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Curriculum Connections

This chapter seeks to illustrate how standard K-12 curricula in the United States can foster the science learning called for in Science for All Americans (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 1989). By recommending increased emphasis on connections between science and other disciplines-naturally occurring connections in the physical and biological world studied by scientists that traditional science curricula rarely emphasize-we suggest that educators can encourage students not only to know scientific facts but also to view the world scientifically.

This chapter provides rationale for connecting what students learn in school through interdisciplinary links, real-world connections, and connections to the world of work. We present five case studies of attempts to explore and define curriculum connections in those contexts and identify some principles that contribute to a well-coordinated curriculum consistent with the goals of Project 2061 and other science education reform efforts. This chapter does not offer teachers specific guidelines for implementing interdisciplinary curricula-our intention is to inspire rather than to prescribe the development of curriculum connections. Changing aspects of the school structure, such as the use of time and space in schools, as described in Blueprints' Chapter 5: School Organization, can help teachers act on this inspiration.

The Current Status

Each day, children of all ages apply scientific principles or engage in scientific activities as part of their normal routine. An interest in the local baseball team leads thousands of youngsters to compute batting averages or to understand why the famous Chicago winds favor hitters at Wrigley Park one day and pitchers the next. A child who loves dancing gains new understandings of human biology and physiology and uses those understandings to develop an intuitive framework for understanding the physical world.

Unfortunately, these activities and interests are cultivated too infrequently in schools. Lessons or units have specified starting and ending times so students can move on to something else. In addition, the lessons and units are almost always presented in tidy packages in subjects such as Chemistry, Art, or History. Students are rarely asked to apply what they have learned to solve problems that they design or that are relevant to their lives. While Science for All Americans acknowledges the importance of disciplines for their ability to provide a conceptual structure for organizing research, it also recognizes that the divisions between disciplines do not necessarily match the way the world works and can skew learning and limit understanding.

As technology and the continuing communications revolution make our world ever smaller and more complex, individuals will increasingly need to synthesize multiple strands of information to make informed decisions about their lives and their communities. Because these strands of information will not come equipped with tidy labels of Chemistry, Art, or History, people will need to connect what they know to new information to construct new knowledge and craft better solutions. Individuals who succeed in making those connections and in understanding some of the ways in which mathematics, technology, and the sciences depend on each other will have achieved one facet of what Science for All Americans defines as science literacy.

Weaving Connections

Fortunately for science education reformers, curriculum connections is an idea whose time has come. Available literature on the subject grows daily, and conferences publicizing interdisciplinary curriculum models attract significant numbers of participants. Nonetheless, even in schools that appear to be at the forefront of establishing interdisciplinary connections, the gulf between the humanities and the sciences often seems impassable. For example, the humanities and sciences are still taught in separate blocks in many schools that belong to the Coalition of Essential Schools, a nationwide reform movement that stresses curriculum connections (Sizer, 1989).

Educators should work to bridge this chasm for two main reasons. First, to be science literate, citizens must be able to draw on knowledge inside and outside the fields of science and mathematics. Second, and on a far more pragmatic level, as American students are called on to master an ever-expanding body of knowledge, using junctures across the curriculum will eliminate needless redundancies and use time more efficiently.


Understandability of the World
This strand map shows an array of benchmarks that deal with the understandability of the world. Students in the grade levels indicated could be expected to understand these ideas.

Strand map

 Interdisciplinary links are the most obvious way to approach curriculum connections. Whether through examining the mathematical structures of music or studying the principles of carbon dating while learning about Mayan culture, interdisciplinary connections make scientific principles tangible to a wide variety of individuals and provide an efficient method for designing lessons and strengthening the content learned in several subjects at once. Learning in multiple and meaningful contexts enhances students' abilities to build knowledge and understanding of science and its relationship to other disciplines.

Linking science education to the real world offers another approach to curriculum connections. Providing a link to the student's own world through contextual learning can be a powerful motivating factor. Blueprints' Chapter 11: Family and Community addresses this issue, encouraging schools and parent organizations to help families recognize that they can make science education more relevant for students by nurturing their children's natural curiosity, posing questions, asking children to create hypotheses, and helping children recognize that science is an important part of their everyday lives. Doing science every day is one way of learning science, and young people should be encouraged to discover science in their homes, their backyards, and their communities.

