New Ways to Teach Science

December 25, 1990

Sometimes it helps to take a longer view of a problem, as in the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Project 2061 to reshape teaching of science, math and social studies.

Project 2061 is but one of three ambitious attempts to re-tool U.S. science and mathematics teaching. The National Science Teachers Association has its own SSC project -- Scope, Sequence and Coordination -- and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics is revamping math courses. The projects' diverse goals and perspectives are the focus of experiment and discussion in schools across the country, and it is clear that educators are not ignoring the reports of how poorly American school children fare in competition against the best and brightest of other lands.

Project 2061 started out with a 1989 book, "Science for All Americans," in which prominent scientists spelled out in 100 pages what every high-school graduate should know. Some observers criticized it as all theory with no practical, teachable curricula included.

Many educators liked the book, however, and $8.5 million was raised for the curriculum-development phase. Teachers in Philadelphia, McFarland, Wis., rural Georgia, San Antonio, San Francisco and San Diego are working to translate "Science for All Americans" into a teaching framework. Phase III comes in 1993, when curriculum models are unveiled and a few brave school districts try to implement them.

SSC, the science teachers' project, won $8.6 million from the National Science Foundation and $2.5 million from the Education Department. Aimed at grades 7-12, the project has students in three states learning science holistically -- in "thematic blocks" such as "Floating and Sinking," in which students pick up principles of physics, chemistry and biology while doing density experiments. Instead of one-year courses for each of the sciences, they pursue a single subject for a year.

The math teachers endorsed a 250-page book of new curricular standards for all grade levels last year. Next spring, another volume is to explain how to meet the goals. Science magazine says it will prescribe group work instead of individual drill and practice, extensive use of calculators and computers and emphasize thinking skills.

Not everything being talked about will work as well as its %J planners envision. But you can't improve anything without making mistakes. Out of all these experiments, U.S. science education could finally begin to make up some of the ground it has lost to other countries in recent decades.

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