Raising the Bar for Middle-School Science


On a sunny spring day when no one would blame adolescents for staring out the window, Lisa Brody's sixth-grade students are engaged in another stimulating inquiry science activity. Using the tools of real scientists, they point light sensors to explore the brightest and dimmest parts of the room. As they compare readings, they debate about how different surfaces reflect and absorb light and how light intensity decreases farther from a light source. Three girls grin as they score the highest reading by reaching close to a fluorescent light bulb.

During an inquiry science activity, sixth grader Michelle Karp of Parkview School in Morton Grove, Illinois, observes the spectrum of bromide gas. Sixth-grade students use light sensors to investigate light intensity with the real-world inquiry science investigations in a middle-school curriculum project led by professor Brian Reiser
Left: During an inquiry science activity, sixth grader Michelle Karp of Parkview School in Morton Grove, Illinois, observes the spectrum of bromide gas. Right: Sixth-grade students use light sensors to investigate light intensity with the real-world inquiry science investigations in a middle-school curriculum project led by professor Brian Reiser.
PHOTOS BY JIM ZIV


These students and their teacher have taken a cue from SESP professor Brian Reiser, whose goal is straightforward. He wants to make science more relevant and approachable for adolescents. For the last 15 years, he and a group of colleagues from across the country have worked steadily to change the way students learn important scientific ideas and the way teachers teach science.

Driving his work with adolescent learning is a forward-thinking understanding of cognition. "It's an outdated view that kids of age x can't do certain kinds of thinking," says Reiser, who points to research showing even young children have scientific skills to build upon. "What we need is to investigate how to build ideas carefully in increasing sophistication over time."

Traditionally, middle-school science teachers have taught primarily by telling students concepts and involving them in planned experiments to demonstrate known results. Reiser's work is part of a growing movement to make science more project-based, where students learn important scientific ideas by investigating meaningful real-world problems and mysteries.

A systematic science sequence
Too often, science curricula present ideas that are disjointed, abstract and superficial, says Reiser, who came to Northwestern in 1992 from Princeton University to help establish Northwestern's Learning Sciences graduate program. "Science is usually taught as a disconnected series of topics, with each district coming up with its own sequence. Even within the same state, what is taught at one grade does not build on what is developed the year before."

To help remedy that, Reiser, along with longtime collaborator Joseph Krajcik at the University of Michigan and university researchers across the country and in Israel, is leading two projects, both funded by the National Science Foundation. The first is called IQWST, short for Investigating and Questioning our World through Science and Technology.

As part of the IQWST project, Reiser and Krajcik are working with SESP professor Danny Edelson to lead a team of science teachers, scientists, literacy experts, curriculum designers and university researchers in developing a coherent and coordinated three-year middle-school curriculum that will eventually be commercially published and used by school districts across the nation. The beauty of this curriculum is that it carefully helps students build ideas across three years in physics, earth science, biology and chemistry.

IQWST materials have numerous other advantages. They align with national standards, are rooted in the principles of project-based scientific inquiry, focus on the major unifying ideas in science and are shaped by research. For example, in IQWST's curriculum students learn core scientific ideas as they investigate phenomena such as how smells travel, why plants and animals in an ecosystem die and what causes a monsoon. Currently, the curriculum is being tested in middle-school classrooms in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Tucson and Washington, D.C.

Teachers including Judy Lachance-Whitcomb find that IQWST develops a deep level of understanding and problem-solving skills that "overflow into students' lives." Her students at North Kenwood Oakland Charter School gained a large degree of understanding of populations in an ecosystem by focusing on the mystery of the trout decline in the Great Lakes between 1930 and 1990. As they examined data and supported claims, they expanded their comprehension of the possible causes of population change. "Their discourse in the classroom as they engaged in debate over evidence became more sophisticated," she explains. "They grew to understand, as one of my former students so eloquently stated, 'It is not so important to find the right answer but to gather the data and analyze it.'"

Sixth-grade students use light sensors to investigate light intensity with the real-world inquiry science investigations in a middle-school curriculum project led by professor Brian Reiser
Sixth-grade students observe the angles of light reflection as one of their real-world inquiry science investigations.
PHOTO BY JIM ZIV



The need for real-world science
Changing the way students experience science is absolutely crucial, Reiser says. "Research has shown that when we teach science abstractly, students learn to solve the little problems we give them in class, but they don't connect them to their understanding of the everyday world. They need to see how science can make sense of things going on around them such as how global warming affects the planet, why endangered species matter to humans, and why plants and animals differ from one region to another."

The students aren't the only ones who need to change their thinking about science, Reiser says. Teachers and school districts do also. Reiser recently co-authored a report for the National Research Council titled "Taking Science to School," which stresses the need for a major change in the way science is taught across the nation.

Educators miss learning opportunities if they don't realize that younger students are able to make substantial progress in understanding the "big ideas" of science, the NRC report maintains. These concepts central to each of the sciences provide the building blocks for science learning in years to come. For instance, the National Science Foundation has identified evolution, the nature of matter and complex systems as big ideas of science. Organizing a curriculum around these ideas keeps students focused on core concepts as they progress to new topics and more complex material.

Reaching for reform
The NRC report led to Reiser's second project, a $3 million, three-year research initiative called Modeling Designs for Learning Science, or MoDeLS. This project is developing science "learning progressions," which are logical road maps laying out how students' understanding of the central ideas in science can grow over time. MoDeLS is devising a fourth- through seventh-grade learning progression for scientific modeling, the process by which scientists create and revise explanatory models of scientific phenomena.

In the MoDeLS project, as students progress through the grades, the models they create will describe more and more complex scientific phenomena. For example, fourth and fifth graders will create models for something they can see, such as precipitation, while sixth and seventh graders will create models for long-term processes such as erosion.

Although the researchers will produce innovative curriculum materials and train teachers, the goal of the MoDeLs project is more wide-ranging. "We want to see whether upper-elementary and middle-school students learn more effectively by using this approach to science education," Reiser says. "Essentially, what we're doing in both these projects is reforming science classrooms and helping teachers and students do something dramatically different than what has been done in the past."

Science teacher Lisa Brody and Parkview students observe the angles of light reflection and enact a food web in two other activities that are part of Reiser's initiative called Investigating and Questioning our World through Science and Technology
Science teacher Lisa Brody and Parkview students enact a food web in another activity that is part of Reiser's initiative called Investigating and Questioning our World through Science and Technology.
PHOTO BY JIM ZIV
By Marilyn Sherman