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Science & Technology Curriculum Framework
Owning The Questions

Strand 2: Domains Of Science

Lifelong learners are able to understand and apply the principles, laws, and fundamental understandings of the natural sciences.

There is a knowledge explosion of unprecedented proportion in the sciences. For educators, the problem of having too many topics, and too little time to develop them, is a serious one. Just as serious is the need for students to understand certain central concepts, laws, and theories that transcend the traditional domains of science (i.e., physical sciences, life sciences, and earth and space sciences), for only then can they successfully contribute to a society in which science and technology play an increasingly important part. Science education therefore needs to address a difficult, yet essential question:

What are the most central concepts, laws, and theories that we want students to understand and be able to use?

Crossing the domains of science provides the greatest challenge at the high school level, where the sciences are traditionally taught separately. Two approaches for relating central concepts across the domains of science are described below, with illustrations following each.

Crossing the Domains of Science:

A collection of ways for relating central concepts across physical, life, and earth and space sciences.

Topic-Based Approach

In a topic-based approach, study in each science class is organized around topics that can profitably be investigated across the domains of science. Such topics are rich and varied; they include such things as light, atomic energy, oceanography, a local wetland, water quality, and acid rain. By coordinating study across the physical sciences, life sciences, and earth and space sciences, teachers weave together the fundamental understandings common to them all. Learning Standards derive from each particular domain, and the curriculum is structured to help students make connections across the domains.

Examples of Topic-Based Approach

Illustration 1


Eighth grade students are enrolled in a topic-based science course, incorporating the study of light. In physical science, they study reflection, refraction, and absorption of light as well as methods of producing light; when studying life science, they investigate how the cornea of the eye refracts light; and when studying the earth and space sciences, they explore how the moon reflects light from the sun.

Tenth grade students investigate light as it pertains to geometrical optics, image formation, and rudimentary spectroscopy with telescopes in earth and space sciences.

Twelfth graders study the effect of lasers on cellular material in a biology class, e.g., eye surgery; the causes of electron movement to produce light in chemistry or physics class; and the uses of the electromagnetic spectrum and namometer, e.g., red-shift or using lasers to study seismological activity.

Illustration 2


Seventh grade students attend a school district that will integrate science using a topic-based approach. Oceanography is one topic students will study. When students study physical science, they investigate the properties of waves and waves length. When they study life science, they learn about zooplankton and phytoplankton; and when they study earth and space science, students investigate the characteristics of the ocean floor.

In the ninth grade, when students study physical science, they investigate the chemical properties of ocean water. In life science, students explore the flora and fauna in a tidal pool. When studying earth and space science, students investigate the development of tropical storms over warm ocean waters.

In the eleventh grade, students investigate the force of waves as they crash onto the coast, complex ocean food chains and the formation of islands and ocean trenches.

Unifying Concepts Approach

In a unifying concepts approach, science learning is organized directly around the concepts and processes common to all the domains of science. Appropriate unifying concepts, which may be determined by the local school district, might include such ideas as Patterns and Change; Constancy, Change, and Measurement; Interaction and System; Evidence, Models, and Explanation; or Evolution and Equilibrium. Learning Standards from particular domains that illustrate the unifying concept are grouped together and the curriculum structured on that basis.

Examples of Unifying Concepts Approach

Illustration 1

Pattern and Change

An elementary program organizes instruction around the concept of "Patterns and Change," focusing on seasonal changes. Over the course of the school year, the children record changes they observe in deciduous trees; look for animal tracks and observe how animals gather food; study changes in plant growth; keep track of the sun's position in the sky; and look for patterns in sunrise and sunset times.

Illustration 2

Constancy, Change and Measurement

Change as a unifying concept is studied in each and all the domains of science. The change in energy from potential to kinetic provides the focus in the physicalsciences; the metamorphosis of insects and the life cycles of plants serve as subjects for the life sciences; the forces involved in rock formation are studied in the earth and space sciences. The study of change in each domain promotes awareness of patterns and relations in the natural world.

More examples of how studies might cross the domains are found in the preceding Inquiry Strand and throughout the other three strands.

Any approach to cross-domain learning will require a team effort from faculty. Where domain-based classes are retained, teachers will need to plan collaboratively to ensure that the topics or unifying concepts are well articulated across their classes. If the curriculum is organized to address multiple domains within a particular course, team planning by subject matter specialists will be necessary and a team teaching configuration may well be an effective mechanism for instruction. Following are three examples of ways high school staff have begun crossing the domains of science in their schools.

Getting Started I:
Crossing the Domains of Science with the Help of Communications Technology

Boat design, navigation, and the principles of sailing are central topics in the physics learning that happens in the Sailing through Physics program at Hull Jr./Sr. High School. It is a program that allows students in Grades 8 through 12 to witness and understand the physical laws of nature in action.

To be sure, our location on a peninsula in Boston Harbor, the enthusiastic local support of local maritime professionals, and our school's commitment to environmental projects all provided the context for launching this innovation. But much more was in the offing.

