What caused the Hindenburg to explode in 1937? What happens if a runner drinks too much water during a long race? How do you determine if an envelope with a powdery white substance contains anthrax? These are some of the questions that ninth grade chemistry students wrestle with in Foundation Science, a new high school science curriculum developed by EDC.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, Foundation Science is a comprehensive curriculum that covers the four science disciplines—physics, chemistry, biology, and earth science—in eight semester-long courses. The units build on one another and are geared to the maturing intellectual abilities of students as they progress from ninth through twelfth grade.
“We begin where the students are at 14, then bring them along to more abstract thinking, reasoning, reading, and mathematics,” explains Joe Flynn, who coordinates professional development activities related to curriculum implementation. Foundation Science also supports national high school standards and benchmarks.
Emphasis on scientific disciplines
Traditionally, ninth graders get a year of “general science,” which introduces them to a variety of ideas and concepts from across the disciplines. Breaking with this tradition, Foundation Science offers freshman one semester of physics and one semester of chemistry instead. This is in keeping with the “physics first” movement which recognizes physics as the basis for all the other sciences. It also introduces young people to the rigor of disciplinary thinking right away.
“Typically general science courses are designed as an introduction to science, broadly speaking. They tend to be a little of this and a little of that,” explains Jacqueline Miller, principal investigator for the curriculum effort. “Because the ideas and knowledge they introduce are not presented through the disciplines, there are few connections made between important concepts and no hierarchy of ideas established. We think ninth graders are ready for more, so we introduce physics and chemistry right up front to show students that the ideas they are studying come out of a way of thinking and learning about the world—a discipline.”
The curriculum covers biology and earth science in the tenth grade, and then circles back to a semester of more advanced physics and biology in eleventh grade. “This structure gives adolescents an opportunity to experience all the different sciences in ninth and tenth grades. We’ve designed the early units as an invitation to physics, an invitation to chemistry. We hope that as a result more kids will realize they like science and can do it,” says Miller.
Narratives set the context
In another break with traditional high school science teaching, Foundation uses narratives drawn from life to introduce new content, ask fundamental questions, and establish a meaningful context for learning more.
“Teens like real life stories,” says Miller. “They like to be able to see the relevance to their own lives of what they are learning.” While other science curricula use anecdotes or stories as a hook to interest students in a new topic, Foundation takes the stories further, using them as context for the entire lesson.
For example, the ninth grade chemistry unit on matter begins with a fictional account of an anthrax scare at a New York City newspaper. The story ends with the challenge that security people at the newspaper must confront, to identify what the power is based on the defining characteristics of substances and mixtures. Foundation Science gives students the same challenge. They begin by generating a list of common household substances that look white and powdery and could be mistaken for anthrax. Working from the list, they perform a series of experiments, testing for defining properties such as solubility in water, melting point, boiling point, density, and conductivity. After testing these properties and carefully recording results, students answer questions about their data, engage in small group discussions, and do further reading about the nature of substances. Ultimately they assume the role of chemists and present what they learned about the properties of their samples. Extending the lesson, students read more about the nature of substances, including information about the atomic make up of all matter.
“There is a parallel here with how scientists work,” says Flynn. “They ask compelling questions, they turn to the literature to see what is known, they carry out investigations to learn more. Our assumption is that if students get to see what real scientists do, they’ll love it. It is investigative, questioning, and self-critical.” Indeed the unit on substances ends with the story of real-life chemist and bicycle enthusiast Gary Klein, who used his knowledge of chemistry to develop a lighter, faster bicycle frame. In addition to being a chemist, Klein has become a successful innovator and bicycle manufacturer.
Supporting adolescent development
The big challenge for adolescents comes in putting all the information together to reach a conclusion based on evidence, says Flynn. He also sees that challenge as part of the rationale for learning and teaching science in high school. “Dealing with complexity is an important developmental step for adolescents, and it is what science is all about.” The Foundation Science team designed the sequence of activities in the curriculum specifically to nurture that development. “Adolescents are ready for abstract, complex thinking, but they need some support to do it successfully. The reigning assumption among educators is that high school kids don’t need nurturing anymore—they should be able to consume all the science we can throw at them. We disagree. We think the adolescent intellect still needs nurturing.”
Last year staff field tested the ninth grade units with 400 students in a mix of urban, rural, and suburban schools. They are being revised now and will be ready for classrooms in fall 2007. The tenth grade units are being developed this year and will be field tested and revised through the next school year.
Originally published on April 1, 2006