Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Summer 2007 Newsletter



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Changing the Course of Science Education

Jennifer Childress, Jim Benson, Claudia Campbell, and Sally Goetz Shuler

Would you send novice scientists into their laboratories and immediately tell them to create their own protocols and tools or to use an uncalibrated oscilloscope? The work of even the best scientists would be stifled by using faulty equipment or spending half of their time developing their own. The same applies to surgeons. And teachers. However, unlike beginning scientists and doctors, many new teachers are required to develop their own protocols and provide their own tools, or to use an uncalibrated tool- namely, a textbook.

This problem has existed for decades, as highlighted in the 1983 report "A Nation at Risk," which called attention to shortcomings in U.S. mathematics and science education. In response to this report, the National Academies and the Smithsonian Institution established a new organization in 1985-the National Science Resources Center (NSRC)-to improve the learning and teaching of science for all students in the United States and throughout the world. Using the resources of its parent institutions and the research on student learning, the NSRC has developed comprehensive programs to redesign and improve science education, including systemic leadership and professional development, and the research-based curriculum Science and Technology Concepts ® (STC ® ) PROGRAM. Curriculum programs of this type represent the calibrated tools that teachers and students need to become scientifically-literate citizens and competitive members of the 21 st century workforce.

Linking Research to Curriculum Development

There is an impressive body of research about the learning process, and cognitive scientists have a great deal of evidence about what is needed for effective learning to take place. In particular, this research has established three fundamental principles of learning, outlined as follows in How Students Learn: Science in the Classroom .

1) Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.

2) To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.

3) A "metacognitive" approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them. 1

To illustrate the first principle, we can examine a survey of Harvard graduates on their graduation day. When asked the question "where does all the mass of a tree come from?" most of the graduates replied that it must be derived from water and minerals from the soil 2 . These young adults can state the principles of photosynthesis on tests, but have never fully understood its concepts. Their preconceptions of the mass of CO 2 in the air and carbon's role in providing much of the mass of a tree hinder their application of the principles of photosynthesis to real-life problems.

To be effective, an educational program must incorporate all three of these principles of learning. It can accomplish this by following a four stage learning cycle:

  1. Focus on student preconceptions and ideas;
  2. Allow students to explore scientific questions with experimentation;
  3. Encourage student reflection through data analysis and communication; and
  4. Provide opportunities to apply new knowledge in new contexts and real-life situations. 3

Curriculum programs that follow this type of learning cycle have been tested and used throughout the world, and a large body of evidence suggests that students in these programs perform better on standardized tests and tests of critical thinking and problem solving skills than do students taught in a traditional textbook-based classroom 4-8 . One such curriculum is the Science and Technology Concepts STC PROGRAM ® , which was developed by the NSRC as part of its portfolio of services to the educational community.

Translating Research into Effective Learning Experiences

The NSRC developed its 32-unit K-8 curriculum program over more than a dozen years. The 24 elementary units- Science and Technology for Children ® (STC ® )-were published between 1991 and 1997. The eight middle school units- Science and Technology Concepts for Middle Schools T (STC/MST)-were published from 2000 to 2004. Some STC/MS units are also used in high school, up to the tenth grade level. These six- to twelve-week-units are designed to be increasingly cognitively demanding for students as they progress through grade levels and through individual units. The units follow a learning progression that is intended to build a foundation for continued, lifelong learning. See figure 1.

Figure 1


Grade Level

Life and Earth Science

Physical Science and Technology


Science and Technology for Children (STC)









Solids and Liquids



Comparing and Measuring



The Life Cycle of Butterflies






Balancing and Weighing

Plant Growth and Development*


Rocks and Minerals*



Chemical Tests*







Animal Studies*



Land and Water*



Electric Circuits*



Motion and Design*









Food Chemistry*



Floating and Sinking*



Experiments with Plants*


Measuring Time*



Magnets and Motors*


The Technology of Paper*



Science and Technology Concepts for Middle Schools (STC/MS)



Human Body Systems


Catastrophic Events



Properties of Matter



Energy, Machines, and Motion


Organisms-From Macro to Micro



Earth in Space




Electrical Energy and Circuit Design


*STC BOOKST literacy supplement is available now, or will be available by fall 2007.

