Where’s the Book?

Science education is redefining texts

Second of a two-part series on middle-school science curricula. Part one, “Errant Texts,” is available at Errant Texts.

These and the 15 other Event Based Science guidebooks depart from standard texts. Each starts by describing a real news event, then offers newspaper stories, experiments, and other activities that teach the science integral to the topic. Event-Based Science Project

The new curricula promote extensive hands-on learning. Terry G. McCrea/Smithsonian Institution, for NSRC
Many thematic curriculum modules offer kits, like this, packed with everything needed for class experiments. (c)Harry F. Holloway/Carolina Biological Supply Co.
This middle-school science book is one of the few that win widespread praise. Science Curriculum Inc.

An epidemic is sweeping through the town. There have been several deaths, thousands of people are plagued by hacking coughs, and the hospital’s emergency room is packed day and night.

At a community meeting one Monday, representatives of seven neighborhoods assemble to brainstorm about how they might slow the mysterious outbreak. They enlist an epidemiologist to identify victims, map their homes and workplaces, and look for connections. The epidemiologists and local physicians eventually home in on the disease: tuberculosis.

Community leaders also recruit school principals to create a 2-week unit to teach students about the disease. Owners of fast-food restaurants get into the act. They develop employee programs to prevent the spread of the disease, and they produce posters and pamphlets asserting that everyone has a role in curbing outbreaks.

For 6 weeks each year, middle-school classrooms–from Feeding Hills, Mass., to Fairbanks, Alaska–are replaying this scenario as they participate in Outbreak. It’s one of 18 new “Event Based Science” packages developed by Russell G. Wright, a teacher in Montgomery County, Md. It comes out of an ongoing 8-year program jump-started with a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.

Students assume the different roles in these classroom activities. Their teachers serve as facilitators to keep the dramatized investigations moving and, in Outbreak, to ensure collaboration among the doctor, epidemiologist, principal, and restaurant owner in each neighborhood team.

New programs like these epitomize an unfolding “reformation” in middle-school science, says Larry Malone, a curriculum developer at the University of California’s Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley. Increasingly, he says, science education is moving away from telling and showing. It’s adopting programs in which students learn scientific principles and methods of analysis by working together on investigations.

Today, such programs are only niche players in science education. In some 90 percent of U.S. middle schools, students use a conventional science textbook, notes Paul Hickman of the Center for the Enhancement of Science and Mathematics Education at Northeastern University in Boston.

However, as these textbooks have come under increasing criticism for being uninspiring, superficial, and error-ridden (SN: 3/17/01, p. 168), a growing number of schools have begun reaching for alternatives.

“Young children can learn facts from text but find it hard to learn ideas from them,” says Hickman. “Since science is all about ideas, for a significant share of the [middle-school] population, learning ideas from text won’t be the most effective method.”

By emphasizing hands-on experimentation and small-group collaborations, new curricula take advantage of early adolescents’ growing hunger for social interaction, notes Barbara B. Berns of the K-12 Science Curriculum Dissemination Center, an NSF-funded project in Newton, Mass. Moreover, she points out, because children become especially opinionated in middle school, programs that encourage debating and role-playing tend to make science more accessible.

Even more important, she notes, schoolwide assessments of students’ mastery of facts and skills are beginning to show that children can learn at least as much in these programs as in book-based curricula. Indeed, the new National Science Education Standards (SN: 2/3/96, p. 73), which emerged from a panel convened by the National Research Council in Washington, D.C., require middle-school students to develop problem-solving skills. To do this, Berns maintains, “you really benefit from a nontextbook approach.”

A major transformation

In the immediate post-Sputnik era, U.S. science education began a major transformation that continues today. Throughout the 1960s, national leaders argued that a larger share of high school students should be prepared for careers in science and engineering. As a first step, educators began implementing curriculum reforms to give top-performing elementary and middle-school students a firmer grounding in science and math, Hickman says.

