Science & Technology Curriculum Framework
Owning The Questions
Significant science and technology learning builds on students' curiosity and intuitions.
Children are curious and eager to make sense of what they observe. From the time they are old enough to explore and manipulate the objects around them, they are young engineers: taking things apart, putting them together, trying to figure out how things work. All learners ask questions of one another and of adults, and they strive to put their ideas into words, drawings, and actions. Children's inclination to ask questions and their existing ideas about the natural world are the starting points for learning.
Children also learn the habits, ideas, and values that are shared by their culture about science, technology, and their roles as learners. But not all students at a particular age have the same knowledge, skills, life experiences, cultural outlook, or access to resources. Students at the same grade level may have different understandings of the same ideas; they may have different interests; and they may use different strategies to demonstrate what they know.
To see what this principle looks like, consider this first-grade classroom, where science and technology are part of the students' daily activities.
Ms. Lane places a number of common objects -- rocks, seeds, bird feathers, earthworms, a cup of water, snails, pieces of wood, grass, a candle, a spinning top, toy car, balsa airplane, and other things -- on a table in the classroom science center. She encourages the children to pick up, smell, observe, draw, talk about, and write about the objects. The children are eager to look closely. They dismantle some of the toys and try to put them back together. While they work together in small groups, Ms. Lane listens to their ideas and asks them to talk, draw or write about what the objects are made of, which ones are alike, and how they might be arranged into groups. As the children describe their ideas, Ms. Lane introduces related concepts such as all objects have certain properties that help us describe them. She also introduces words like "soft," "hard," "round," and "sharp."
As the children continue to raise questions, Ms. Lane introduces another important scientific idea to investigate. "Which objects on this table do you think are alive? Which do you think are not alive? What qualities do live things have?" The students work cooperatively to place the objects into two groups, those they think are alive and those they think are not. This leads to much debate and questions: "Is fire alive?" "Is a seed alive?"
With Ms. Lane's guidance, these young children are beginning to engage in the process of inquiry. They are actively participating in scientific investigations and problem solving. When students are engaged in inquiry, they ask questions, describe problems, collect evidence, represent their ideas in writing or with models, design solutions to problems, and discuss their understandings with others. In doing so, learners develop a web of connected ideas about their world.
Investigation and problem solving are central to science and technology education.
Investigations introduce students to the nature of original research. They are motivating and integrating enterprises. Problem solving situations create powerful learning environments. They increase students' understanding and retention of scientific and technological concepts, and they provide entry points for all learners.
The inquiry-centered classroom does not compromise the rigor of learning, nor does it lessen the importance of a teacher's knowledge and experience. It does require that districts and teachers make choices about which science and technology concepts to study in depth. In the inquiry-centered classroom, teachers guide student inquiries, decide when and how to intervene, and help students focus on important ideas and concepts.
After their explorations, Ms. Lane's students share their ideas in a class discussion and consider how they know whether something is alive. They listen carefully to one another's explanations and arguments. "Of course a rock is not alive," says Ally. "It doesn't move." "It'll move if I push it," says Juan, so they are not sure. There is disagreement about fire. With their teacher's help, they observe a lit candle and consider what evidence there is that the flame is alive or not alive. From their consideration of evidence, Ms. Lane helps the students to make a list of the characteristics of living and non-living things.
Ms. Lane introduces the students to some new "members" of the class -- land snails. She asks the students to observe the snails closely, thinking about their list of characteristics, and to say why they think the snails are alive or not alive. During the year, the children return to the question of alive or not alive, amending their list of characteristics as they gain more experience and confidence.
Each student in this class builds meaning by integrating his or her new experiences with prior understandings. As in the debate about "what is alive," contradictions and confusion are a critical part of the ongoing process of learning. Students' ideas in science and technology evolve over time. Children need opportunities to examine and challenge their ideas so that they can learn how to apply these ideas to problem-solving situations. Opportunities for students to reflect on their own ideas, make predictions, and discuss their findings are crucial to this building of knowledge.
On the other hand, students must also realize that there are accepted truths (e.g. law of gravity) about the natural world that society has come to share. Many of students' early understandings, such as their tendency to believe that certain non-living things are alive, are brought into question by focused experiences with objects and processes in the world during their early childhood and primary grades, as well as later on in life.
