework to serve as the foundation for K-12 science education in the United States.

The outline, written by an 18-member committee made up primarily of top university science professors, is now being used to develop science education standards and, in the future, science curricula.

The report “has the potential to bring about transformational changes in science education,” the National Science Teachers Association said in a statement in response to the report. “NSTA applauds the NRC for its outstanding work on this document,” added NSTA executive director Francis Eberle in the statement. Still, he noted, “much work lies ahead.”

The report does not condemn current science education standards, however, which were developed in the mid-1990s by the NRC and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  “This is evolution, not revolution,” Helen Quinn, chair of the NRC committee and a professor emeritus at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California, told The Scientist. The new framework builds on those guidelines, she added, “but we’re pushing it further, because of what’s been learned in the intervening 15 years.”

A draft of the new framework was released last summer for public comment, and over 2,000 individuals responded with feedback. In addition, 30 focus groups were held around the country by 24 organizations. The feedback was overall supportive, said Quinn. Concerns primarily addressed fields or topics that didn’t get much coverage, such as ocean science, which the committee did later emphasize more in the proposal, Quinn noted.

The framework has three main goals that existing science education standards are “ill-equipped” to achieve, the authors write: To ensure that all students gain an appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science, the capacity to think critically about science-related issues, and the skills to pursue careers in science or engineering.

“It’s not sufficient to look at science just as a body of knowledge. It has to also represent the practices of science and teach students to use science as a process to gain knowledge based upon observable evidence,” said Brett Moulding, director of the Utah Partnership for Effective Science Teaching and Learning and a member of the NRC committee.

To achieve such goals, the framework focuses on three major changes to current K-12 science education:

Four pillars: Under the new framework, science curricula will focus on four core disciplinary areas—the physical sciences; the life sciences; earth and space sciences; and engineering, technology and the applications of science.  This format differs from the traditional separation of science education into distinct classes like physics, chemistry, biology and environmental sciences—a division that has been criticized for being “a mile-wide and an inch-deep.” “We want students to have an in-depth understanding of a smaller number of core ideas, rather than lots of disconnected details,” said Quinn.

Crosscutting concepts: The proposed framework also identifies seven concepts to be repeatedly referenced across all four disciplinary areas, such as “cause and effect” and “stability and change.” If teachers use a common language of these concepts throughout a student’s primary school years, the concepts will become “familiar touchstones” that students will learn to recognize and connect common concepts in science. “Science education tends to be one subject at a time, without the connective tissue,” said Quinn. “Students need to build knowledge coherently over multiple years.”

Pertinent practices: Finally, the committee recommends eight key practices that students should learn. These include defining problems, analyzing and interpreting data, and developing models, among others. Scientists constantly make models and diagrams to represent their ideas, said Quinn. “That is something we want students to also automatically do,” she noted. “That’s not common in classrooms today.” As with the concepts, the committee recommends these practices be interwoven throughout a curriculum and across the disciplinary areas.

In the immediate future, the framework is being developed into educational standards by a nonprofit educational organization, Achieve, with the help of a more than 70-person writing committee, including many teachers and educators in states that have expressed an interest. The standards will be voluntary for states that choose to participate.

Still, re-vamping science education is not a process that’s going to happen overnight, stressed Quinn. “There are many pieces to the system have to be aligned for this to work, from the standards to the classroom level.”