2061 Connections
An electronic newsletter for the science education community

May 2004

A Jump-Start for New Science Textbook Development

Resources for developing curriculum materials that promote science literacy

Given the major role that textbooks and other curriculum materials play in science teaching and learning, the need to improve their quality is critical. To help address this need, Project 2061 developed and tested a set of criteria and a procedure for analyzing science curriculum materials for their alignment to a coherent set of learning goals and for the quality of their support for students and teachers. In a large-scale application of its criteria and procedure, Project 2061 conducted a series of evaluative studies of some of the most widely used middle and high school science textbooks (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 2002). Findings from these studies indicate that existing materials have a long way to go in supporting the teaching and learning of the ideas and skills recommended in state content standards and in national documents such as Project 2061’s own Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS, 1993) and the National Research Council’s National Science Education Standards (1996).

Among the most common textbook deficiencies found were (1) a lack of attention to the well documented and predictable difficulties that many students have in grasping some key science concepts; (2) illustrations and other graphic representations that are too abstract, complex, or inadequately explained; (3) insufficient firsthand experiences with natural phenomena that provide opportunities for exploring the natural world and that help make scientific ideas plausible to students; and (4) few efforts to guide students in making sense of these experiences when they do occur.

To help foster a new generation of science curriculum materials that attend to these deficiencies, Project 2061 is identifying, developing, and making available a collection of resources that can be used to create curriculum materials (and lessons) that focus on some of the most important ideas in science. Made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the collection includes reference tools (e.g., summaries of research on how students think about natural phenomena and ideas in science) that inform the work of curriculum materials developers and teachers, and building blocks (e.g., activities, photographs, diagrams, sets of questions, and examples of natural phenomena that demonstrate particular scientific ideas) that can be incorporated into actual lessons, textbooks, and other kinds of curriculum materials.

Expanding the Knowledge Base
Our effort to build this collection is based on a view of curriculum materials as tools that allow teachers to do their best work with students (Ball & Cohen, 1996). In particular, we view curriculum materials as an important vehicle through which the knowledge base in science education becomes available to teachers. Our work is also guided by Shulman’s concept of pedagogical content knowledge, which includes knowledge of analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations, and demonstrations that make the subject matter comprehensible to others (Shulman, 1986). We are identifying or developing resources for curriculum materials that embody these ideas. Over time, we hope our work will be a catalyst for further study of the implementation of curriculum materials that incorporate this knowledge base, contributing to the collective expertise of the field.

Topics covered in the collection include:

  • The solar system
  • Changes in the Earth’s surface
  • States of matter
  • Conservation of matter
  • Chemical reactions
  • Laws of motion
  • Waves
  • Flow of matter in ecosystems
  • Flow of energy in ecosystems
  • Heredity—Variation in inherited characteristics
  • Cell functions
  • Biological evolution
  • Natural selection

Working with experts in the relevant content areas and in science education, the Project 2061 staff is reviewing a broad range of print and digital resources for possible inclusion in the online collection. To define the topic areas to be covered (see sidebar), we are using a set of 13 strand maps (drawn from Project 2061’s popular publication Atlas of Science Literacy) as the focus for selecting and developing resources. Strand maps organize key science ideas—along with prerequisite and related ideas—in graphical form, linking them in a visual web to display their interdependence and sequence from kindergarten through 12th grade (AAAS, 2001). By organizing these resources by content strands (rather than only by individual science ideas), users can more easily see what kinds of resources are needed and where in the learning progression they are needed. Available online, the collection will use strand maps as its main interface—users will be able to click on the text of an idea displayed on a map to access the various resources that are linked to it. Extensive hyperlinks will relate resources to each other.

To help guide the design and content of the resources and of the collection as a whole, Project 2061 has conducted a series of focus groups with teachers, curriculum developers, and education faculty. These groups were convened at regional meetings of the National Science Teachers Association and at meetings of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, and the Association for the Education of Teachers of Science.