Once students understand how science impacts their everyday lives, it becomes easier for them to see connections between science education and the world of work. Strengthening these connections is particularly valuable to those students who are oriented more toward the working world than to the academic world. This importance has been confirmed in reports such as the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) (U.S. Department of Labor, 1991), which suggests that many students are unable to find and hold good jobs because they are unable to apply what they learn in school to the world of work. Some scientists and other professionals graduate from higher education without knowing how scientific knowledge, concepts, and methods are applied to problem-solving in larger systems-natural systems or design and production systems-that are addressed in the working world. The SCANS report calls for changes in our education system that will make learning more concrete and require that students be competent in problem solving, reasoning, and communication, which will ease their transition from school to work.

Needed Changes

Restructuring science curricula is an ambitious goal. It is unlikely that interdisciplinary approaches can simply be grafted onto existing curricula, most of which are noteworthy for their fragmentation. Project 2061, for example, calls for a complete rethinking of how we teach science in the United States. At the school site, this might result in blocking time for a fully integrated program, realigning a conventionally structured curriculum to highlight connections between disciplines, or any of the myriad alternatives that combine elements of both approaches. Many schools are already launching curricular revolutions to undertake this ambitious task. The next section describes alternatives developed at five of those special places

The following examples provide specific ideas for making the necessary changes to establish connected curricula. These projects are prototypes of the kinds of curriculum connections that address benchmarks and standards. They illustrate that all players-not just science educators-must be involved in planning and implementing reform, and they show that reform needs time to develop in order to address how children learn as well as what they learn.

Interdisciplinary Connections: To Build a Kayak

Project 2061's San Francisco School-District Center works with six schools to develop and implement K-12 curriculum models that achieve the learning objectives outlined in Science for All Americans. Although these educators work within the confines of the existing educational system, their emphasis on Project 2061's goals allows them to introduce some non-traditional activities into the curriculum. For example, several of the schools work with curricular models for interdisciplinary learning. Interdisciplinary units are often organized not around central themes but around imagination, curiosity and skepticism, or "challenges" to a belief or action. A tangible product, usually a project or presentation, is required as evidence that students have met each challenge.

While this type of activity may sound abstract to the layperson or to teachers who have seen more than their share of impractical educational theory, the San Francisco team has enjoyed several successes using these curricular models. One successful challenge involved nine teams of three middle school students who were charged with building a kayak in three weeks. The kayak-to be constructed with only plastic tape and cardboard-had to be sufficiently sound to carry a student on water. The need for students to integrate a variety of mathematical and scientific knowledge and skills to meet this challenge is obvious-it required familiarity with mass, volume, density, buoyancy, flotation, and water displacement, and it required students to engage in scientific inquiry to measure; compute areas, volumes, and ratios; and use their understanding of scale to construct a model.

Although many educators may have been satisfied with this meaningful integration of various science disciplines and mathematics, the San Francisco team saw a history in the kayak that connected it to many other disciplines. During the three-week unit, students studied the history of the kayak, examined the culture of the Aleutians and Inuits-decorating their boats with Inuit art-and learned the geographic relationship of the Bering Strait to the Arctic Ocean. They studied relations between the Aleutians and the Russians, reviewed the region's place in the Cold War, and discovered where their small experiment in boat-building fit in the technological history of boats and transportation. When the students launched their boats for a 100-yard race at the end of the challenge, they were evaluated on team cooperation, boat design, and aesthetics; their understanding of the key science and mathematics concepts embedded in the experience; and, most importantly, the ability of the boat to float (all nine boats floated, with one clear winner).

This challenge addressed several benchmarks, including understanding the relationship between technology and design, knowing physical laws related to mass, and applying mathematics. In addition, designing and building the boats gave students the means to develop their ability to question, hypothesize, and solve problems-skills that Science for All Americans defines as necessary for science literacy.

Real World Connections: Taking an Urban Safari

The UCLA Science Project gives K-8 teachers in the Los Angeles County School District the opportunity to practice new strategies of science teaching during intensive two-week summer institutes. One of these institutes leads teachers on a safari in the urban landscape of Los Angeles. The dual purpose of the urban safari is to overcome the lack of confidence that many teachers-especially elementary teachers-have in their ability to teach science and to challenge the misconception that science is an arcane discipline whose activities take place in a laboratory or other remote site.

Using only inexpensive and makeshift items such as empty tape cassette boxes (which, when dabbed with crumbs and sugar were perfect for catching bugs), groups of teachers were sent to explore a vacant lot, a maintained yard, a parking lot, and a construction site. The groups were given questions to help guide their searches, such as, How do some plants adapt to growing through sidewalk cracks? How did the seeds get there? Is the animal life there self-supporting or supported by human intrusions such as garbage or gardens? Gathering air temperature and humidity data over concrete, grass, and puddles expanded teachers' experiences.

