Educators rework the way schools teach science. Focus on `systems,' not just facts and terms

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

``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.

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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.

Part of the problem is that current science courses are based on textbooks written as long lists. Astronomers, biologists, chemists, and so forth all cram as much of their subjects as possible into what are often 800-page books.

New knowledge is making the books bigger. Mary Budd Rowe of the University of Florida, for example, found that the average high school textbook introduces seven to 10 new concepts per page. The 300 to 350 pages of science assigned per year contain 2,400 to 3,000 terms or symbols. Hence, in a school year of 180 days, Dr. Rowe calculates, 20 concepts must be covered each period - or one every two minutes. This chokes off exploration of the deeper, interior questions and designs in science, Rutherford says.

Instead of piling up ideas from each field, Rutherford had his five teams discuss and argue for 15 months about those areas of learning that tie different fields together.

Instead of making a case for this or that bit of knowledge, scholars came up with more fundamental issues: the difference between theory and experiment, the importance of number systems, cause and chance, discreet vs. continuous phenomena.

``These are elements found and repeated in all forms of science - from cell biology to quark physics,'' says physicist Gerald Holton of Harvard.

Dr. Holton, whose now-classic ``The Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought'' provides a base for Project 2061, says the project is important because ``it gets away from the fighting over a finite pie of time in class to examine underlying themes - connect to some richer fabric.''

The popular assumption that children cannot learn advanced concepts is uninformed, Holton adds. It's more a matter of good teaching and good materials: ``[Swiss educator Jean] Piaget has shown us that children are ready for the most advanced materials. They are fascinated about the finite and the infinite; the living and nonliving; time and motion,'' he says. ``It's the mathematical computations they have trouble with.''

Educators such as Holton say ``themes'' are not a substitute for math or other subject-specific skills. ``Understanding the attitude of science is not worthwhile if you don't know how to do it. But then, to just learn arithmetic - you can't see the picture.''

Aims of Project 2061

1. Science literacy. An understanding of the enterprise. An introduction to basic ideas: ``Does the universe expand, or oscillate?'' What is math's role?

2. Ethical and moral issues of science. How does the operation of science and technology relate to value systems - personal, national, global?

3. Seeing through the eyes of science. Identifying types of systems, worlds - animals, plants, stars, the designed environment, human social systems.

4. The history of scientific ideas. How and why did scientific ideas emerge and develop? What were the seminal events?

5. Habits of mind in science. The approach or ``attitude'' scientists take in ``doing science.'' Elements of hypothesis.

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