Students learn best in an environment that acknowledges, respects, and accommodates each learner's background, individuality, and gender.
All students, regardless of culture, background, gender, physical ability or developmental level, should have the opportunity to learn science and technology. The successful science and technology program will meet students' different interests, motivations, and strategies for learning while holding all students to high expectations and standards for accomplishment.
Ms. Lane's students are surprised to find that Ahmed, a child from Saudi Arabia, does not recognize a number of the seeds and shells on the table, not even the pine cone. The other children try to explain to him what pine cones are and what they know about them. Eventually they turn to the classroom computer and CD ROM to show him pictures of pine trees and pine cones. The next day, Ahmed brings in a new object and adds it to the table. The children puzzle over it. They cannot find it in any of their books. Finally Ahmed tells them the secret: "It is a cardamom seed. My mother uses it in cooking."
Society needs the contributions that women and minorities can bring to science and technology. While the idea that science and technology should be accessible to everyone has been growing in the past years, educators still need to pay attention to what each learner brings to these disciplines and to the kinds of support that all students need to succeed. This is especially true for women and minorities.
Students who arrive in our schools with a different cultural background and language may fall behind in science and technology while trying to master English. Some educators have begun helping transitional bilingual, English as a Second Language and Limited English Proficiency students to study science and technology in their native language while at the same time teaching them English. These teachers benefit from a clearer picture of the students' understandings and their ways of solving problems.
As students begin pursuing investigations and design challenges in more than one language, they in turn become aware of their own understandings and of the need to communicate these clearly to speakers of other languages.
What follows is a look at an innovative science and mathematics program in another Massachusetts classroom.
Cheche Konnen is an urban science and mathematics program that demonstrates the power of a sense-making approach for language minority students. In Haitian Creole, Cheche Konnen means "search for knowledge," and in the Cheche Konnen project, what students actually think is at the center of their activity. Cheche Konnen students explore their own questions; design their own studies; collect, analyze, and interpret their data; argue theories of their own making; and evaluate their evidence. Interdisciplinary investigations link science, mathematics, and language to inquiry. Through this approach, language minority students learn to think, talk, and act scientifically.
In their Water Taste Test investigation, for example, students decided to investigate a long-held belief in their school: the idea that the water fountain used by older students had better tasting water than the one used by younger students. The sixth graders who investigated this belief used their native Haitian Creole to design their studies, interpret data, and argue theories. They used English to collect data from their mainstream peers, read standards for interpreting test results, and report their findings. As they conducted their investigations and presented their findings, their mainstream peers began to see them as doing something important.
Their teacher remarks: "I think that the kids' way of seeing the world, and the way they think in general, has changed because they now feel more comfortable learning and investigating questions on their own. Most of all, I feel they have made a step towards being critical about what people tell them. They are learning to find out for themselves and not believe everything they hear."
The core strategy of approaching science and technology through inquiry can provide an equal footing for all students by allowing them to ask questions embedded in their own culture and particular interests. Acknowledging students' differences, teachers can plan investigations and design challenges so that students tackle problems and questions in multiple ways and in collaborative groups that respect each member's contribution to the whole.
Assessment in science and technology is an opportunity for student learning, a tool for guiding instruction, and a way to document student progress.
The goal of classroom assessment is to provide teachers and students with information about students' evolving understandings, skills, and knowledge. Classroom assessment that is embedded in the learning and teaching process offers non-judgmental feedback as well as an opportunity for students to practice skills and apply what they have learned in a new context. It helps teachers make informed judgments about their course of instruction. (Please see Chapter 2, Lifelong Learning, Teaching, and Assessment for an elaborated discussion of assessment).
Even as Ms. Lane was introducing the objects on the science table to her students, she was listening carefully for their ideas and keeping track of the ways individual students were expressing their understandings. If the children had difficulty understanding the idea of "properties," she was prepared to introduce more objects and to give the children more time to be comfortable with the concept before moving on to the question of "living or non-living."
Learning of science and technology requires multiple assessment strategies and multiple types of data. Using multiple strategies for assessment also respects children's differences and provides support and opportunities to learners with special needs, whether these needs are related to cognition, gender, language, or culture.
