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A.A.A.S. Outlines Its Framework for Science Education

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WASHINGTON--The American Association for the Advancement of Science has published its long-awaited framework to guide the design of science curricula capable of producing "scientifically literate'' high school graduates.

The document, called "Benchmarks for Science Literacy,'' was slated for release here this week

The release of the benchmarks represents a milestone for Project 2061, the association's long-range reform project that stresses developing scientific literacy in all students as the guiding principle of successful science education.

It marks the culmination of four years of complex and painstaking work by six teams of school-based educators and hundreds of educational and scientific advisers who transformed "Science for All Americans,'' the association's blueprint for adult science literacy, into an educational framework.

While "Science for All Americans'' describes the minimum mathematics and science knowledge adults should have acquired by the time they graduate from high school, the benchmarks outline the intermediate understandings that students should master in grades 2, 5, 8, and 12 to insure that they advance toward that goal.

The benchmarks document is organized around themes that conform to the chapters in "Science for All Americans,'' including "The Nature of Science,'' "The Living Environment,'' and "The Designed World.''

To break from the disjointed way in which science is often taught in school, the benchmarks stress that many of the intellectual underpinnings of scientific discovery and method are strongly interconnected.

F. James Rutherford, the association's education director, said last week that the lengthy process that culminated in the benchmarks was designed to insure that the document is both a research-based and a practically oriented primer for reform.

"This really had incredible input from the field, as well as from cognitive scientists and other [researchers],'' he said. "That sense of having both parts of the equation there is what makes this interesting.''

A New Piece of the Puzzle

The benchmarks also add an important piece to an expanding mosaic of recommendations that collectively are expected to set the tone and direction of science-education reform into the next century.

However, Mr. Rutherford conceded, the profusion of science-education-reform manifestos being developed by various groups may prove confusing. Some policymakers have voiced concern that the numerous efforts to set national standards in various curriculum areas may overwhelm classroom teachers. (See Education Week, June 16, 1993.)

The National Science Teachers Association, for example, has published a "Content Core'' for its national reform effort--called the Scope, Sequence, and Coordination of Secondary School Science--that is intended to serve as a guide for curriculum developers.

That document now is being revised to reflect criticism and advice from practitioners in the field.

The National Academy of Sciences, meanwhile, is expected early next year to release a first draft of voluntary national standards for science content.

The academy is also developing standards for science teaching and assessment. The content standards are expected to draw liberally on the work of both the N.S.T.A. and the A.A.A.S., as well as on such nationally recognized reform blueprints as the California science framework.

The A.A.A.S. document, in adhering to the organization of "Science for All Americans,'' contains at least two chapters that deal with the science of mathematics.

But the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics already has published a respected and highly detailed set of standards for math curriculum and teaching.

Mr. Rutherford said the multiple, independent reform efforts place a burden on their authors to carefully articulate the strengths of the various approaches as well as their underlying unity.

He noted, for example, that the benchmarks document does not specifically address issues of teaching and assessment or provide exemplary instructional strategies.

"There's so much work to be done and so few resources to bring to bear on this very complicated job,'' he said. "To the degree to which we can avoid duplicating each other's work, we'll be helping the practitioners.''

But, he acknowledged, "to the degree to which we fail to do that, we, in the end, will be doing them no favor and even undermining our individual efforts.''

Creating Science 'Story Lines'

While the A.A.A.S. benchmarks document is an exhaustive effort to categorize the science knowledge all students need, it is not in itself a science curriculum and does not specify how the learning objectives outlined should best be taught.

"Far from pressing for one way of organizing instruction,'' the document notes, "Project 2061 pursues a reform strategy that will lead eventually to greater curriculum diversity than is common today.''

In paralleling the structure of "Science for All Americans,'' the benchmarks also deal with topicsthat typically are not taught in the precollegiate science curriculum.

The chapter on "Human Society,'' for example, deals with such fields as sociology and psychology, while other chapters discuss political science, economics, and the history of science.

Mr. Rutherford said that while some readers may take issue with the idea of including these subjects under the rubric of science, it is hoped that the organization of the benchmarks will spark new ways of looking at curriculum development.

The content of the benchmarks, he suggested, need not be taught exclusively by science teachers, but may instead be better suited to an interdisciplinary approach.

"We're not, for the most part, saying how these things should be accomplished yet,'' he said. "Why couldn't the science teachers and the history teachers use this as the basis for some seminars among themselves to decide how this could be done?''

The document differs from most science curricula in that it presents an interrelated web of concepts that is expected to present a comprehensive picture of the scientific endeavor.

Every subject-specific chapter includes a box that refers to related ideas in other areas of the work.

The chapter entitled "The Physical Setting,'' for example, contains a section called "Processes That Shape the Earth.'' The text refers readers to four other chapters that discuss such concepts as "agriculture,'' "systems,'' and the evolution of life.

In addition, a computerized version is in development that would allow users to search for relatedkey concepts throughout the text and arrange them in different sequences.

"It would allow the user to actually build what we call 'story lines,' which are strands of connections,'' Mr. Rutherford explained. "You could, for example, say, 'Here's a way of looking at a set of connections that shows how a single idea grows.'''

A Spark for Reform

While the release of the benchmarks closes out an important chapter in the Project 2061 process, Mr. Rutherford noted that several forthcoming documents will provide greater detail about how to build a science program using the benchmarks.

Nevertheless, he said, the benchmarks document can have an immediate and practical value for educators at various levels.

"I think that it won't be quite as useful as it will be a year or 18 months from now,'' he said of the document. "But until then, I think it's going to be very useful. What we've found is that at the school district level, for example, a group of teachers that has been charged with reforming the science curriculum can use this as a diagnostic tool.''

In a related development, the A.A.A.S. earlier this month announced that it was launching a pilot program in Chicago; Rapid City, S.D.; and Rochester, N.Y., to help communities develop collaborations between organizations that offer informal science-education programs.

The initiative, called "Science Linkages in the Community,'' is being funded by a four-year, $3.6 million grant from the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund.

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