Resources for Curriculum Materials Development
Some resources in the collection—such as the clarifications of benchmark ideas and the descriptions of conceptual connections among ideas—are being produced by the Project 2061 staff. Others are drawn from a wide variety of sources. For example, we are summarizing research articles that discuss the ideas that many learners have about specific science concepts and ways to help learners move from these ideas to scientifically accepted ones. Research articles are being identified through searches of the ERIC database and bibliographies on student learning in specific topic areas (Driver, Squires, Rushworth, & Wood-Robinson, 1994; Duit, 2002). We are also searching a variety of existing curriculum materials and instructional tools (such as computer simulations) that have been developed by research teams in the U.S. and in other countries for examples of effective phenomena and representations (e.g., Building Science Concepts, 2001; Nuffield Primary Science, 1995; PENNlincs, 2000). Each component is screened for content and instructional quality based on the criteria used in Project 2061’s textbook evaluation studies (AAAS, 2002; Kesidou & Roseman, 2002). The collection includes resources in the following categories:

Clarifications. Understanding the intent of specific learning goals is not as straightforward as it may first seem. Educators may overestimate or underestimate the level of sophistication of the ideas targeted by a goal, based on their own experiences. For each benchmark on the collection’s 13 strand maps, a “Clarification” specifies its constituent key ideas and discusses the level of sophistication intended for the benchmark (distinguishing it from earlier grade or later grade benchmarks in the same topic). It also identifies peripheral ideas and terms that are not on target for a specific learning goal.

Connections. To fully grasp the key ideas targeted in a learning goal, students often need to understand some “prerequisite” ideas first. For example, for students to learn about the spherical shape of the Earth, it is important for them to have an early conception of gravity to account for why people on the “bottom” of the Earth do not fall off. Similarly, we know that the useful knowledge people possess is richly interconnected and students need to appreciate those conceptual relationships. To help educators, researchers, and curriculum developers to promote these kinds of understandings, a “Connections” tool identifies prerequisite ideas and skills and appropriate links from one idea to another for each of the learning goals specified on relevant maps in Atlas of Science Literacy (AAAS, 2001). This “Connections” tool also takes into account conceptual links described in Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS, 1993) and Science for All Americans (AAAS, 1989), and in the cognitive research literature.

Ideas Students Have. Research shows that students usually have ideas about how the world works even before they have received formal science instruction. While some of their ideas are in basic agreement with scientists’ views, others disagree or conflict with currently accepted scientific theories. Because some of students’ erroneous ideas work fairly well in familiar contexts, they are highly resistant to change. “Ideas Students Have” are summaries of research that sheds light on students’ commonly held ideas and on the likely sources of these deep-rooted beliefs. These reference tools will enable educators, researchers, and curriculum developers to understand more fully the effect of students’ ideas on their learning. When available, the summaries include descriptions not only of conceptual but also of relevant cultural, epistemological, or ontological prior knowledge that may influence student learning.

Diagnostic Questions. Questions or tasks that can be used to elicit students’ thinking and track their understanding can be found in the research literature on students’ commonly held ideas. We are selecting questions and tasks that are likely to make sense to students who have never studied a particular topic and are not familiar with the scientific vocabulary. For example, asking “What do you think will happen if we let go of this ball? Why do you think this will happen?” is more comprehensible to students who have not studied gravity than asking “What is the effect of gravity on this ball?” Typical resources in the “Questions” category ask students to predict, describe, and explain familiar phenomena; represent their understandings in drawings; interpret information in light of key ideas; and describe important relationships between concepts.

Phenomena/Activities. Scientists construct and use scientific knowledge to describe, explain, predict, and design real-world objects, systems, or events. Therefore, providing students with opportunities to connect scientific ideas with real-world phenomena can help them to view these often abstract ideas as plausible or enhance their sense of the usefulness of the ideas. Resources in the “Phenomena/Activities” category include annotated lists of a variety of phenomena for materials developers to incorporate into their new products and for teachers to use as supplements to their current materials. These lists of relevant phenomena will also be valuable to college faculty designing science courses for teachers and non-science majors. To supplement the annotated lists of phenomena, we are also describing in full detail some examples that provide

  • procedures for hands-on or demonstration activities that engage students with the phenomena.
  • step-by-step explanations of the phenomena using the key ideas.
  • sequences of questions that are carefully structured to lead students from one insight to another so that they can make meaning of the phenomena.
  • comments about some phenomena that are widely used in science classrooms but not well aligned to ideas that are central to science literacy.
  • insights on how students are likely to respond to various phenomena, pointing out features that are likely to further students’ learning and those that are not.

These examples are intended to be useful in both teacher development and curriculum development settings.

