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A new framework for science education: 8+1 fundamental science concepts

April 5, 2012

Today, a team of eminent scientists and experts in science education released a report calling for an overhaul of the K-12 Science Curriculum, and proposed a bold alternative, organized around 8 fundamental science concepts and the process of inquiry.

Here are the concepts:

Of what are things made?

  • Everything is made of atoms, and atoms are composed of subatomic particles.
  • Cells are the basic units or organisms.
  • Electromagnetic radiation pervades our world

How do systems interact and change?

  • Evolution: systems evolve and change with time according to simply underlying rules or laws
  • Parts of a system move and interact with each other through forces.
  • Parts of a system can exchange energy and matter when they interact.
  • Physical concepts like energy and mass can be stored and transformed, but are never created or destroyed.
  • Life systems evolve through variation

How do we know what we know?


I also encourage you to take 12 minutes to watch the film, which does an excellent job of explaining the interdisciplinary nature of science today, the problems with current many science curriculums, and the need for change.

The video places large emphasis on studying these concepts across disciplines, to see how energy is transformed in biology, chemistry and physics, rather than in siloed yearly courses that don’t allow students to see connections between disciples, and most importantly how to use these principles to better understand the world around them.

Though I haven’t had a chance to read the report in detail, I find the elegance of these 8 concepts very appealing, and wouldn’t have any trouble linking the essential physics concepts I want to teach to this framework. I would also love to have a chance to bring more interdisciplinary connections into my classroom (I am often envious that Shawn Cornally gets to teach Math, Physics, Biology, Bioethics and Computer Science at his school in Iowa).

I think this approach has some real hurdles as well. Most of the science teachers I’ve met aren’t Shawn; they don’t relish the opportunity to teach 4 different subjects in a single year. Some are heavily locked into their particular discipline, and see little need and have little desire for interdisciplinary work. A large part of the reason for this is the fragmented, heavily divided science education most science teachers, including myself, received.

I’m not sure how to overcome this. Perhaps one way might be to show current science teachers just how much integrated/interdisciplinary work is taking place in college today. One prime example that comes to mind is Princeton’s Integrated Quantitative Introduction to the Natural Sciences, which is a tour-de-force of science courses. Designed to prepare quantitative biologists who can use sophisticated mathematical and computational tools, it enrolls only freshmen who have completed BC calculus, and takes up half of their schedule freshman year. A few years back, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a number of lectures and spending an hour talking to one member of the team of scientists who helped create the course. I was deeply impressed by what I saw. Students were taking mathematical models, like differential equations, and then studying how those models could be used to describe systems across biology (population dynamics), physics (motion under a drag force) and chemistry (reaction rates).

Even though the authors of 8+1 have a lot of work ahead of them, these are very encouraging first steps.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. April 6, 2012 7:07 pm

    I think this approach has some real hurdles as well. Most of the science teachers I’ve met aren’t Shawn; they don’t relish the opportunity to teach 4 different subjects in a single year. Some are heavily locked into their particular discipline, and see little need and have little desire for interdisciplinary work. A large part of the reason for this is the fragmented, heavily divided science education most science teachers, including myself, received.

    WOW, no kidding! If this approach is tied to the idea that science teachers will embrace many different disciplines then it’s DEAD in the water from step 1 (at least for a couple of generations)! Speaking for myself I want absolutely NOTHING to do with Biology, and almost nothing to do with Physics. You could maybe tempt me to touch a few computer science ideas, but not many. The whole point of me choosing chemistry was to get AWAY from things I hated like history, math and biology – the last thing on earth I want is to start going back to that stuff! ‘Science’ should be removed from the lexicon of school ‘subjects’ – it simply doesn’t exist.

    ‘Integration’ is dilution. Less specialization at the high school level is fine if you want people that don’t really want depth and profound understanding of any subject, but it ain’t my cup of tea. When I grew up if you were really bright you did Physics, Chemistry and Biology (separate sciences) in high school. If you were less academically able you did ‘Double Science’ which was an integrated approach. Personally I could not be LESS jealous of Shawn Cornally’s situation – I’d HATE that, truly HATE it, and I’d also be a total failure.