Performance-based assessment (as described in Chapter 2), meets the instructional goals of this framework particularly well because it allows students to demonstrate what they have learned and understood in the context of solving a complex problem. Performance-based assessment poses open-ended problems that are grounded in real-world contexts; the assessment strategy requires students to refine the problem, devise a strategy for solving it, conduct sustained work, and deal with concepts rather than discrete facts (Baron, 1990).
Imagine students in a tenth-grade chemistry class considering the properties of various substances:
At Natick High School, Ms. O'Keefe challenges her chemistry students to a two-week research project designed to support their understanding of the physical properties of substances. The project will both help the students to become informed consumers and give Ms. O'Keefe important assessment information to inform her teaching. Ms. O'Keefe challenges the students to select three products -- a food product, a pharmaceutical product, and a household product -- and to explore their characteristics and physical properties. Consideration includes the densities, weights, and boiling and melting points of the chemical compounds in snack foods; the uses and side effects of pharmaceutical products; and the sometimes surprising chemical contents of common household products. Students display their findings on posters and share their research with their classmates. A scoring rubric and feedback to students with regard to the completeness and accuracy of their work provide assessment information. The students use this information to evaluate their progress, while Ms. O'Keefe uses it to plan the next month of laboratories and investigations.
Science and technology connect with other disciplines, and have a particularly integralrelationship with mathematics.
One of the goals of the Massachusetts frameworks is to emphasize connections among disciplines. Issues related to science and technology should be examined in all disciplines; conversely, the questions of other disciplines should be related to science and technology.
The discipline of mathematics plays a particularly important role in technology and science. Too often students are shut out of science and technology, and ultimately out of careers, because of limited confidence and skill with mathematics. It is therefore crucial to bring these disciplines closer together in learning.
The world is often contemplated through the language of size, shape, and relationship. Mathematics allows us to analyze patterns we might not otherwise find among the details of our observations, and it lets us connect phenomena that might otherwise seem unrelated. Mathematics also helps us to construct models that describe the growth and change we see in the worlds of physics and biology, starting with simple number series and ranging through calculus. These mathematical models can also help us analyze and test complex technological systems such as the control of traffic through Boston's Central Artery or the structural integrity of the John Hancock building.
Mathematics, science, and technology also meet in data analysis, where counting, sorting, describing, graph making, comparing, and predicting all become part of a common language.
When science, technology, and mathematics curricula are interwoven, many perspectives enrich students' symbolic understandings, as illustrated in the following vignette.
Mr. Rowe presented his eighth graders with a scientific challenge, asking why small mammals usually have higher heart rates than larger ones and why they need to eat more food relative to their body weight. Students were encouraged to use simple geometric shapes to model the more complex shapes of animals; in this way, they could more readily see what effects changes in dimensions might have.
At the start of the challenge, students explored the relationship between the surface area and the volume of various sized boxes; they also represented the patterns they noticed. Their focus then shifted back to the original questions. Using their new mathematical understandings, the students considered the relationship between the volume and the surface area of various organisms. How would the volume and surface area of a mouse compare to those of an elephant? Why might organisms with more surface area to volume have faster heart rates and relatively greater oxygen consumption? How does this information relate to heat flow and heat loss?
Students' considerations were enriched by data about animals' food intake, energy expenditure, and the "costs" of daily life for a range of mammals. Through the use of simple models and some basic mathematics, Mr. Rowe's students came to see how body size places absolute constraints on the kind of life an organism can live -- with consequences down to the cellular level and up to the level of the ecosystem.
A comprehensive PreK-12 Science program includes all sciences every year. Emphasis on the underlying principles of each discipline and connections across the domains of science is critical.
Science and technology instruction in an integrated curriculum is necessary for all students every school year. Although each domain of science has its particular approach and area of concern, students need to see how the domains together present a coherent view of the world. Oceanographers, for instance, use their knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, and earth and space sciences when they study organisms in a tidal pool.
Traditional instruction, in an approach called the "layer cake," has divided science education into three separate curricula: life sciences, physical sciences, and earth and space sciences. Recently, science education reformers in the United States have come to assert that "the time has come for the . . . layer cake to be dismantled" (NSTA, 1992), fearing that when the domains are taught in isolation, students think that scientific concepts reach only tenuously across the domains, if at all. Connecting the domains of natural science with one another and with other disciplines should be a goal of science education reform.
