2061 Connections
An electronic newsletter for the science education community

May/June 2005

Project 2061’s Strong Presence at NSTA

Addressing issues from the future of science education reform to the need for student assessment aligned to content standards, four past and current Project 2061 staff members spoke at the 2005 National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) National Convention in Dallas. Former Project 2061 directors F. James Rutherford and George Nelson were featured speakers, while Project 2061 deputy director George DeBoer and senior program associate Ted Willard shared some of Project 2061’s latest research and resources. Overviews of their presentations follow.

F. James Rutherford: The Future of Science Education Reform
F. James Rutherford, founding director of Project 2061, gave the Paul F-Brandwein Lecture at the NSTA National Convention. In “Thoughts on the Next 50 Years of Science Education,” he considered why reform efforts of the last 50 years were not more successful and proposed a reform agenda for the future and what it will take to realize it.

Dr. Rutherford began by saying that he did not mean the next 50 years literally, but rather a period of time that he could contrast to the past half century or so. He noted that as he reflects on K–12 science education in post-World War II America, it appears that surprisingly little progress has occurred in the past 50 years. One factor Rutherford believes stalled progress in science education was the lack of a single direction or pattern of reform, resulting in scattered efforts. As a consequence, the system merely survives and many opportunities for improvement were overlooked. In particular, Rutherford contends that science education content has not shown gains in contextual richness, continuing to lack interconnectedness with other science ideas and to be only weakly connected to art, history, and technology. He placed much of the blame on textbooks that may be glitzy but have little literary value.

Rutherford thinks that the preparation of teachers has not risen to the challenge of preparing for diverse students or the intellectual challenge of new scientific knowledge. Moreover, Rutherford believes technology has not been imaginatively exploited, leading to the stagnation of curriculum design. Lack of imagination is also evident in the fact that in most places, biology, chemistry, and physics continue to be taught in the same order and for the same length of time as in the nation’s pre-World War II era.

Looking ahead to the future of science education reform, Dr. Rutherford proposed innovations such as

  • having students teach other students;
  • focusing on useful knowledge; and
  • improving research by having graduate students work with a team of researchers in education, rather than attempt to develop their own isolated projects.

An article based on Dr. Rutherford's lecture is due to be published in the Journal of Science & Technology in September.

George Nelson: Science Teachers as Reformers
Former Project 2061 director George Nelson presented “Science Teachers Unite and Throw Off Your Chains! Tools for Liberation” as the Robert H. Karplus lecture at NSTA. Dr. Nelson currently directs Science, Math, and Technology Education (SMATE) at Western Washington University. Focusing on the role of science teachers in education reform, Nelson began by acknowledging the “accelerating rates of change” in society—children today will live to see all information available in real-time, to witness the exploration of Mars, and to hold jobs that have not yet been invented. To best deal with this rapid change, Nelson believes necessary skills for the 21st century are self-education, risk taking, the ability to live with persistent change, and literacy in science, mathematics, and technology.

For Nelson, the education system itself hinders the goals of graduating high school and college students with literacy in science and of educating the next generation of scientists and engineers. Nelson listed some of the “tyrannies” facing educators:

  • Time—there isn’t any
  • Tests—there are too many
  • Curriculum materials—not helpful for teaching or learning
  • Parents—it’s all about my kid
  • “Smart” kids—it’s all about me
  • Administrators—too busy with budgets and bullies

But Nelson believes the education system’s problems are ones that teachers can help solve. He described the “tools” educators have to help them face these tyrannies. Concerning tests, Nelson said teachers should engage with developers and not try to cover everything at the expense of most students’ learning. With regard to curriculum materials, Nelson wants educators to insist on materials that support their teaching and their students’ learning. With respect to parents, Nelson told attendees to engage them if possible and to use them for support both in and out of the classroom. Concerning “smart” kids, Nelson believes that they can be used as a resource and that they should be provided opportunities—but ones that do not take away from the forgotten majority.

Nelson encouraged science educators to become a stronger force for positive change by working together to communicate and coordinate across grades and disciplines, to become more proactive about the use of time and resources, and to demand revolutionary change.