The STC PROGRAM is based on research that suggests that children learn science best through concrete, usually hands-on experiences as part of a learning cycle. Educational activities should relate directly to children's understanding of the world, with students investigating scientific phenomena firsthand. STC PROGRAM units provide students with opportunities to learn age-appropriate concepts and skills and to acquire scientific attitudes and habits of mind. The curriculum's design allows students to work independently as well as cooperatively to conduct and design investigations; ask questions; make and test predictions; record, reflect on, and share their findings; and apply the skills and knowledge they have gained to new situations.

The primary goals of the STC PROGRAM are to:

  • Contribute to students' conceptual understanding of science at a level that is appropriate to their stage of cognitive development;
  • Help children develop scientific attitudes and habits of mind, such as curiosity, respect for evidence, the capacity for critical reflections, flexibility, and respect for living things;
  • Develop students' scientific reasoning and critical thinking; and
  • Align with the National Science Education Standards of the National Research Council.

The assessments that are part of each STC PROGRAM unit provide guidance to teachers in how to document and evaluate student learning. Clearly defined goals, with corresponding performance-based assessments, can be found in a chart at the front of each teacher's guide to facilitate teacher assessment of student learning. Each unit also offers a post-unit assessment as well as an appendix of final assessments.

The NSRC has also developed a literacy complement to 16 of its elementary units. (See figure 1). These books help teachers link students' science activities to other areas of the curriculum, particularly history, language arts, and social studies. They provide an excellent means of meeting the National Research Council's National Science Education Standards, as well as most science standards. And they are unique in that they highlight work being done by scientists at the world's foremost museum complex-the Smithsonian Institution.

Everything needed to teach NSRC science courses-teacher's guide, student books, and equipment and materials-is available from the NSRC's publisher, Carolina Biological Supply Company.

Ensuring the Quality and Integrity of Instructional Materials

As part of an NSF-funded initiative, each of the STC PROGRAM units was developed using a rigorous process that ensured scientific accuracy, age-appropriate content, and pedagogical appropriateness. See figure 2.

As its first step in curriculum development, NSRC staff collected the research and best practices in science education, and brought together an advisory panel composed of external experts in different areas of science and pedagogy. The NSRC and the advisory panel researched and developed each of the curriculum units according to a protocol established with the assistance of evaluation consultants whose job was to ensure objectivity. They then prepared a preliminary outline of learning experiences to be included in each new unit.

The next step was to pilot test each unit in a school in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Based on feedback from this experience the NSRC team, with input from the advisory committee, evaluated and modified materials and procedures throughout the piloting process. NSRC staff then prepared field-test editions of units for use in 12 to 15 classrooms in regionally distinct areas of the country. Field-test classrooms were selected to represent varied demographic and socio-economic populations. Using information obtained from teachers and students at field-test sites, comments from members of the STC Advisory Panel, and formal reports from STC evaluators, the NSRC revised the field-test editions of the units to prepare them for final production.

Developmental Feedback. As part of NSF requirements, the NSRC developed a comprehensive evaluation plan to evaluate the STC PROGRAM materials with the assistance of the Program Evaluation and Research Group at the Lesley College Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Educational Testing Service. The evaluation plan defined strategies for assessing each phase of materials development, from the testing of initial ideas to the preparation of materials for publication.

In their review of the field-test editions, the evaluation consultants focused on the assessment instruments that are an integral part of each unit to ensure that they were developmentally appropriate and accurately reflected the NSRC's goals.

Figure 2. The STC PROGRAM Research and Development Process


Like all other areas of science, our understanding of the learning process and cognition deepens and changes over time. As it does, the STC curricula are continually revised to ensure that students are receiving the best education possible.

Developing the System for Large-Scale Implementation

Although research-based curriculum is the basis for a sound science program, exemplary curriculum alone is insufficient to support effective science learning and teaching. To establish an effective infrastructure to support learning, leaders within a school district, region, or state must have or develop a shared vision of effective science learning and teaching and implement five essential components simultaneously. The NSRC has defined this system as the NSRC Theory of Action, depicted here.

Components of the system include:

  • A curriculum framework and comprehensive research-based science instructional program based upon research findings;
  • Teachers participating in professional development programs that are aligned with current research about adult learning and designed to move teachers from novice to expertise;
  • Assessments that are aligned with research about how students learn and that elicit meaningful developmental feedback about student learning;
  • Cost-effective and efficient systems that supply resources and materials to teachers; and Administrative and community leaders who provide long-term support for research-based science learning and teaching.

