Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Summer 2007 Newsletter



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Development of K-12 Instructional Materials at the National Science Foundation

Gerhard Salinger

Funding the development of instructional materials at the National Science Foundation began shortly after the NSF was established in 1950. The early materials were inquiry-oriented, hands-on materials from which students learned how science is done; teachers are helped to change their practice. The key developers were practicing scientists. One of the early physics projects, Physical Sciences Study Project (PSSC), still in use today, has influenced almost all high school physics texts (and texts in other sciences as well) written since. The activities developed to help students understand the concepts are classics; but many are being forgotten and some science educators judge the newly developed activities to be not as effective. Other early high school curricula, Harvard Project Physics, Chem Study, Chemistry - a Bond Approach, the Blue (Molecular), Yellow (Systematics) and Green (Ecological) approaches to high school biology and Investigating the Earth, influenced traditional publishers to change their texts to adopt new pedagogies and new content. Many of these texts targeted high school students expected to be in the pipeline to become scientists and engineers; but the effect on college level texts was limited.

Similarly there was a development of instructional materials for elementary school students also led by a physicist - Bob Karplus. Before the development of the "alphabet soup" of elementary school science curricula (SCIS, USMES, SAVI, SAPA, MinniMaST and ESS, some of which are still in use), almost no elementary school science text had hands-on activities for students. Since then almost all elementary school science texts have them.

These projects required the involvement of practicing scientists, science educators and teachers. All three are necessary and have key contributions to make. The materials were pilot tested by excellent teachers in classrooms to determine that the concepts can be taught and field tested more broadly to determine the scaffolds needed to teach with them. These ideas have guided the program since the beginning. The early materials, however, did not have extensive large scale evaluations of student learning.

The importance of this effort can be determined by the studies that show that textbooks are a major influence on what students learn and that teachers spend much of class time using a textbook.

After NSF recovered from the shut down of the Education Directorate in the early 1980's, the funding of instructional materials continued, but now with an emphasis on science education for all students. The American Chemical Society developed ChemComm that used real world contexts to motivate the learning of chemistry. These were followed in the 1990's by Biology in Community Settings, Active Physics and EarthComm. These texts look very different from the traditional texts, but engage more students in the study of the science. There is evidence that students who learn from these texts have the background to do well in college courses. They had wrestled with the concepts. These and many other instructional materials that also embedded science learning in real-world contexts were developed as described above.

In the late 1980's the Instructional Materials Development (IMD) program decided that there would be more impact if there were some systemic initiatives to develop materials. In order to increase the use of the materials in schools, proposals were requested for the development of instructional materials that included a developer, a publisher and a school system. The majority of the materials funded developed covered several years at the elementary or middle school levels, including Science and Technology for Children and Full Option Science Study. For various reasons none of the original partnerships stayed intact, but some of the materials, particularly at the elementary school level were published and still see extensive use.

Nationally, the idea of standards for K-12 education became popular. The emphasis shifted from educating the science and engineering pipeline to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) for ALL students. The Project 2061 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), with NSF and other funding, studied what all students should know in science, mathematics, social science and technology by the time they left high school. This study resulted in the publication of the influential monograph, Science for All Americans , that described both content to be understood and the habits of mind to be developed. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics developed the Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. These standards not only described the mathematics students should know when they leave high school; but also described what students should know at various grade bands. In response, NSF funded the National Research Council (NRC) to convene scientists, science educators and teachers to develop the National Science Education Standards; while Project 2061 used its funding to write the Benchmarks for Science Literacy. All of these standards emphasized understanding over memorization and depth over breadth. Standards in other subjects were funded by the US Department of Education.

To implement the mathematics standards, the Materials Development program funded the development of three comprehensive curricula at the elementary level, five at the middle school level and four for high schools. The best of these built on the development and testing of modules funded earlier. After the science standards were published, NSF funded no comprehensive elementary school curricula; however the developers of those curricula were very active in the standards process. About ten comprehensive curricula were funded at the middle school level - most were multidisciplinary and each had a different focus. At the high school level, NSF funded one-year curricula with a disciplinary focus - six in physics, three in chemistry, five in biology, two each in Earth science and Environmental science. A few curricula were multidisciplinary. All of these materials were developed in manner similar to that described above, but now evaluators external to the project evaluated student performance. Most demonstrated significant gains in understanding the content and the processes of the discipline. The different pedagogy caused heated discussion, particularly in mathematics. The Mathematics Standards were revised in 2000 - but the emphasis remains on reasoning, pattern recognition and discourse.

In the 1980s, research in cognitive science led to deeper understanding about student learning. So in the 1990s, to help the education community understand and apply the findings from cognitive science, IMD funded or co-funded and provided the leadership and management of grants to the NRC for:

  • Knowing What Students Know,
  • Systems for State Science Assessments
  • America 's Lab Report
  • Taking Science to Schools
  • Evaluating Curricular Effectiveness
  • Investigating the Influence of Standards

In addition, IMD co-funded workshops addressing the topics of bridging the gap between classroom and large-scale assessment, assessing technological literacy, fluency in information and communications technology and use of multiple methods of evaluation.