  2. jsb16 permalink
    April 7, 2012 9:28 am

    If you can’t see connections between the sciences, you don’t understand any of them.

    The big hurdle I see for this approach is actually the teacher licensing system, which says that I have to have taken post-secondary courses specifically labeled as “math,” “chemistry,” “physics,” and “biology” in order to be allowed to teach them at the high school level.

    • April 7, 2012 9:39 am

      I ‘appreciate’ the connections, but don’t claim to ‘understand’ ANYTHING about Biology – I stopped studying it when I was approx. 13 years of age and have never gone back to it. Does that make me a ‘bad’ chemistry teacher?

  3. April 7, 2012 7:36 pm

    I have a background in physics but spent this year also teaching four 8th grade Earth & Space Science courses. The struggle for me was that I see how unnecessary most of the vocabulary is for students, especially given that our textbook was designed for high school students, and how lacking the textbook was when it came to fundamental concepts. I like the simplistic organization of the 8+1 concepts. It would be nice to organize teaching around a few good stories and use them to develop the scientific ideas. If I understand the report correctly, the complexity of science should be in the story (the myriad ways of combining scientific concepts) and not in the foundations.

    I wonder if teaching this way would allow for a more natural spiraling of the curriculum and remove an oft-voiced criticism that science classes create an insurmountable chain of dependencies for the struggling student.

    I could teach math and physics, but I am not at all comfortable with teaching biology and only partly comfortable with teaching chemistry, but that lack of comfort only demonstrates how badly science is organized in my own brain. I am not a bad math teacher, and I am not a bad physics teacher, but when it is decided that physics is not really what we should teach to help students, then where will I be? A little cross-training wouldn’t hurt.

    I am still a little lost about how to incorporate the 8 fundamental concepts in a way that is nontrivial. I can imagine 8th graders telling me that each system we study is made of atoms with their self-satisfied, mischievous grins.

  4. April 7, 2012 8:33 pm

    From the 8+1 science framework website:

    The 8+1 Science is a new way of thinking about and teaching science, not a new set of science standards. It supports basic concepts included in most sets of standards and can be implemented with existing curriculum, textbooks, and equipment. Teachers are being trained on how to incorporate 8+1 Science in their classroom as they teach their curriculum. By helping students apply what they are learning in science and make connections to the world around them, teachers are becoming more effective in what they teach and students learn creative and critical thinking skills.

    Though not all the details of the framework have been released, I think this statement makes it clear that the authors aren’t arguing for traditional science curriculua to be replaced by a new integrated set of courses. Instead, it seems like they are advocating for these concepts to be woven into all science courses, and for science teachers to undergo training to see how these concepts underly their particular discipline.

    If you look at how Princeton created their Integrated Quantitative Introduction to the Natural Science course, you’ll see it wasn’t created by a bunch of professors of Integrated Science (there are no such things). Instead, 10 professors got together and decided it was important in modern science that scientists from across disciplines be able to talk to one another. The authors come from the forefront of almost ever science discipline: physics, chemistry, biology, biophysics, genetics, ecology and computer science. They realized that much of the work they are doing involves collaboration across disciplines, and it is probably wise to start preparing students to inhabit that world. From everything I’ve read, the development of the course was a long and arduous process, and the only thing that made it possible was these professors being willing to set aside their tradition bound upbringing and think about a new vision of how science could be taught. The problem sets and assessments that I saw tell me that nothing was diluted—if anything, the interdisciplinary nature of the course allows students to tackle harder, real world problems from multiple points of view. This course has a reputation out as one of the most challenging courses at Princeton, from what I understand, far more challenging than the traditional disjointed intro bio/physics/chem courses that many pre meds take.

