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Science & Technology Curriculum Framework
Owning The Questions

Strand 4: Science, Technology, and Human Affairs

Lifelong learners understand questions and problems of Science and Technology in the context of Human Affairs.

Advances in science and technology, such as the ability to circumnavigate the globe and to communicate electronically, have changed the way we view ourselves and our place in the universe. They have also informed our attempts to solve human problems at the local and global levels. So entwined are science and technology in the affairs of the world, that students must be encouraged to look up frequently from their studies to see where science and technology are leading them.

Owning the Responsibility for Science and Technology

Owning the questions in science and technology requires that practitioners accept responsibility for evaluating the impact of their activities in the real world. Questions like "What does this mean for the next generation?" and "How can we lessen human impact on the environment?" place science and technology in the context of human affairs. These are questions that responsible practitioners ponder every day. As educators we need to ask similar questions: "How can our students come to own these questions, too?" and "How can we anchor their studies in the powerful and motivating context of human affairs?"

When scientific and technological inquiries are embedded in the context of human affairs, students are more likely to view human and environmental issues as important to their course of study. In turn, they come to understand the relevance of science and technology in their lives.

When seventh graders gathered sound-level data in their school ("How Loud is Loud?"), they encountered issues of comfort and safety associated with high decibel levels. They not only discovered that their parents really believed their music was too loud, but also that noise pollution was a concern to their community and that there were laws to control it. In the Water Taste experiment, students confronted the belief, contradicted by their scientific investigation, that the water in the fountain used by the older kids "tastes better" than the water in the fountain used by the younger kids.

Taking Science and Technology into the Community

Investigating a question that originates in their own lives provides students with a model for learning that is not dependent on the classroom, a single teacher, or a particular course of study. In a similar way, practicing the ways that scientists and technologists address complex societal issues helps students appreciate the challenges we face "in the real world."

When high school students are called on to devise a way for getting drinkable water to all of Boston, they begin to understand the problems associated with limited resources and densely populated areas. When they bring cross-disciplinary skills to bear on the problem by studying ancient Roman aqueduct systems, they begin to appreciate the technological feat of the Quabbin Reservoir system. The reservoir project engages students in debate, mathematical designs, written arguments, and the study of historical developments associated with people's need for fresh water. It also involves them as citizens of the world.

Recognizing that our resources are limited and making responsible decisions about their use is not just a civics lesson. It is a Science and Technology lesson, and it can be taught at all grade levels. Elementary school children can grasp the repercussions of overfishing Georges Bank, one of New England's greatest food sources, just as they can come up with ideas for reducing the amount of trash their class generates over the course of a week ("Too Much Trash?"). Similarly, projects like the community-built science playground ("New Directions") give older students a direct way to contribute to the well-being of younger students.

The following vignette describes a large and wonderfully creative study that teaches students how people must work together to address issues related to community resources.

Learning Looks Like This . . .

The Ten Mile River Project

The Ten Mile River wends its way through four Massachusetts communities before meandering into Rhode Island toward its final destination, Narragansett Bay. The river's impact on the history of its watershed has been significant, from providing precious water for the survival of the earliest settlers through powering the factories that lined its shore during a rich industrial era. But the price the river has paid for its generous contribution has been great. Once ranked one of the most polluted rivers in Massachusetts, the layers of sediment in its bed attest to the careless dumping of heavy metals and other pollutants throughout the ages. But recent years have seen tremendous improvements in water quality. With the introduction of the Federal Clean Water Act and the help of industries throughout the watershed, the Ten Mile River is returning to a cleaner, more natural state.

The history and impact of the Ten Mile River on its surrounding communities have led to an exciting interdisciplinary study for students in its watershed. The study began with a workshop for teachers led by a PALMS Specialist from the Lloyd Center for Environmental Studies, in South Dartmouth, who helped teachers develop questions about the river and debate such issues as whether land along the river should be held by municipalities or maintained by such organizations as Ducks Unlimited or the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

The teachers became excited about the project and began sharing it with their classes. In turn, the students began doing science beyond the confines of their classroom. As the end of the school year approached, the teachers formed a support group to expand the river project. With the start of a new school year, students and teachers from North Attleboro's seventh and eighth grades joined and worked with the Science Specialist from the Lloyd Center and the newly opened Audubon Society in Attleboro.