To translate these ideas into instructional materials, the IMD program sponsored annual meetings of Principal Investigators of comprehensive materials development projects -creating a community of developers. A spirit of "coopetetion" developed so that the art and science of materials development also advanced. The insights of cognitive science, particularly How People Learn, pervaded the discussion of how to provide challenging STEM content for ALL students. There was increased emphasis on formative evaluation, teacher support materials, and dissemination.

In the 1990's the IMD program initiated projects that investigated the learning of technological design and its application to learning science. After developing some modules and a middle school curriculum, NSF (together with NASA) funded the International Technology Education Association to develop the Standards for Technological Literacy . The National Academy of Engineering was instrumental in shaping these standards and went on to encourage much more engineering education in both formal and informal situations in Technically Speaking . In Tech Tally , the Academy also investigated the state of assessment in technology education. Now there is much more interest in having students learn about design. (Design is also part of both sets of science standards.) The IMD program has developed several sets of materials in which learning is through design as well as inquiry. Design has a role in Active Physics and Active Chemistry.

As the pressure for accountability mounted, the IMD program demanded better evaluation of materials being developed and also funded the development of assessment items both for modifying instruction and for large scale testing. AAAS developed, with NSF funding, an instrument to determine whether textbooks really addressed the spirit of the standards - helping student understand concepts in depth. Most of the traditional science texts did not measure up and the NSF-funded texts fared only slightly better.

In 2000, a special solicitation requested developers to use a process described by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their monograph Understanding by Design . The process is to first set the learning goals to be achieved. The second step is to describe what a student would know and be able to do if the goal was achieved. Only after these two issues are resolved, should the activities that help students achieve the goals be developed. It may seem an obvious approach, but heretofore most developers had thought first about activities that engage students and only after developing them would they determine how they might address standards. Many other curriculum developers still use this method.

The comprehensive instructional materials developed for the middle school and the high school are still undergoing development, but the evaluations to date are very positive. Rather than spend an entire year on one discipline, in two of these curricula (IQWST (Investigating and Questioning Our World through Science and Technology) and BSCS Science: An Inquiry Approach), students learn some of each science discipline each year. The third (Foundation Science) instructs one semester of each discipline of the high school curriculum each semester so that at the end of the junior year the student has one year of two disciplines and one semester of the other two. The multi-disciplinary approach supports the assessment of science at the end of the 10 th grade. These materials also develop increasing sophistication with science processes such as the ability to marshal evidence to provide a warrant for a claim.

Taking Science to School , a recent study by the National Research Council again funded by NSF, describes the idea of a learning progression, which takes the backward design process even further. A learning progression sequences instruction over several years so that students develop ever more sophisticated ways of thinking about a topic as they progress through school. In its new Discovery Research K12 program (DR-K12) (which grew out of Instructional Materials and Teacher Professional Continuum programs), one of the issues being addressed is the understanding of learning progressions. The progression is not only about the content and process, but teachers must understand how the content and processes that students are learning at one level also provide the basis for deeper understanding of key concepts at the next level. The Atlas developed by AAAS is helpful in this regard.

The DR-K12 program will continue the development of instructional modules with an emphasis on understanding how the instructional system - materials, teachers, and schools - helps or hinders student understanding of key concepts.

This article has mainly looked at the ideas that drive the instructional materials development program at NSF. Major physics projects include Active Physics, Hands-on Physics, Science that Counts in the Workplace. PRISMS, Minds-on Physics, Assessing to Learn, and InterActions in Physics. Physics is also a major part in many of the multidisciplinary programs. Particularly Active Physics has demonstrated that students can learn physics at the ninth grade level, giving rise to inversion of the high school curriculum, which also makes good sense as the emphasis in biology is more a molecular and quantitative approach.

The changes in physics instruction rely heavily on the very active program in physics education research largely funded by the Division of Research, Evaluation and Communications at NSF. At the same time there were programs to provide professional development to teachers, which led to the modeling approach at Arizona State University and to the careful work by the Physics Education group at the University of Washington among others.

There still is controversy about the new methods of teaching physics which emphasize understanding over memorization and mathematical problem solving. In 1999, NSF funded the group at Boston College who were instrumental in the developmental and analysis of the TIMSS test, to give the TIMSS test to students who studied from NSF funded materials or whose teachers had participated in NSF funded professional development workshops. These students performed one-half standard deviation better than US students with similar backgrounds who had taken the original TIMSS test.

This article is meant to provide an overview of materials development at NSF. Details and specific information can be obtained from the author.

Gerhard Salinger has been a program officer in the Instructional Materials Development Program at the NSF for 18 years. The ideas, findings and conclusions expressed here are his alone and not necessarily those of the NSF. He can be reached at the National Science Foundation 4210 Wilson Boulevard Arlington , VA 22230 ; email: .




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