    Of course, most schools don’t have the resources of Princeton to pay 9 faculty (including one Nobelist) to sit in the back of a lecture hall while another professor is delivering that day’s lecture. So how could you get started with something like this? I think you could have departments sit down and talk about how these themes run our disciplines. Start with energy. Studying it from a physics standpoint will tell you that separating two oppositely charged particles always requires energy. Since this is what forms the basis of a bond in chemistry, it always requires energy to break bonds (but sometimes, the new products that are formed are of even lower energy, so the net result of the reaction releases interaction energy)—this is often something students don’t realize when first studying chemistry, and this misunderstanding carries over to biology, when they study ATP, and are told to memorize that the third phosphate is somehow “loosely bonded” and therefore releases energy when broken off. Think how we could push this understanding if we worked together. Students might really be able to understand (and not just recite) paragraphs like this, from Wikipedia:

    ATP is an unstable molecule in unbuffered water, in which it hydrolyses to ADP and phosphate. This is because the strength of the bonds between the phosphate groups in ATP are less than the strength of the hydrogen bonds (hydration bonds), between its products (ADP + phosphate), and water. Thus, if ATP and ADP are in chemical equilibrium in water, almost all of the ATP will eventually be converted to ADP. A system that is far from equilibrium contains Gibbs free energy, and is capable of doing work. Living cells maintain the ratio of ATP to ADP at a point ten orders of magnitude from equilibrium, with ATP concentrations a thousandfold higher than the concentration of ADP. This displacement from equilibrium means that the hydrolysis of ATP in the cell releases a large amount of free energy.[10]

    Finally, I will say that when I was 13, I hated biology too. I thought it was nothing but memorization of vocabulary and useless facts. In fact, I was a pickier student—dismissing literature as “whatever the teacher interprets the book to mean must be right”, than I was an eater. This is saying something, since I detested almost all vegetables, and would refuse even the simplest of salads. Many years later, I’ve actually come to love many of those vegetables—and I love salads, especially those with mushrooms, a food I once swore I could never eat. The same is true of biology and many other fields I’ve previously dismissed. This happened to such a degree with me that I once spent an entire summer reading an introductory biology text from cover to cover. And after sitting in on a few colleague’s literature classes, I’ve come away amazed by how they employ many of the same structures for making arguments and backing them up with evidence that we do in science. It’s amazing how one’s perspective can change when we let go of the uninformed, judgmental and naive world view of our 13 year old selves.

    • April 7, 2012 9:51 pm

      >It’s amazing how one’s perspective can change when we let go of the uninformed, judgmental and naive world view of our 13 year old selves.

      So because (32 years later) I *still* dislike biology and haven’t read any Shakespeare since I HAD to, I am ‘uninformed, judgmental and naive’? Another view would be to say that I found what I’m really good at and spent my whole career improving IT. Quite what my lack of biological knowledge has to do with my effectiveness as a chemistry teacher is beyond me.

      • April 7, 2012 10:04 pm

        You are misreading my words. I was referring the opinions of my 13 year old self as uninformed, judgmental and naive. I did use the word “our” since I think there are likely many other readers out there who could identify opinions that they held at age 13 that fit these descriptors. You may not. That’s fine.

        Two paragraphs above the one you quotes, I did try to make the case as to why working together with other faculty across other disciplines might enhance our common scientific understanding, and I would even go so far as to say that such collaboration could deepen our understanding of our particular disciplines. I do think understanding how chemistry is applied in reactions like the ones I mention above would be helpful, at least in some small part, in further improving one’s understanding of chemistry and effectiveness as a chemistry teacher.

        • April 7, 2012 10:12 pm

          I interpreted ‘our’ to mean you and ME.

          How Biology or Physics treats energy (for example) seems irrelevant to me. I know how chemistry treats it, and that’s what I am concerned with. I cannot be all things to all people, and currently there is no subject called ‘science’ taught in high school. Long may that continue.

  5. April 7, 2012 11:04 pm

    I want to join both sides of this argument. I took all the science my high school offered back in the 60s (and in those days high school biology was just memorization and dissection).

    I took essentially no science in college. I was a math major, so I took a lot of math, a little computer science, and a random mixture of other classes for fun. (The random mix ended up matching what Phi Beta Kappa was looking for, though I had no idea of that at the time.)

