A group of scientists, teachers and educators from some of the most prestigious science and education institutions in the nation has called for a revolutionary change in the way American high schools teach science. If adopted, the revision would be the first, since a nationally appointed "Committee of Ten" established the present science sequence for the nation's high schools in 1893.
"Science is for ALL students, not just for the few who will grow up to be scientists," said Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Leon M. Lederman, co-chairman of the group, known as American Renaissance in Science Education, or ARISE.
"Our modern economy requires workers with new skills, understanding and flexibility that today's schools simply do not provide. America's schools have not incorporated the revolution in scientific knowledge of the past century. As a result, the system shortchanges the future citizens of a nation that will be characterized by ever-more sophisticated technology."
The ARISE group met in Naperville, Illinois, on September 22-24 to consider how to take advantage of the opportunity for change provided by the push for new national standards requiring three years of science and defining what students should learn in mathematics, science and technology. Both New York City and Chicago have declared their intention to establish three-year high school math and science requirements for all students.
"The growing move to adopt science teaching standards presents a great opportunity for an overhaul of high school science programs that are currently based more on yesterday's science than on today's needs," said Melanie Wojtulewicz, Science Support Staff, Chicago Public Schools. "We have learned what works for effective science teaching. Now we must use it to give our high-school students the science education they will need to succeed in the 21st century."
The seminar concluded that, in a three-year sequence, the traditional order of subjects—biology, chemistry and physics—should be reversed, and should include strong links among the disciplines. Dr. Gerald Wheeler, Executive Director of the National Science Teachers Association said, "The traditionally much feared and highly mathematical subject of physics, usually taken in 12th grade, can be revised to give 9th grade students a grasp of the basic concepts that underlie all sciences."
Following 9th grade conceptual physics, students who already understand atoms would study 10th grade chemistry. Finally, students would encounter biology. Dr. Bruce Alberts, a biologist and president of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC pointed out that the revised curricular sequence makes sense in terms of contemporary biology. "Since the discovery of the double helix in the 1950's, biology has been increasingly based upon an understanding of large molecules," he said.
Dr. Alberts also stressed the importance of new science education standards to be released this December by the National Research Council. The standards present a consensus vision for a new type of science teaching.
ARISE participants agreed that important unifying concepts, such as energy, disordered motion and vibrations, would be revisited over the three-year sequence with increasing levels of sophistication. The demonstrated success of the inquiry method of science teaching in elementary schools encouraged the group to recommend that approach for high school students. "It will give them the lifelong power to adapt to the ever-changing demands of both the work place and the living place," Lederman explained.
Participants acknowledged that such a drastic reform would require new content, new teaching materials, new assessment tools, new laboratory experiments—and would meet with opposition.
"The process of developing the new curriculum will take a minimum of three years," said Rodger Bybee of the Center for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Education (NRC). "However," added Lederman, "the stakes are enormous. A vibrant new initiative in science can re-energize the entire high school curriculum with a closer weaving of mathematics, the social science, arts and humanities."
Dr. Shirley Malcom, Head of Education and Human Resources of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, emphasized some of the difficulties in the program, insisting that, "...a large percentage of teachers who are teaching science, especially in physics and chemistry, neither majored nor minored in the fields they teach. Professional development is crucial to the success of the program." She recommended that teachers spend one hour per day learning to teach science.
The group proposed that, over the next few months, institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Teachers Association join together to begin planning the ARISE project. Sponsors of the ARISE week-end seminar included Fermilab, Illinois Math and Science Academy and the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science. Costs of the meeting were borne by an anonymous donor. It was co-chaired by Leon M. Lederman, Pritzker Professor of Science at Illinois Institute of Technology, and Marjorie G. Bardeen, Fermilab Education Office Manager.