Teachers began working more in the field with their students, and found that they needed additional support. The Ten Mile River Watershed Alliance, a local non-profit citizen group, helped solve this problem by training adult volunteers. These newly trained leaders assisted teachers by running specific activities along the river.

Accurate recording of student field data became possible through the use of spreadsheets on laptop computers purchased through local funding supplemented by a grant from the Richardson Fund, a local source. Small groups of students were trained in the use of the laptop (including spreadsheets, report writing, charts and pop-ups) by a science and math resource teacher. Students then trained other students, and additional support was given to classes by the computer specialist in each building. When the need to link data teams arose, training for teachers was provided by a computer scientist from Wheaton College.

As this program grew, students became more committed to improving the quality of the watershed, and they sought additional business and community support. The Ten Mile River Alliance subsequently provided a vehicle for classes to officially adopt sections of the river. As students became involved in testing water samples, they began to wonder whether more sophisticated equipment would produce similar results. When Texas Instruments was contacted, they agreed to provide engineers to perform water quality tests for student projects.

The yearlong river adventure culminated in an evening presentation of data to the community. Student presentations were heard by parents, local and state government officials, community members, and Partners from Texas Instruments, Wheaton College, Lloyd Center, and the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Understanding the Risks of Science and Technology

Science and technology have not always meant progress. Indeed, they can lead to harm in the environment and jeopardy to human well-being. For these reasons, responsibility and stewardship are key elements of science and technology teaching.

Marine biologist Rachel Carson first enumerated the dangers of developing New England's coastal marshes, arguing that it would disrupt the breeding grounds of many salt water organisms. Carson also fought hard against the indiscriminate use of pesticides, bringing to national attention their deleterious effects on the ecological balance and human health (Silent Spring, 1962). The fifth-grade students who investigate "The Return of the Osprey" are likewise concerned with issues of ecology, responsibility, and stewardship.

Today's students need to understand that many scientific and technological discoveries entail complex and unexpected human affairs issues, and they must be unafraid to address them. As part of education, teachers can encourage students always to imagine the effects of an indiscriminate or unprincipled use of science and technology. For example, eleventh and twelfth grade students might interview citizen activists about community concerns surrounding the Seabrook and Plymouth nuclear power plants. Similarly, students interested in careers in the medical sciences might mount a debate on the ethical concerns of organ transplantation.

Taking Inspiration from Science and Technology

The following Learning Standards inspire students to own the questions of science and technology and to accept the responsibility that comes with pursuing them. The framework ends with a powerfully motivating vignette, "A Passion for Students, Teaching, and the Sea," that explores some of the ways that teachers and students in the Commonwealth can investigate interesting problems of science and technology while keeping their hearts and minds firmly committed to the world of human affairs.

Grades PreK-4 Learning Standards and Examples of Student Learning

  • Give examples to show that many of today's technologies were not part of the world of their parents or grandparents.
  • Describe some ways in which science and technology have changed the way people do their work and live their lives.
  • Give examples to show that the decisions we make as individuals have effects on others people.
  • Explore and describe how science and technology have also created problems we need to solve.
  • Give examples that we (as individuals, groups and communities) can make decisions that change the natural environment.

Grades 5-8 Learning Standards and Examples of Student Learning

  • Describe situations in which science, technology, and society have influenced each other in the past.
  • Identify the influences science and technology have on today's society.
  • Give examples that the decisions we make as individuals, groups and communities can affect society and the natural environment, and that these changes are not always easy to reverse.
  • Recognize and demonstrate that while technology can help us to manage societal and environmental problems, it can also have a negative impact on society and on the natural world.

Grades 9-10 Learning Standards and Examples of Student Learning

  • Identify situations in which science, technology, and society have influenced each other in the past and describe how science and technology have been an integral part of the history of human society.
  • Describe situations that illustrate how scientific and technological revolutions have changed society.
  • Develop skills in applying scientific knowledge to make decisions about problems at the community, state, national and international levels, and recognize that using these skills responsibly is an essential part of being a citizen in today's world.
  • Describe ways in which technological development has been influenced by the culture of the society and by the resources available to that society.
  • Give evidence that rapidly changing technology affects global competition and jobs.