The participants' investigations were guided by the loose charge to pull together aspects of their study to illustrate one of the five themes in the California Science Framework: energy, evolution, patterns of change, scale and structure, and systems and interactions. Given this charge, the teachers saw the unlimited possibilities for investigation and realized that they could undertake the activity at various levels of depth and sophistication. They discussed replicating the exercise in their own communities, with many teachers noting that they could extend the experience by having students observe changes in one small site over the course of the school year.
Benchmarks and SFAA

The urban safari not only helps teachers overcome some of their fears about teaching science, it also offers them strategies for connecting science meaningfully to the world in which their students live. This exercise serves a wide range of objectives outlined in Science for All Americans, Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS, 1993), and the National Science Education Standards [Standards] (National Research Council, 1996): understanding the physical setting (weather, erosion, water and rock cycles, and structure of matter) and the living environment (diversity of life, cells, food cycles) and encouraging students to develop desirable habits of mind. This teaching strategy, when combined with knowledge of the local environment and clearly-defined goals for a student-conducted safari, can be a powerful means for learning science in the elementary grades.

Connections to the Workplace: Creating a Functional Elite

The humanities and fine arts curricula are strong at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Design, writing, and performance are emphasized at this exclusive magnet school for the mathematics and science whizzes of northern Virginia. Graduating seniors are required to produce an intensive research project, often conducting their research under the guidance of industrial mentors in government and private laboratories.

Jefferson's curriculum is organized into a labyrinth of interdisciplinary blocks that produce such unconventional classes as a three-hour block called "Biology, English, and Introduction to Technology." The decision to integrate the core classes arose in part from a desire to replicate problem solving in a work setting. Along these lines, technology is considered a tool to be used for learning rather than the object of study itself and so is combined with other core classes (Barth, 1993).

Jefferson's innovative academic program has evolved in partnership with business and industry. The support of these partners is evident in both curriculum and facilities, including funding for the school's 11 technology labs. In the mentorship program, seniors interact with professionals from the scientific, engineering, technological, and industrial communities during their independent research project. Mentorships sponsored by Atlantic Research Corporation have assisted such student projects as "The Fabrication of a Gyro Utilizing Fiber Optic Technology," while BDM and Martin Marietta Gould have helped Jefferson seniors solve problems related to automation and robotic systems. Jefferson students are consistently recruited by top universities in science and engineering, and corporate interests view their participation as an investment paying off in future employees. Private funding and employee mentorships continue to flow to Jefferson as its graduates become known as the future work-force elite.

The success of Jefferson High School is due in large part to the curricular innovations that break down interdisciplinary barriers; the view that all academic work-the arts, humanities, and sciences-can be applied; and the direct involvement of field practitioners in providing educational services. The careful admissions screening process also contributes to the school's success. The exclusive nature of Jefferson's students has cast some doubt on the replicability of the program. While principal Geoffrey Jones admits that the quality of his students affords him a luxury of flexibility that many principals do not have, he believes that Jefferson's interdisciplinary approach and block scheduling could be used by all high schools. In addition, he insists that learning for students with lower achievement records as well as for Jefferson's self-starters should be driven by students' questions and their attempts to answer them. It is the same theory around which Henry Levin's Accelerated Schools (Levin, 1987) have had success at improving the learning of students labeled "at-risk."

The approach at Jefferson clearly matches the goals of Project 2061, which stresses the connections between disciplines as seemingly disparate as biology and English. While Jefferson's exclusivity allows its science curriculum to exceed the guidelines for science literacy outlined in Science for All Americans, the curricular structure of its program, the emphasis on student-generated problems, and the mentorships could be adopted by schools seeking to implement new frameworks for science, mathematics, and technology. In addition, if schools can convince businesses that their aims should be to make all schools like Jefferson (or at least to encourage all schools to aspire to that goal), they would be well on their way to gaining crucial political and, perhaps, financial support.

Connecting the Disconnected

In stark contrast to Jefferson stands Middle College High School, on the campus of LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York. For 18 years Middle College High has opened its doors to students identified by their junior high counselors as chronic underachievers or with emotional or behavioral problems. Principal Cecilia Cullen explains that the key to keeping these students in school is to pique their interest quickly, and she has turned to nontraditional methods to do so.