Representations/Activities. Materials developers and educators also need a wide variety of representations (i.e., drawings, diagrams, graphs, images, analogies and metaphors, models and simulations, analogies, and role-playing) to help make abstract ideas intelligible to students with diverse backgrounds, interests, and learning styles. Different representations highlight different aspects of an idea and provide a variety of opportunities for students to connect ideas to each other and to embed these concepts into their own knowledge system. Resources in this category include annotated lists of representations, along with more detailed descriptions that focus on particular attributes or applications of selected representations.

Using the Collection
By making this collection of resources easily accessible online, our intent is to jump-start the process of developing curriculum materials that incorporate the knowledge base in science teaching and learning. In addition, our work can contribute to new knowledge about criteria for judging the appropriateness and value of particular resources in helping students learn key science ideas. For researchers and developers, this collection of resources provides a starting point for investigations that have the potential to improve materials and classroom practice. For those responsible for teacher education or professional development, the resources can be deployed in ways that increase teachers’ understanding of science learning goals and their skills in selecting, adapting, and using a variety of real-world scientific phenomena and representations.

See a prototype of the online interface and some examples from the collection.

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This article is based on papers presented at the recent annual meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching (Caldwell, Kesidou, & Wilson, 2004; Kesidou, 2004; Kurth, Willard, & Kesidou, 2004). To request copies of the papers or for more information, please contact:

Principal Investigator: Dr. Jo Ellen Roseman, (202) 326-6752
Program Director: Dr. Sofia Kesidou


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American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1989). Science for all Americans. New York: Oxford University Press.

American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

American Association for the Advancement of Science. (2001). Atlas of science literacy. Washington, DC: Author.

American Association for the Advancement of Science. (2002). Middle grades science textbooks: A benchmarks-based evaluation. [Online]. Retrieved on March 22, 2004, from http://www.project2061.org/tools/textbook/mgsci/

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Black, P., & Harrison, C. (2001). Feedback in questioning and marking: The science teacher’s role in formative assessment. School Science Review, 82, 55-61.

Building Science Concepts. (2001). Wellington, New Zealand: Learning Media Limited.

Caldwell, A., Kesidou, S., & Wilson, P. (2004, April). Creating components for the next generation of curriculum materials at the intersection of research and practice: Processes that shape the Earth. Paper presented at the meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Carlsen, W. S. (1991). Questioning in classrooms: A sociolinguistic perspective. Review of Educational Research, 61(2), 157-178.

Champagne, A., Gunstone, R., & Klopfer, L. (1985). Instructional consequences of students’ knowledge about physical phenomena. In L. West & A. L. Pines (Eds.), Cognitive structure and conceptual change (pp. 61-90). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

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Driver, R., Squires, A., Rushworth, P., & Wood-Robinson, V. (1994). Making sense of secondary science: Research into children’s ideas. New York: Routledge.

Duit, R. (2002). Bibliography – STCSE: Students’ and teachers’ conceptions and science education. Retrieved on March 29, 2004, from

Gentner, D., & Holyoak, K. (1997). Reasoning and learning by analogy. American Psychologist, 52(1), 32-34.

Hewson, P. W., & Hennessey, M. G. (1992). Making status explicit: A case study of conceptual change. In R. Duit, F. Goldberg, & H. Niedderer (Eds.), Research in physics learning: Theoretical issues and empirical studies (pp. 176-187). Kiel: IPN.

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Kesidou, S. (2004, April). Creating components for the next generation of curriculum materials at the intersection of research and practice: Light. Paper presented at the meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Kesidou, S., & Roseman, J. E. (2002). How well do middle school science programs measure up? Findings from Project 2061’s curriculum review. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 39(6), 522-549.

Kress, G., & van Leeuwen, T. (1996). Reading images: The grammar of visual design. London: Routledge.

Kurth, L., Willard, T., & Kesidou, S. (2004, April). Creating components for the next generation of curriculum materials at the intersection of research and practice: The solar system. Paper presented at the meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

National Research Council. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Nuffield Primary Science. (1995). Science processes and concept exploration. London: Collins Educational.

PENNlincs. (2000). Science for developing minds. Philadelphia: Institute for Research in Cognitive Science.

Pinto, R., & Ametller, J. (1992). Students’ difficulties in reading images: Comparing results from four national research groups. International Journal of Science Education, 24(3), 333-341.

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