Making Science More Meaningful

Making Science More Meaningful

kids in a science labInstructional materials will reflect the notion that students' questions drive the classroom’s science work.   Northwestern University researchers and their partners received a $7.5 million grant to develop an innovative research-based science curriculum for elementary school classrooms, supported by professional learning resources for teachers.

The project, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, will develop resources to help children work on questions and engineering problems in science that they, their families, and communities care about.  

“There’s a real need in schools for making the science and engineering more meaningful for students,” said Northwestern’s Brian Reiser, the Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy at the School of Education and Social Policy. “Science and engineering should be tools students use to make sense of and work on problems in their world, rather than a prepackaged, disconnected collection of facts they passively consume.”

The open-access curriculum project is spearheaded by OpenSciEd, a major national effort designed to develop and support freely available high-quality K-12 science instructional materials and teacher learning resources.

Northwestern is the lead institute for the elementary curriculum project, which continues the work OpenSciEd began with its middle school curriculum series released earlier this year. It’s now used by thousands of teachers across the country; a high school curriculum series will begin rolling out in 2023.

Other development partners for this new project include BSCS Science Learning, Carolina Biological Supply Company, Horizon Research Inc., Michigan State University, Oakland University, and the University of Texas at Austin.

A nine-state field test of the materials will gather data from students who reflect the diversity of classrooms around the country in terms of race and ethnicity, dis/abilities, gender, multilingual skills, and location (urban, rural, and suburban).

Over the next four years, the team will design an OpenSciEd Elementary School program consisting of six grade level courses designed for the Next Generation Science Standards for grades K-5. Once field tested, the teacher- and student-facing materials and professional learning materials will be released as freely downloadable educational resources.

“Student surveys help us decide on the real-world context for the science in the units,” said Gail Housman, who is leading development of the instructional materials for grades 3-5 and taught fourth and fifth grades herself prior to joining Reiser’s team at Northwestern. “We rely heavily on feedback from field test teachers and students to be sure our released materials work well in classrooms.” 

Using Science to Answer Students' Questions

OpenSciEd’s instructional materials build on the “science storylines” approach developed by Reiser’s NextGen Science Storylines Project at Northwestern, where students’ questions drive the classroom’s science work.  

For example, in a Storylines unit called “Why Do Some Things Wash Up on the Beach and Others Don’t?” fourth graders begin by exploring a mystery reported in a news article about people discovering thousands of bags of chips on a beach.

Students add their own prior experiences with bodies of water and beaches and develop questions that drive the unit. Through their investigations, students figure out properties of waves and ocean floor structures that explain how objects move in water, how the chips got to the shore, and explain the experiences they brought into the classroom.

Michigan State is leading curriculum development for students from kindergarten through second grade by adapting units from its Science, Oral Language, and Literacy Development from the Start of School (SOLID Start) program.

“The excitement is palpable when teachers use our materials to support students as they ask questions and then figure out how to answer these questions,” said Michigan State professor Tanya S. Wright, who co-leads the SOLID Start program with professor Amelia Wenk Gotwals. “Working with OpenSciEd will help us scale our current work to reach teachers across the US.”

The University of Texas at Austin leads the Culturally and Linguistically Sustaining Teaching and Learning Team, which brings inclusive design and support for language learners to ensure that the materials support historically underserved student populations across all the K-5 work. With Michigan State, UT Austin also leads the Mathematics Alignment and Support Team.

“We want to draw kids from all different backgrounds, experiences, and communities into using the tools of science and engineering,” Housman said.

The project faces real challenges. Science isn’t often front and center in American elementary schools. Teachers also say it’s the area they feel least confident about compared with math and language arts, according to research by Horizon Research Inc.’s Courtney Plumley, a member of the OpenSciEd Elementary Developers Consortium.

Many elementary teachers, however, “are a lot more prepared than they may give themselves credit for, based on student-centered classroom practices they may already use in language arts and math,” Reiser said. “Our professional learning will help them leverage these resources for science.”

Reiser, a member of the leadership teams of the NextGen Science Storylines and OpenSciEd development projects, was a member of the committee authoring the Framework for K-12 Science Education that guided the design of the Next Generation Science Standards and similar standards now used in 44 states.

A member of the National Academy of Education, he has collaborated with state initiatives to design and provide professional development and to develop curriculum materials for K-12 teachers to support them as they reform science teaching in their classrooms.



By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 10/25/22