Organizing instruction across the domains of science can be done in a variety of ways. One approach coordinates the traditional domains of science while retaining the boundaries of their learning standards; another integrates the learning standards across the domains by means of unifying concepts or topics. (Strand 2 of this chapter provides illustrative material). Deciding which approach a school district should take will require time and incremental planning.
One example of how the sciences might be related is through ecology projects that study the distribution and abundance of organisms, their interactions with each other, and their relationship to the non-living world. Earth, life, and physical sciences are all part of ecological investigations, and student teamwork can reflect the need to integrate specialties to make sense of some phenomena.
High school students explore the global carbon cycle to understand some of the dynamics of recent global climate changes, which have important policy implications for at least the next half-century. After investigating carbon physiology in animals, plants, and communities of organisms, the class tries to build a model of the carbon cycle that would allow them to predict carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere for the next ten years.
One team bases its projection on data about the annual fluctuations of CO2 in the atmosphere, as reflected in an "average" year's data. A second team takes current estimates of the amounts and exchange rates of CO2 in earth, seas, and biosphere to make its prediction. A third team makes its predictions using data on CO2 emissions from human activity continent by continent. Each team is missing an important piece of the puzzle. It is not until the three teams come together and combine projections that they are able to see the important dynamics of this bio-geological cycle. Only then can students assess for themselves the relative importance of humans as participants in this planet-wide experiment.
Science and Technology study in grades PreK-10 becomes differentiated in grades 11 and 12 based on students' interests and career goals.
Just as it is important for all students to study sciences and technology every year in an integrated curriculum, it is also important that science and technology courses help students prepare for the workplace as well as for further study. Eliminating the general track in Massachusetts high schools has significant implications for the science and technology programs that districts provide. Upper-level courses must prepare students for science- and technology-rich workplaces as well as for lifelong learning.
Students in the upper grades should have the opportunity to choose from a menu of programs. These may include apprenticeship and worksite training, job corps programs, alternative learning centers, vocational/occupational programs, and college preparation. As students reach grades eleven and twelve, they choose science and technology programs that are most suited to their interests and career goals.
The Cambridge Rindge and Latin School offers an unusually varied and interdisciplinary menu to its juniors and seniors. The Rindge School of Technical Arts integrates vocational learning with academics by providing students with the opportunity to choose courses defined by one of four career paths: Arts and Communications, Business and Entrepreneurship, Health and Human Services, and Industrial Technology and Engineering. Each of these career pathways functions like a "concentration" or "major" in college, offering clusters of related courses, internships, and community projects. The school district developed an articulation agreement with a college in which a student may receive college credit for a course completed in grades 11 or 12.
For example, a junior interested in the Health and Human Services pathway might choose to train in peer health education while taking a Human Anatomy and Physiology course. The next year he might pursue a health career apprenticeship in a local hospital before going on to the workplace or college. Similarly, a student interested in the Industrial Technology and Engineering pathway might choose to take a course in her junior year called "Physics and Engineering." This innovative course requires that students construct equipment for science experiments. The next year this same student might take a Science and Technology seminar and spend a year-long technical internship at Polaroid.
Communication and collaboration are essential to teaching and learning in science and technology.
The practice of science and technology is a social endeavor. Ideas are tested, modified, extended, and revisited by the scientific community over time. Working with others is an essential part of learning the practice of science and technology.
The social context of science and technology learning is important because it helps students make connections and demonstrate understandings. Learners need opportunities to think reflectively about their work and to discuss their ideas both with peers and with people who have more experience. When students try to communicate their ideas to others, they come to clarify and explain them; similarly, hearing other people's ideas sparks students to new scientific and technological thinking.
The following conversation takes place among fifth graders who are studying the trash that they produce in their school. They are collaborating through electronic mail with six other classes engaged in the same study. Their collaboration helps them to listen to and question the ideas of others, work with data, and solve problems:
"It can't be true. They can't have so much glass and plastic and so little paper!"
"I can't believe they throw away so much and recycle so little!"
"They must have hit the wrong key on the computer and sent the wrong weight -- they must have!"
"Ms. Keely, what do you think? Did they do this wrong or what?"