    I took some digital electronics classes as a grad student, and ended up as a computer engineering professor for many years, before switching to bioinformatics. I had to take some biology, statistics, and biochemistry classes in order to retrain myself. (It can be quite a challenge taking biochem without any chem background beyond a 30-years-previous high school chem class). I’ve been teaching myself calculus-based physics this year, in order to home-school my son in it. (I’m usually half a chapter ahead.)

    A lot of the really interesting work going on in science and engineering these days is interdisciplinary (like bioinformatics, which combines computer science, biology, statistics, and some physics and chemistry). So I see the attraction of trying to teach an integrated look at the sciences, and Princeton’s course sounds like a good approach (but very expensive and difficult to teach well, so not replicable at scale).

    So far, it sounds like I’m supporting John all the way—I was much narrower in my interests as a teen than I am now, and my career has required retraining in fields I did not have a lot of interest in then.

    So what about the other side? I fear that “integrated science” will be as much a failure as “integrated math” has been. Doing a little of this and a little of that doesn’t get to the depth needed to really understand any of it. I would rather be taught chemistry by someone who loves it and really conveys it well (even if they are hopeless at physics and biology) than by someone who has a barely adequate knowledge of all the sciences. The broader the scope of what you ask people to learn or teach, the less likely you to find people who are competent and passionate enough to teach it all well.

    • April 8, 2012 7:22 am

      >Doing a little of this and a little of that doesn’t get to the depth needed to really understand any of it. I would rather be taught chemistry by someone who loves it and really conveys it well (even if they are hopeless at physics and biology) than by someone who has a barely adequate knowledge of all the sciences. The broader the scope of what you ask people to learn or teach, the less likely you to find people who are competent and passionate enough to teach it all well.

      That’s the point. Given we should always have the best interests of the students in mind, having me teach any other subject than Chemistry would be doing them a monumental disservice. They would be shortchanged and taught by a non-expert, and actually something a lot closer to a bumbling fool. There may be some ‘super-science’ teachers out there but the majority of us are just mortal, ‘one subject guys’, and we desperately want to keep it that way, purely for the well-being of the children.

      • April 8, 2012 12:13 pm

        I don’t think 8+1 or myself are asking for teachers to suddenly start teaching out of their discipline. Nor is this how Princeton created their very successful integrated science course. The course is taught by 10 faculty, and each one teachers only a part of the course (while the others often sit in the back on the room following along). The 10 faculty collaborate together on the overall structure and theme of the course. This seems to be to be an ideal way to plan an integrated course, as it allows each instructor to teach from his/her area of expertise, but also makes time for each instructor to learn from the other instructors and see connections between disciplines.

        Gassstationwithpumps is right, however, this is an extraordinarily expensive model. I still don’t see how they were able to convince 10 tenured faculty to collaborate in this fashion, and in particular, to sit through one another’s lecture. My best guess is that this collaboration is so valuable and productive that the professors are doing this willingly, and all Princeton needs to do is provide them with the time and structure to be able to do this.

        The schools I have been fortunate enough to teach at do have the resources, in terms of faculty expertise, time, and money, to be able to attempt a similar project. At a former school, it was common for science teachers to take year long science courses, fully participating as any student would, in order to increase their understanding of other subjects and teaching methods (biology teachers taking physics classes, for instance. Very few schools are this fortunate, however. But this is again why I think the 8+1 authors aren’t hinging their success on science departments totally transforming how they do things to create integrated science classes. Instead, they are asking to see how this framework permeates the things they already do, and highlight those aspects.

    • April 8, 2012 9:52 am

      For the record, one more thing. I think that the idea of making connections between the sciences is potentially a good thing for kids, but for me that would need to be the responsibility of a point person who would have the job description of tying things together *independently* of the individual disciplines – i.e., chemistry, physics and biology teachers could continue to simply ‘get on with what they are experts at’, and this person would be the co-coordinator working with the kids (not the teachers) to pull threads together. Essentially, ‘science connections’ could be a separate class altogether, leaving the individual disciplines unsullied.

      I fully understand that the word ‘independent’ appears to contradict the idea of integration, but for me it would be the only way it could work. I would NOT be the co-coordinator, but perhaps ‘super-science’ teacher, could be!

