Nationwide Project Scraps 'Layer Cake' Approach to Science
Charging that the science curriculum is to blame for students' poor performance and lack of interest in the subject, the National Science Teachers Association has unveiled plans to overhaul the "layer cake" structure that has dominated secondary-school instruction for nearly a century.
The project, set to begin next year in about 20 schools, will replace the traditional curriculum--in which decreasing numbers of students study a separate discipline each year--with a new form of organization that allows all students to study all subjects every year.
The project is aimed, officials said last week, at enhancing students' knowledge and interest in science by enabling teachers to teach the subject in ways that are more understandable and which emphasize the relationship between science and nature.
If it is successful, they predicted, more women and minorities will enter scientific and technological fields, and more nonscientists will acquire the rudimentary knowledge needed for everyday life.
"It's time to do an about-face," said LaMoine L. Motz, president of the nsta "Let's consider alternatives to instruction, to see if we can't better ourselves."
"The system needs to be overhauled," he said. "We've got to be about changing the curriculum to meet changes in society."
"It's clear where we have to go," added Bill Honig, California's superintendent of public instruction and a member of the project's advisory board. "The way we organize the curriculum is out of date."
Bill G. Aldridge, the nsta's executive director, acknowledged that the project faces numerous obstacles, including the need to redesign school schedules, teacher training, and textbooks. He said the advisory board of 80 leading scientists and educators is scheduled to meet this summer to discuss ways to deal with these issues.
But Mr. Aldridge added that, despite such obstacles, the effort is essential to any U.S. plans for regaining the leading position in the global marketplace.
In other countries, such as the Soviet Union and Japan, he noted, nearly all students learn science. But in the United States, Mr. Aldridge said, "we educate only 75 percent of our kids, and even among those, we can't get them through science."
"The [economic] situation this country is in is very serious," he said, "and it all falls back on the level of scientific and technical training."
The new nsta project comes at a time when a number of groups, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, through its Project 2061, have expressed concern about the quality of science teaching and recommended proposals for reform. The nsta effort is expected to complement Project 2061, according to Mr. Aldridge, who noted that F. James Rutherford, Project 2061's director, serves on the 80-member advisory board.
But Mr. Aldridge added that, unlike Project 2061, which is expected to last decades and include changes in teacher training, materials, and school organization, the science-teachers' effort can be implemented immediately.
Under the plan, participating schools will create a new six-year sequence for science instruction for grades 7-12. These schools will also work with local universities to train teachers in new instruction methods to accompany the new coursework.
Initially, some 20 schools in seven cities will participate, but Mr. Aldridge predicted that by the time it is fully in place, at least "several hundred" schools will be involved.
The project is aimed at the secondary level, Mr. Aldridge said, because those are the grades in which students tend to foreclose their future job and educational options by electing not to take science courses.
If the new project is successful, he predicted, it will "vastly improve retention."
"I am convinced it will drastically change the makeup of those entering science careers, particularly [increasing the representation of] minorities and women," Mr. Aldridge said. "They will not be filtered out by that point."
In addition, he said, the project could prove a boon to prospective elementary teachers by providing them with the science background they would need.
Such teachers, he suggested, "would graduate from high school with quite adequate science preparation to teach in any elementary school; they would not need to take any science in college."
The proposed new structure is aimed at enhancing interest and understanding by enabling students to learn the material over a period of several years, rather than all in one year.
"You cannot do it all in one year," said Izaak Wirszup, professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Chicago. "Only exceptional students, with a substantial amount of preparation, can take a one-year physics course and succeed."
The one-year courses tend to scare students away from science, he said, by forcing them to memorize "a discrete mass of facts," or else presenting abstract material they cannot comprehend.
The multi-year curriculum, according to Mr. Aldridge, would "not add new material, but teach the existing material better."
Specifically, he said, the new structure would enable teachers to introduce the material through concrete examples and then, in later years, to develop abstract concepts.
"In a biology textbook, the third chapter is on organic chemistry. Only later do they talk about genetics. That's stupid," Mr. Aldridge said. "We should never do that. The abstract organic chemistry means nothing to those kids."
Marjorie Gardner, director of the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley, also noted that the multi-year curriculum would enable teachers to integrate the scientific disciplines.
"Under the current structure,there is no way to relate one subject to another," she said. "They are all taught as if they were completely separate disciplines."
But "science in nature is not separate," she noted.
In addition, suggested Mr. Motz, the nsta president, teachers can tie science topics to those in other subjects, such as mathematics and social science. Such efforts, he said, could make the subject more enticing to students by involving contemporary issues, such as biotechnology and the "greenhouse effect."
But in order to implement such changes, he maintained, schools must consider "radical" reforms.
"It's going to take more than a Band Aid," Mr. Motz said. "Typically, when schools change, they select another textbook. We've got to get out of that habit."