George DeBoer: Assessment Aligned to Content Standards
Deputy director George DeBoer’s NSTA presentation, “Aligning Student Assessment to State and National Content Standards,” described National Science Foundation-funded work at Project 2061 that will result in an online collection of assessment items. These middle and early high school assessment items will be carefully aligned to national content standards—Project 2061’s Benchmarks for Science Literacy and the National Research Council’s National Science Education Standards—and linked to state content standards. (Read more about Project 2061’s assessment work.)

Dr. DeBoer noted the need for this work given the current state of assessment items that are only broadly aligned with content standards. Closely aligned assessment items can be used diagnostically to find out what students do and do not know about important science ideas and to give teachers important feedback on their own teaching.

Reviewers are using Project 2061’s assessment analysis procedure to determine the content alignment of assessment items. DeBoer described the reviewers’ work and additional questions they ask:

  • Is the assessment task likely to be comprehensible to students? Will they understand the illustrations, graphs, and what is expected of them? Is the vocabulary at the appropriate level of difficulty?
  • Is the task context familiar, engaging, and realistic to students? Is the context scientifically accurate, plausible, and fair to all?
  • Are there features of the assessment task that make it likely that students will get the correct answer by guessing or using other general test-taking strategies?

The goal is to eliminate false negatives and false positives, that is, incorrect answers from students who do have the knowledge and correct answers from students who do not have the knowledge.

At issue is validity, said DeBoer, because aligned assessment tasks should address the knowledge in the content standards and not something else—such as other knowledge, the ability to guess, knowledge of advanced vocabulary, or the ability to decipher awkward or complex phrasing in the question.

Ted Willard: Project 2061 Resources in Development
Senior program associate Ted Willard gave two NSTA presentations in Dallas: a talk on “Standards-Based Instruction in Astronomy for Elementary Students” and a preview of maps for the next volume of Atlas of Science Literacy. His standards-based instruction session shared work from Project 2061’s development of an online collection of resources that can be used to create curriculum materials and lessons that focus on some of the most important ideas in science. The collection aims to address the most common deficiencies Project 2061 found in its science textbook evaluations: many textbooks, for example, lacked a coherent approach to key science ideas and failed to take account of student ideas that interfere with learning.

Willard compared the new resources to stereo components, explaining that just as stereo components can be assembled to create a stereo system, Project 2061’s curriculum resources are designed to be raw materials that educators and curriculum developers can use to assemble a standards-based curriculum. The collection will include resources in the following categories:

  • Clarifications of key science ideas
  • Connections among key ideas
  • Summaries of research on some of the Common Ideas Students Have and the likely sources of these ideas
  • Diagnostic Questions that can help elicit student ideas
  • Phenomena that can help make key ideas plausible
  • Representations that can help clarify key ideas

Using a prototype interface for the curriculum resources, Willard displayed sample resources developed for an astronomy learning goal that asks elementary students to understand that the shape of the Earth is a sphere. When complete, the online collection will help curriculum developers build curricular blocks for incorporation into lessons, units, and teachers’ guides. Teachers and teacher educators could use the collection to sharpen their understanding of science learning goals and to increase their skill in selecting and using resources. For researchers, the collection could serve as a starting point for investigations aimed at improving materials and classroom practice.

In his presentation previewing maps for the next volume of Atlas of Science Literacy, Willard described how science education is not working for most students, even in the best schools, and explained how Project 2061 has developed many tools over the last twenty years to help educators improve science instruction. He explained how Atlas of Science Literacy, when coupled with Science for All Americans and Benchmarks for Science Literacy, provide three complementary perspectives on what the goals of science education should be.

Willard went on to explain how educators can use the strand maps in Atlas to

  • understand the content standards in Benchmarks;
  • design curriculum;
  • plan instruction;
  • develop and evaluate curriculum materials;
  • construct and analyze assessment; and
  • prepare teachers.

The participants then looked at several maps to understand in more detail the maps’ features, paying particular attention to the different relationships suggested when two benchmarks are connected by an arrow on a map.

Willard reviewed the new maps being drafted for the second volume of Atlas, explaining their relationship to the current Atlas maps and the remaining unmapped sections of Benchmarks of Science Literacy. The presentation concluded with a discussion of the types of questions that arise when developing or reviewing a new draft map: Is the title of the map a reasonable approximation of the content of the map? Is the method of displaying the connections between different maps clear? Do any learning goals need to be edited, paraphrased, or split apart for clarification or to reduce the text on the page?

[Table of Contents]