June 5, 2012
A trained biologist and successful curriculum developer, EDC’s Jackie Miller had always created traditional print materials for students. And then she was on a flight from Washington, D.C., to Boston in 2006, where she saw an advertisement for the Sony Reader, a newly launched e-book device.
“That was my first a-ha moment,” she recalls. “I had been thinking about textbooks being so bulky. Seeing the Reader really started me thinking about what curriculum would look like in this kind of format.”
Miller now has the chance. A new partnership between EDC and Carolina Biological is allowing her to build a digital science curriculum, based on EDC’s own Foundation Science materials. Together, Miller and Carolina Biological hope to answer a question that has stumped curriculum developers for years: what does an inquiry-based, digitally delivered science curriculum look like?
Foundation Science, which consists of year-long courses in physics, chemistry, biology, and earth science, was conceived as a set of print materials when development began in 2001. And during the decade that Miller and her team spent writing and field-testing the curriculum, Miller had planned to publish these materials in a conventional print format.
Things changed in 2011 when they asked teachers what kind of science curriculum they were looking for. “In the space of a few years, teachers did almost a complete flip,” recalls Miller. “They wanted things online. They wanted it digital.”
So when it came time to think about publishing and promoting Foundation Science, Miller and Carolina Biological decided to push for digital delivery of two courses: biology and chemistry. Miller believes that the change from print to digital can improve science education for all learners.
“Print is really two-dimensional, sequential,” she says. “You go from A to B to C. On the other hand, digital is three-dimensional and non-linear. You can create a sequence, but you can move around. It has that beauty. You don’t have to see everything all at once, which you do in print.”
Students engage with multiple tools
One benefit of moving from print to digital is that digital technologies—if done well—can allow for more varied engagement and support for students. For example, while a print curriculum may try to explain the structure of a molecule through an illustration and accompanying text description, a digital curriculum may contain an illustration, an audio description, terms that are hyperlinked to definitions, and virtual manipulatives that allow the student to visualize how molecules look in three dimensions.
“Foundation Science values collaboration, problem solving, and communication in addition to understanding big ideas in science,” says Irene Baker, who co-authored the unit on chemistry. “The challenge is integrating that into a digital experience that feels seamless to students.”
Baker says these tools may add complexity to the curriculum, but they also allow students to access the fundamental lessons in ways that make sense to them. She points to the use of short tutorial videos that show students how to conduct an experiment. Tools like this support learning because they help students perform the correct steps in a task, thus freeing them to focus on the results.
To help inform the conversion from print to digital, Baker is working with the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) to pilot a digital version of the physics unit in a Boston high school.
Digital enhances teachers’ roles
Miller rejects the idea that a digital curriculum, with its rich simulations, links, and engaging content, will minimize the role of the science teacher. In fact, she thinks that it can free the teacher to engage students in targeted, meaningful discussions about the science itself, since the digital tool will be able to conduct calculations, analyze data sets, and aggregate answers quickly.
“When teachers are doing hands-on activities, if they don’t have kids actually talk about what the results mean and how it applies to something, then it’s a complete waste,” she says. “To me, the activity is almost irrelevant, except that it should be interesting; it should address the concept; and it should really be fun. The process is important.”
Keeping the emphasis on the process, not the tools, is an important consideration as Foundation Science goes digital.
“I want this to be more than business as usual,” says Miller.