The NSRC provides assistance in implementing all of these strategies, beyond providing research-based curricula. National and regional Building Awareness Symposia bring together leaders from industry, engineering, science, government, and the educational community to inform them about and engage them in research-based science education improvement.

National and regional Strategic Planning Institutes assist local school district leadership teams-including a local scientist-in developing systemic, strategic plans for science education in their district. The leadership teams that participate in these institutes are exposed to several research-based curriculum programs, including but not limited to the NSRC's STC PROGRAM. Most of the school districts that have participated in these institutes have since adopted research-based curriculum units for use in their science classrooms.

Another component of the NSRC's leadership development portfolio is a world-class professional development program for teachers and scientists. The NSRC works with administrators and other local leaders to assist them in developing their ongoing professional development system, moving teachers from novice, to competent, to expert.

Recognizing the Ongoing Challenges to Research-Based Reform

Many challenges remain for science education in the United States. Most states use high-stakes tests that test only low-level learning skills, such as recitation, while ignoring the critical thinking skills that will be essential to life in the 21 st century. Teachers are pressured to teach to these low-level tests, thereby reducing their emphasis on teaching real understanding of science. These tests are designed to match the state science standards, many of which do not align with the national standards or with the research on learning and teaching.

A second challenge for education redesign and improvement is that many teachers are unable to remain in one school district, teaching one age group, for as long as it takes to become an expert teacher. Ongoing teacher training in content and age-specific pedagogy is essential for students' academic success. When expert 6 th grade teachers are transferred to a kindergarten class, for example, they become novices once more. The constant teacher turnover in American schools puts even more strain on an already overwhelmed professional development system.

The NSRC has found that it takes at least seven years for an entire community to shift its values on education, train leaders, fully implement a new way of learning and teaching, and see the outcomes of the new educational system. That time span creates another challenge for proponents of research-based curriculum materials-results are often demanded almost immediately by elected officials and business investors.


The National Academies and the Smithsonian Institution tasked the National Science Resources Center with changing the values around good learning and teaching in our country. Over the last 22 years, the NSRC has done this, creating discriminating consumers that demand rigorously tested curriculum materials based on education research. Today, about 22% of our nation's students have been educated in some form of research-based science programs, and that number is growing rapidly. The NSRC's vision is that all students in this country and throughout the world should be taught by competent teachers using world-class materials in a supporting environment.

The NSRC invites you to learn more about the research behind science education and to get involved in improving the education programs in your local school district, state, or region. Because the principles of good learning and teaching apply not only to elementary and secondary schools but also to undergraduate, graduate, and adult education, this research can inform your work in any sector of the workforce. Contact the NSRC at or visit the web at to learn more.


  1. National Research Council. 2005. How Students Learn: Science in the Classroom . Committee on How People Learn , A Targeted Report for Teachers, M.S. Donovan and J.D. Bransford, Editors. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
  2. A Private Universe . Editors T. Osborne and S. Allardi ,. Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Science Education Department, Science Media Group: 1987.
  3. National Science Resources Center . Science For All Children . National Academy Press, Washington , D.C. : 1997.
  4. Bredderman, Ted. "Effects of Activity-based Elementary Science on Student Outcomes: A Quantitative Synthesis." Review of Educational Research 53.4 (1983): 499-518.
  5. Shymansky, James A., Larry V. Hedges, and George Woodworth. "A reassessment of the effects of inquiry-based science curricula of the 60's on student performance." Journal of Research on Science Teaching 27.2 (1990): 127-144.
  6. Wise, Kevin C. "Strategies for Teaching Science: What Works?" Clearing House 69.6 (1996): 337-338.
  7. Minner, Daphne, Abigail J. Levy, Jeanne R. century, Erica Jablonski, and Erica Fields. "Publications and Other Resources Resulting from a Synthesis of Research on the Impact of Inquiry Science Instruction." Education Development Center, Inc. 2007.
  8. National Science Resources Center : The Impact of Our Work. < >

Jennifer Childress ( ) is the Director of the Center for Building Awareness of Science Education at the National Science Resources Center (NSRC), 904 D Street SW, Suite 704-B , Washington , D.C. 20024

Jim Benson ( ) is an Editor/Writer in the Communications and Publications Division of the NSRC in Washington , D.C.

Claudia Campbell ( ) is a Senior Research Associate in the Curriculum Development Center of the NSRC in Washington , D.C.

Sally Goetz Shuler ( ) is the Executive Director of the NSRC in Washington , D.C.



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