2061 Connections
An electronic newsletter for the science education community

November/December 2006

Field Notes

Educators share how they are using Project 2061 tools

This 2061 Connections report continues a series in which educators share—in their own words—how they are using AAAS Project 2061 reform tools to improve science and mathematics education.

Reconsidering Scope and Sequence

Most science teachers are aware of the phrase "scope and sequence" with regard to curriculum. Indeed, scope and sequence are two of the most important factors to consider when designing a science curriculum: "scope" refers to the extent to which ideas are explained and "sequence" is the order in which those ideas are presented. Yet just as the words "scope and sequence" have been repeated in the same order so many times that they’ve become a hackneyed phrase, the sequence of science topics taught in a school year is often just a matter of habit. Much more thought should be applied to the sequence in which major science concepts are presented to our students. Project 2061's Atlas of Science Literacy can help.

[PHOTO] Kathleen Vandiver
Kathleen Vandiver

The Atlas is an eye opener because it shows the sequence of K–12 science content by topic in easy-to-read maps. Reviewing any topic in Atlas provides you with a fresh look at how the essential concepts can be laid out like stepping stones, creating a coherent pathway for students as they progress from kindergarten through 12th grade. The Atlas maps can also help teachers decide the depth to go into on a particular topic. For example, a sixth grade teacher considering what ideas and skills her students need to know about data analysis could take a look at the "Averages and Comparisons" map to see how the key concepts for grades 6–8 build on earlier ideas and lead to more sophisticated ideas that should wait until grades 9–12.

While the majority of teachers do not have to prepare curriculum for multiple grade levels, they do need to reexamine the conceptual sequence within a grade level, work that I find Atlas helps me to do more thoughtfully and effectively. As a former science teacher, I’m very familiar with the example of a sixth grade science curriculum that includes the topics of weather, matter, and atoms. Some teachers always present the weather unit as their first unit every fall. Why? They know that hurricanes will be in the news in September and these teachers love to have students track hurricanes on world maps using latitude and longitude. Yet this rationale doesn’t consider how students learn the related science concepts. Most weather phenomena are the result of the basic processes of evaporation and condensation of water. Imagine attempting to teach students weather when they can’t recognize what causes a cloud to form. Most weather can be explained by a few key ideas about states of matter that sixth graders can readily grasp. So for these students, the unit on states of matter really needs to precede the unit on weather.

Completing the chemistry unit prior to the weather unit gave my sixth graders other advantages, such as the ability to construct a mental model of the atmosphere and the weather’s main actor, air. Many young students need help recognizing that air is something instead of the absence of matter. They also need to understand that air is actually a mixture of several gasses, as opposed to being an element or compound. Precisely because the students in my class understood the terms "mixture" and "element" and "compound," I could easily avoid the old trap of referring to air as if it were made of "air particles."

When I work with K–12 science teachers, I stress that the sequence of concepts and topics is more important than we probably realize. If you carefully plan the order in which you teach basic science principles, students get a chance to use and practice applying this information, and, thus, are more likely to retain it. In the end, science is not really about learning a collection of facts. Science is about uncovering a set of basic principles that underlie and explain the myriad facts. Check out the Atlas for a unique view of these basic principles and the connections among them, and get inspired to rethink your "scope and sequence" in terms of basic science concepts!

Kathleen Vandiver

Kathleen M. Vandiver is a Director of the Community Outreach and Education Program (COEP) of the MIT Center for Environmental Health Sciences (CEHS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a former public school science teacher and developer of the LEGO Life Science kits. Vandiver attended Project 2061’s "Using Atlas of Science Literacy" workshop in March 2006.

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