These students are looking at a data table that contains the weights of trash collected over a week by six other classes. They have been studying trash output for the last month, and they have been carefully weighing their lunchroom and classroom trash to see how much trash they produce. Determining the proportions of glass, plastic, paper, and food trash is an important part of the exercise since it mirrors the ways in which recycling and waste management occurs. They have sent e-mail letters to other classes engaged in the same study of "Too Much Trash?" and they know that one class, like their own, has a pattern of bringing lunches from home. The animated conversation we hear is in reaction to an unexpected difference in the percentage of paper, plastic, and glass generated by this class and their own.
After another series of letters back and forth, the students discover the root of the discrepancy. It's juice boxes! They have weighed their juice box trash (which is significant: 25 boxes each day for 5 days) and counted it as paper, while the other class has weighed their juice box trash and counted it as 1/3 paper, 1/3 plastic and 1/3 glass. That's why the weights are so different.
By collaborating, sharing data, and making sense of data, fifth-grade students come to understand one of the most important tenets of science and technology: Measurement procedures must be standardized, and researchers must have agreed upon categorization and classification schemes in order to collect and analyze useful data.
Access to the expertise of others is needed in order for teachers to implement the cross-domain and interdisciplinary approach advocated in this framework.
Interdisciplinary learning requires cross-discipline planning, PreK-twelve coordination and sharing of resources among teachers. Teachers who have traditionally focused their science learning and training in one subject area need access to the expertise of their colleagues so they may coordinate across the domains. They also need opportunities for sharing the teaching of units and projects. Moreover, all teachers -- even accomplished inter-disciplinarians -- benefit from time and professional development periodically dedicated to experiencing inquiry in science and technology for themselves. Fresh discoveries by teachers facilitate inquiry in students.
These recommendations will take significant time and collaborative effort on the part of teachers, district leaders and such educational partners as universities, communities, and businesses. The successful reform of science and technology education depends on whether the structure and culture of schools can provide support and encouragement for this to happen. As schools and districts invest time for establishing and maintaining teacher partnerships, they lay a foundation for successful implementation of this framework.
Many teachers in Massachusetts have created powerful programs for integrating science, mathematics, and technology learning, and integrating these disciplines with social studies, English language arts, and all other areas of the curriculum.
A seventh grade teaching team designed an interdisciplinary project around the topic of hydroponic farming. Team members included teachers from technology, science, mathematics, instructional (computer) technology, social studies, language arts, and art.
The team challenged their cluster students to design, construct, and evaluate a hydroponic farming system. Each team of students received seeds and nutrient solution, and their systems were set up in a constant environmentwith uniform light and heat. Constraints included a limit on the number of plants that could be grown and a space limitation of 3,000 cubic centimeters. Students could modify their systems at any time, and they were challenged to design their own nutrient solutions. After one month, total growth was determined by measuring the cumulative height of all living plant matter.
In this initial phase of the project, the technology, science, and mathematics teachers shared information to help the students set up actual hydroponic systems and maximize their productivity. Working in small groups, students designed and built their hydroponic unit, studied plant growth and structure, and recorded changes in their science journals. They learned how to measure volume so they could keep within the parameters of the challenge, and they graphed root growth against stem growth using a variety of techniques. When a group of students reconfigured the tubing of their nutrient delivery system and accidentally drowned a third of their plants, the technology teacher asked the students to raise several possible explanations.
In the second phase of the project, the instructional (computer) technology teacher, social studies and language arts teachers were called on to help design activities that would allow students to understand the implications of their work in hydroponic farming. The instructional (computer) technology teacher proposed modeling the classroom systems as actual businesses, and taught the students a modified spreadsheet system for documenting their farm operation expenses. After hearing the social studies teacher lead a discussion about the transformation of the United States from an agricultural society to an industrial one, the language arts teacher came up with a writing activity. Working in teams, the students would write science fiction stories about hydroponic farming in the future. The art teacher lent support at all phases of the project, teaching illustration and demonstrating how different graphics treatments might influence the reading of data and the effectiveness of the science fiction story lines.
Students kept records of their learning, including sketches of ideas, possible solutions, technical drawings, graphs of the growing system's performance over time, and a cost analysis of production. The hydroponics interdisciplinary project culminated in a presentation to parents, and other members of the community, in which each group presented their findings and discussed the important implications of their work.