Grades 11-12 Learning Standards and Examples of Student Learning

  • Give examples of the influence science and technology have on today's society.
  • Recognize that the key problems that scientists address can change in response to changing societal pressures.
  • Argue and defend the position that while technology can be used to solve societal problems, technology can also have a negative impact on people and the environment.
  • Develop skills in applying scientific and technological knowledge to making decisions about problems at the community, state, national and international levels, and recognize that using these skills responsibly is an essential part of being a citizen in today's world.

Learning Looks Like This . . .

A Passion for Students, Teaching and the Sea

"There are more people alive today than have ever died." I wrote that sentence on the board the day after I heard them spoken by Robert Ballard, the Woods Hole Scientist who found the Titanic, the Lusitania, and the Bismark. When the students read it they immediately began active dialogue with each other until one asked "What are we supposed to be doing today?" I told them that they were doing it, reacting to the statement just as I had and thinking about the implications for us.

I teach ocean science to middle school students in Cape Cod. I was frustrated with the general science course I was teaching, and believed I could make it better and more relevant using local applications. I scrapped a botany program that was based on corn, and a zoology program based on perch dissection, and convinced the principal to let me try out an ocean-centered approach.

My major focus was getting the students involved in doing science. The course has evolved over the years, but the scientific way of learning about the world, involving careful guided observation, and field experimentation characterize the work. Every Monday we do Creature Feature, in which I bring ten to fifteen specimens of a creature, perhaps starfish or horseshoe crabs and students are asked to observe and say as much as they can about what they observe. This is difficult at first. They start out by saying it has a claw or a shell, and only later do they become better at distinguishing characteristics of animals. Every Friday we do experiments in physical oceanography, examining waves, tides and salinity. One way we have investigated currents is by repeating Benjamin Franklin's experiment and inserting cards in bottles and dropping them in the ocean. Of the 2000 bottles that have been set adrift, about thirty have been returned from such diverse locations as Ireland, Scotland, Portugal, France, Sweden, Bermuda, Nova Scotia, and Ipswich.

Reading, writing, mathematics and history are integrated into the course. Each spring students collect data on herring migration, when herring, in a way somewhat similar to salmon, return to their birthplace to lay eggs. (Unlike salmon, herring don't die at the end of the process.) Students record the weight, length and sex for a sample of the herring, find the average for the data, and compare their findings with those recorded for previous years. One interesting finding has been that following the Blizzard of 1978, the 1979 herring catch had an average weight drop and a length increase!

Students conjecture why this might have occurred since during the blizzard the herring were many miles south of New England. Students also learn about one of the major commercial uses of herring as fertilizer, and that Indians also used herring for fertilizer, and that this saved the lives of many Pilgrims.

Students receive a monthly learning agenda that specifies all assignments, including homework. I tell them that they will get no surprise quizzes, no weekend homework, and in exchange, there are no excuses, work must be done on time.

I want to instill in my students that each one of them can make a difference. In 1976, one of my students wrote a letter to our congressman stating how precious Stellwagen Bank, an underwater shelf used as a habitat by local whale populations, is and recommending that it be declared a sanctuary. In 1992, that actually happened. My former student is now an officer in the merchant marine.

My overall emphasis is to treat this program as an attitude, not a course. We are related to the ocean, and the ocean profoundly affects our lives. Our chosen theme has been "Stewardship"-- building the sense of responsibility for the earth. Students learn that stewardship centers around being proactive and taking responsibility for their environment.

All human beings need a passion in their lives. I have found mine. When my students see there is a purpose to what they do in school, when they make connections between school and the world, their eyes light up and I hope that, maybe, they will get a sense of the excitement that can develop when one is committed to making a difference in events that affect the quality of all our lives.

-- George Kurlycheck, Harwich Middle School

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploration
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.

-- T. S. Eliot, "Four Quartets"

Last Updated: January 1, 1996
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