      • April 8, 2012 12:29 pm

        I don’t think these super teachers exist. If the idea of a deeply integrated science curriculum is to come into being, it’s going to take normal, everyday science teachers being willing to come together, step outside their zone of expertise, and learn from one another. I don’t think it would ever work to put all the responsibility for integration in the hands of one or a few teachers, no more than our highest goals of creating diverse and sustainable schools are achieved by appointing a diversity or sustainability director and giving them all the responsibility for doing this without recognizing if these really are goals for the school, every teacher has some role to play in teaching these ideas.

        When I first started teaching, these ideas were antithetical to me—I had taken over 20 courses in physics as an undergrad, almost every physics course available in the catalogue. I thought my job was to teach physics and nothing more. But later, through many conversations with patient colleagues, and many sessions sitting in on their classrooms I began to find the value in ideas in biology, chemistry, history, literature and philosophy that were unfamiliar to me, and I also reconnected with what it means to not be the exert and learn things for the first time again, and to see the connections between these disciplines and my own. More than any physics course I took, I think these lessons are what have been most helpful in my present teaching, and I feel a powerful responsibility to help my students see the physics I am teaching them as part of a larger world of knowledge.

        I share this only as my personal experience only to show how I’ve come to see the benefit of interdisciplinary work, from the vantage point of someone who was initially very skeptical of such ideas.

        • April 8, 2012 2:28 pm

          Simply put, I have not made that journey yet, and frankly don’t anticipate doing so. The reason is simple – I still have close to an infinite amount of *chemistry* to learn, and THAT’S what I’m working on, i.e., being a better CHEMISTRY teacher! I think that THAT part of my ‘continued learning’, ‘life-long learner journey’, ‘professional development’, ‘learner modelling’ (call it what you will) is where my students will benefit from my expertise most, not by me turning my back on my strength and ‘dabbling’ in something that I have zero interest in and no passion for.

          Please be sure to note that my continued development (learning) as an educator is VERY strongly cemented as part of my professional obligation, but it’s not going to be channeled into areas where I know nothing (e.g., biology), since I feel strongly that will be a terrible disservice to the students. They don’t need another person who knows next to nothing about a subject, teaching it to them – the blind leading the blind is not a good model!

      • April 8, 2012 2:49 pm

        It’s an interesting idea and sounds somewhat like the Theory of Knowledge class in the International Baccalaureate program, although this teacher plays integrator of all sorts of knowledge, not just science.

    • April 8, 2012 11:55 am

      I would rather be taught chemistry by someone who loves it and really conveys it well (even if they are hopeless at physics and biology) than by someone who has a barely adequate knowledge of all the sciences. The broader the scope of what you ask people to learn or teach, the less likely you to find people who are competent and passionate enough to teach it all well.

      I think this is a large part of the reason why the 8+1 project explicitly states that it isn’t advocating for some “integrated science”, and instead says that the 8+1 framework can be applied to any existing curriculum of textbook. What I think they are asking is for teachers to undergo a small bit of training and do a small amount of work to see how what they are doing now fits into this larger science framework. This would seem to be one of those small changes that many science departments could do that would pay big dividends in understanding science as more than a set of disconnected facts and formulae.

  6. Ramesh permalink
    April 9, 2012 11:59 pm


    Totally understand and agree with the notion that better integrated teaching of the sciencitific concepts would help students understand the inter-relatedness of these principles. And hard to do!!

    Having grown up in India, every high school year we learned Physics, Chemistry and Biology as opposed to one of these subjects for a given year of high school in the USA. If all 3 subjects are taught every year (Basic Physics, Chemistry and Biology in Year 1; Intermediate Physics, Chemisty and Biology in Year 2 etc. etc.) would it not be easier to have more integrated concepts presented to students. And I am not espousing “super teachers” who teach all three subjects; only that all 3 subjects be taught by 3 different teachers but within the same school year. And, just because it might be easier to integrate if all 3 Science subjects taught every year, I am not implying that science in India was more integrated. Silos exist; breaking down silos through more collaborative and integrated effort is the way to go.

    I wonder what led to the current approach in the US of having one Science subject per year of high school vs. all 3 every year?


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