In order to begin, we needed to draw on each other's expertise in the fields of earth and space science, physics, chemistry, and geography. Since we were all trained in our specific domains, and had spent years teaching our separate subjects, it took us a while to discover each other's interests and talents. But as we sought out the information we needed to make the project work, we began to see how our separate fields fit together and sometimes overlapped. We discovered that the topic of weather offered us the opportunity to bring the science domains together.

As we got further along, each of us selected a resource to explore for its usefulness to our project. These resources were not domain based; rather, they included such things as computer technology, literature, and community. As we shared our findings with other members of the project team, we found ourselves helping each other with new ideas and becoming more aware of how and why the domains overlap.

Ms. Marcks wrote: "As I used my newly acquired computer skills to search the Internet, I found much information about weather. I shared this information with the earth and space science teacher and the physical science teacher, and together we organized a large-scale plan for collecting weather data and disseminating it to other schools. The data we collected included readings of temperature, barometric pressure, wind velocity, and precipitation. The students soon learned about instruments, units of measure, and the need for precision and accuracy. They now understand weather well enough to make predictions that they can broadcast over the school's public address system!"

The teachers loved this program and the students engulfed it. It's real science, and I suspect we are all learning in ways that will stay with us for a very long time to come.

Getting Started II:
Looking at What We Have -- Chelmsford Teachers Focus on Frameworks

In Chelmsford, thirteen volunteer teachers representing grades 6-12 have made a three-year commitment to work together to revise our science curriculum. We see the revision as an ongoing process that will occur in three phases: review of existing science programs and targeting areas for change (Year 1, now in progress); first revisions and pilot programs, along with teacher training (Year 2); full implementation (Year 3). Periodic assessment of our progress and the success of the changes are an essential part of our three-year plan.

We began by meeting after school to discuss the draft Science and Technology chapter and the Common Chapters. Recognizing that the frameworks are guidelines, not mandates, we evaluated our 6-8 and 9-12 science programs in terms of the learning environments, teaching styles, and methods of assessment. We found that many of the framework recommendations were already in place, and we then identified areas for change. In a full release day session, we compared our curriculum offerings to the proposed Learning Standards for each grade span. It was obvious that our weakest areas were ecology and environmental science.

During a four-day summer workshop, we realized that many parts of our existing science programs could be taught from an environmental point of view. We chose "Cycles" as a trial theme or "thread" that could easily be picked up and pulled through our 6-12 curriculum. Content overlap from year to year would allow us to reinforce and expand our students' knowledge. The "necessary change" became more manageable when each grade level teacher was responsible for a smaller part of it. Students at each grade level would be asked to solve an open-ended problem focusing on ecological or environmental cycles to tie each year's activities together.

Grade-level teams of 2-3 teachers then developed new activities (or revised existing ones) focusing on cycles. We wrote objectives, identified resources, and recommended use of appropriate technologies. As we met to evaluate each other's work, we realized that we couldn't discuss cycles in some contexts without working with the concept of energy. An energy thread will be the next one that is woven into our curriculum.

As a ninth grade physical science teacher, I am looking forward to studying acids with my students while they try to identify points in the water cycle where rain becomes acidic. We will collect acid rain data in Chelmsford and add it via E-mail to a national study called Students Watching Over Planet Earth. We'll go out to the student parking lot and bubble car exhaust through distilled water to determine its effect on pH. We may even take to the roof, where we can gather data on the speeds of cars as they travel through town on Route 3 (replacing the current "speed lab" that involves rolling a marble down a ruler). Just how much traffic is there on a given day and what effect might it have on the acidity of the rain in Chelmsford? I don't know, yet, but I do know that the curriculum will be more fun, more relevant to the students, and more responsive to the frameworks.

Getting Started III. Time and the School Day: Commitment to Real Change in One High School's Science Program

Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School is making major changes in its science program in a curriculum overhaul that is expected to take two years to complete. As the program develops, emphasis will shift from traditional content based courses to a new emphasis on process, inquiry, cross-domain subject matter and interdisciplinary connections to mathematics and technology.

Key to the change is a reorganization of instructional time. All science classes will meet in ninety minute sessions, and while ninth graders will continue to take a year long course, courses for grades ten through twelve will be organized by semester.

The new curriculum is organized into three courses of study: Environmental Science (Grade 9), Human Anatomy and Physiology (Grade 10) and Matter and Energy (Grade 11 or 12). All three courses will integrate topics traditionally taught separately, e.g. optics, light, acid and base chemistry. Content strands woven through the three year core curriculum will help students understand key scientific principles, while a greater than usual emphasis on inquiry skills will help them to ask good questions.

Dennis-Yarmouth will continue to offer Advanced Placement courses in biology and physics to eleventh and twelfth graders. Juniors and seniors may also elect to take a "Research in Science" course. In these classes, a maximum of five students will work together doing original scientific research on a topic chosen by an instructor. These intensive classes in hands-on science will each meet 90 minutes a day for one semester. In time, all science teachers will teach one "Research in Science" course each year.

Throughout the curriculum, collaboration with the math department will stress the use of graphing calculators and data acquiring probes.

Last Updated: January 1, 1996
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