Things changed dramatically again after the scathing April 1983 manifesto A Nation at Risk. Issued by a federally appointed National Commission on Excellence in Education, it charged that the educational foundations of U.S. society were “being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.”

Although high achievers continued to do well, the report noted that overall student performance had fallen precipitously. To arrest this tumble, the report’s authors championed the goal of developing “the talents of all to their fullest.” Suddenly, science literacy was important for everyone, not just for would-be scientists, Malone says.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, a spate of hands-on elementary school programs came out. Their success prompted calls for a middle school counterpart, and many of those programs are just emerging.

A major problem, Malone recalls, was figuring out what middle schools need. Some educators viewed early adolescents as little high school kids, he notes, while others treated them as big elementary-school pupils. In fact, he says, “they’re neither, which is what simultaneously makes our work so interesting–and impossible.”

To start, he notes, there is no national consensus on what middle school is all about. Among the matters under debate are what grade levels should be included, how long each class period should be, how teachers should be trained, and what skills students should master before graduating. The trick, Malone says, is to develop a program “that will insinuate itself into all of [the different possible models] of middle school while engaging the imagination of these very social students.”

Innovative materials

A few months ago, Malone’s team issued the first four elements of its middle-school science package. Like many developers of innovative, inquiry-based materials, Malone and his coworkers divide their program into thematic modules, such as the human brain and senses, Earth’s history, planetary science, and electronics. Each module, which takes students between 9 and 12 weeks to complete, can stand alone. Together, however, the modules constitute a complete curriculum called the Full Option Science System (FOSS).

Schools using the modules buy a teacher’s manual and boxed kit. The latter includes all the materials needed to serve five classes of up to 32 students. The planetary-science kit, for instance, has “moon rocks”–minerals similar in composition to those retrieved by lunar-landing crews–to be tested chemically. It also provides videos, charts, and overhead transparencies. An accompanying CD-ROM offers access to additional data, including Internet references.

Each module also includes lab notebooks, in which students record their research observations and analyses. Accompanying resource booklets offer images, data for use in solving research problems, and related readings, such as news accounts.

Other organizations are contributing their own curriculum materials. For example, the Smithsonian Institution and National Academies, which includes the National Academy of Sciences, sponsor the National Science Resources Center in Washington, D.C. This center is currently completing the development of a curriculum called Science and Technology Concepts for Middle Schools (STC/MS). Its kit-based modules take an approach similar to those of FOSS.

Specialty publishers are introducing the FOSS, STC/MS, and Event Based Science materials. By contrast, the 30-year-old FAST (Foundational Approaches in Science Teaching) program is publicized only by word of mouth. But that hasn’t kept it from being picked up by 3,800 schools.

Moreover, it’s become the only middle-school program designated “exemplary” by the U.S. Department of Education’s Expert Panel on Mathematics and Science Education.

Like most of these alternative curricula, FAST isn’t based on textbooks. However, it doesn’t come in a box. A teacher’s manual and an accompanying “library” of classroom materials are the primary components of FAST.

From the first day of class, FAST’s focus is experimentation. Each child records the day’s observations, “and this notebook becomes their science text. It contains their graphs and interpretations, what they learned, what they didn’t, and what questions they still have,” explains Mary Gray, the program’s assistant director.

Another characteristic of this program, she says, “is that teachers never give out answers. We find that if you teach things right, kids discover the answers on their own-in the process, moving from concrete to abstract thinking.”

However, Gray adds, the program requires such a paradigm shift for most teachers that the University of Hawaii in Honolulu-which developed and continues to administer this program-won’t permit anyone to buy the training manuals or to teach FAST without first taking at least 70 hours of training.

Coherent content

Common to the origin of many of these programs is funding from NSF.

Explains Janice Earle, a senior program director there, qualifying projects must now exhibit “a coherent content . . . aligned with national standards,” foster critical thinking and problem solving, and be grounded in research on how children learn. Moreover, NSF recommends that any new curriculum be developed by teams of practicing scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, along with classroom teachers.

“I would be surprised if most textbooks were developed like that,” Earle says.

