Educators rework the way schools teach science. Focus on `systems,' not just facts and terms
FOR two years, James Rutherford and five teams of scientists, economists, sociologists, and other scholars around the country have been working at what may be the most comprehensive effort in 50 years to rework how science is taught in schools. Called Project 2061 (for the year Halley's comet returns to this solar system), the effort will focus on introducing students to the structural questions and themes that underlie science - rather than giving them isolated bits of information and facts.Skip to next paragraph
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``Typically, students would just pass by a key concept like `system,''' says Dr. Rutherford, a science educator at the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), where Project 2061 originated. ``They would learn about it through ecosystem, in chemistry or economics, or in the idea of family, nation, or state. But rarely do they examine the powerful idea of `system' itself.''
What trains the mind to understand and be engaged in science, says Rutherford, is a grasp of those ideas that tie various disciplines together: ideas like scale, stability, model, pattern, change, evolution, cause. ``This isn't just problem solving or logic, it's an approach or habit of thinking,'' he says.
But Project 2061 is a long way from completion. The initial conceptual work - bankrolled at $1.5 million by the Carnegie Corporation, the Mellon Foundation, and AAAS - is over.
Now Rutherford & Co. will take the show on the road. Over the next 2 years, they will work closely with five school systems (not yet announced) around the country.
The project will be fitted to all grades - K-12. Each site will be affiliated with a local university, which will provide intellectual support to the team. ``We want different models. Some of the approaches may be fairly conservative, some may be radical. We want to keep it flexible,'' says Rutherford.
Along with the work at the five sites, AAAS will be reexamining all areas of science in schools: types of tests, teacher preparation, curriculum, materials, and local, state, and federal policies.
Beyond that lies a ``dissemination phase,'' which AAAS staff members think will be a 10- to 25-year task.
``It's one of the most important projects to come along in a while,'' says Alden Dunham of the Carnegie Corporation. ``The draft of the conceptual document is extraordinary.''
Growing ``science illiteracy'' among US students was a main spur to Project 2061. (``Not just illiterate, grotesquely illiterate,'' says professor Peter Caws at George Washington University.)
A new study of 10th-graders by Jon Miller at Northern Illinois University, for example, found that only 15 percent of students scored above 70 in age-appropriate questions on science policy (nuclear power, acid rain), and only 7.5 percent scored above this level in basic science and math.
Dr. Miller predicts a shortfall of 700,000 engineers in the next decade.
``These days I'm more worried about the effect of science illiteracy on our democracy and democratic processes than on science itself,'' Miller says. Precise reasoning, the struggle for clarity, an originality cultivated by familiarity with science - all are necessary qualities of mind in a democracy, he says.