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