They aren’t. One exception, however, is Introductory Physical Science, notes Uri Haber-Schaim, one of this textbook’s authors. Launched in 1967, the book briefly became a top selection for eighth- and ninth-grade classrooms. Developed with NSF funding, the book was initially issued by a big publisher, but sales dropped when newer texts entered the field. In the early 1990s, the company decided not to publish further editions but permitted Haber-Schaim to pick up rights to the book. His firm, Science Curriculum Inc. of Belmont, Mass., now produces it.

Unlike other science texts for early adolescents, Haber-Schaim says, “we very thoroughly field-tested our experiments in classrooms over a period of 2 years. We even field-tested every homework question.” The current edition–the seventh–has four authors. “Every one is a university or school teacher who knows his stuff,” says Haber-Schaim. They include Harold A. Pratt, president-elect of the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Va.

Haber-Schaim estimates that over the years, some 15 million U.S. students have encountered Introductory Physical Science in their classrooms. “We frequently run into [educators] who tell us they became science teachers because they loved [the book] so much as students,” he says.

Others also extol the book’s concise (268-page), no-frills approach. Among them is John L. Hubisz of North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He would have liked to have included the book in his recent review of science texts (SN: 3/17/01, p. 168), “because it would have allowed us to say something really positive.” But since it was not among the top dozen sellers, it didn’t make the cut.

William Bennetta, president of the Textbook League of Sausalito, Calif., notes that his group, normally critical of science texts, “gave the book a wonderfully enthusiastic review–it’s simply a great book.” He attributes its low visibility to Science Curriculum’s inability to publicize it as widely as a major publisher would.

There’s room for new blood in the quest for better science textbooks. Former newspaper journalist Joy Hakim has just finished writing the first three in a series of books that she says will transform conceptions of science texts.

As in A History of Us, her innovative and successful series of social studies textbooks for people age 9 and above, “I approached writing these [science] books as a reporter would. I looked for the story-the people behind the ideas,” she explains. She also did research, interviewed scholars, and then checked the science with specialists in each field.

When she had a final draft in hand, she paid children to review the concise books and point out where the text was boring, confusing, or thrilling.

Hakim portrays the evolution of physical-science concepts through accounts of the trials and tribulations of individuals-from Thales and Ptolemy to Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. Her account of Galileo, for instance, notes that his family hoped he would bring them prosperity as a doctor. He repeatedly cut his assigned classes, however, so that he could study math instead.

“This is great stuff,” observes John Holland, a sixth-grade science teacher in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. “Half of my kids would read these books in their free time, just because they’re so interesting. Even I can’t put these books down.”

Curriculum developers at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for the Social Organization of Schools in Baltimore are creating teachers’ manuals for Hakim’s science series, notes the center’s Allen Ruby. They will offer experiments, for instance, to explore ideas covered in a day’s readings. They may also point to other readings that show how historical ideas are embodied in new developments.

In fact, he notes, “some schools will view [Hakim’s new series] as an opportunity to teach reading, history, and science all in one class.”

Reforming science teaching

“Textbooks are going to be with us for quite some time,” acknowledges Kitty Lou Smith of the National Science Resources Center. However, she finds that the more visionary school districts, ones that focus on meeting national standards, tend to be proponents of the new materials.

Still, when it comes to these new programs, “one size doesn’t fit all,” cautions Berns of the K-12 Science Curriculum Dissemination Center. And that means schools will need to do their homework, she says.

To help them, her center has just published a 271-page primer on how to find and match science programs to a school’s needs. Her center also maintains a library of these materials so schools can evaluate and compare them.

Once schools are ready to consider a change, Berns’ center and others around the country will introduce the schools’ decision makers to teachers who are using the new materials–even arrange to have them observe particular programs in classroom use.

These alternatives are intended to do nothing less than reform science teaching. “Even in its finest moments, reform is not a totally graceful process,” Malone concedes. But when it works, he says, magic happens: “We connect kids to the idea that science is important and fun.”

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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