Middle College was initially established as a New York City "alternative school." Six years ago it joined Ted Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools (CES), a reform endeavor that often stresses, in addition to student-centered learning, a schedule that blocks time for interdisciplinary courses. While many CES schools offer one block of interdisciplinary classes in the sciences and another in the humanities, Middle College High is leading the move towards linking the two.

One of Middle College's most successful attempts at forming these linkages is a 13-week unit called "The Motion Program," in which seniors explore the concept of motion through the study of literature, mathematics, physics, and physical education. The physical education component of the program, Project Adventure, calls for such activities as the "Spider's Web," where an entire group of students moves through a giant nylon web without touching the web material. The school principal credits Project Adventure with a large share of the school's success in reaching its students and with developing their problem-solving capabilities.

The literature strand of the unit examines the ideas of motion, movement, and change through fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. In addition to their reading assignments, students are asked to write a play scene applying Newton's laws to the interaction of people. Physics and mathematics are combined and team-taught, emphasizing collaborative experimentation that leads students to a fundamental understanding of motion, especially of phenomena that may seem counterintuitive to them.

Career education is the central and integrative experience at Middle College High. The Avon Corporation and local hospitals are the stalwarts of a long-running internship program in which more than 350 public and private sector organizations participate. All students are required to take three internships over the course of a four-year career. While teachers admit that the quality of internships varies-interns may be animal behavior lab assistants at a museum or they might be performing clerical tasks in the mailroom-all emphasize the overall success of integrating internship with school activities.

The average combined SAT scores of Middle High graduates have risen by 200 points since the school joined the Coalition of Essential Schools. In addition, about 85% of Middle High students-once targeted as likely drop-outs-graduate from high school. Almost 80% of graduates attend two- or four-year colleges. Internship sponsors provide positive feedback and many organizations participate in the program year after year.

The school principal noted that many Middle College teachers initially resisted developing interdisciplinary curricula or cooperating with their colleagues. Only a handful of teachers are still resistant, but science education reformers should acknowledge the potential for difficulties when implementing an integrated curriculum.

Middle College High is undoubtedly a work in progress. The school recently launched a process to articulate academic goals for its students that will serve as the framework for further design and assessment. Adding formal learning goals will clarify the purpose of the interdisciplinary units at Middle College and ensure that student learning is foremost. In addition, it may define expectations for the uneven internship program, especially if outcomes are linked to better means of assessing student performance off campus. It is noteworthy that Benchmarks would fit neatly within Middle College's structure; its well-defined learning goals could bring needed coherence to a program that has already accomplished much.

Connections All Around: First...You Get a Caboose

Located directly across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the Susquenita Public School District serves just 2,500 students with one high school, one middle school, and one elementary school. Superintendent Steven Messner and colleague Thomas Campbell were early converts to the cultural literacy movement, believing that public school may be their students' only exposure to art and literature. Their first step was to introduce famous paintings into the entire school curriculum. When told by a science department chair that there was no art in science, Campbell produced a National Geographic article about the painstaking and often scientific process of renovating paintings in the Sistine Chapel. Soon, Susquenita students were learning about art with their chemistry.

The real breakthrough in integrating the district's curriculum occurred when the schools restored a railroad caboose. The caboose was to be a standing testimonial to this railroad community's history, serve as a working science and technology lab for students to gain tangible experience with the abstractions they learn in the classroom, and provide regional artists and storytellers with a means to keep local culture alive.

Most of the preliminary work involved coordinating the caboose's move from the railyard to an interim home near the high school. With Conrail (the caboose's donor), the city, and volunteer crews, high-school students planned the move while the rest of the student body researched railway technology, probed the local rail culture, researched drawings to prepare for renovations, and even cannibalized rail yards for authentic parts. The senior class documented the move to demonstrate the mathematical and scientific concepts applied in this task alone.

Messner and Campbell wanted a section of the track where the caboose would ultimately rest to curve. The geometry teacher assigned the problem to her students, who gave the work crew the arc for the rail on the day the track was to be laid. On examining the plans, the crew offered the class the opportunity to stake out the curve according to the design they had made. When they ran into difficulty, the class received an impromptu geometry and history lesson as the carpenter staked out a center arc and made parallel lines with string.

Although secondary students were the most active in the plans and negotiations, the younger students got involved by learning about trains and train culture. First-graders were not merely told how trains run on rails, but were given wooden block models with which they could design a plan to keep their own "train" on its "tracks." They tried to pull wooden blocks along lengths of 2x4s without having them fall off. For weeks, Campbell had children in the lower grades greet each other with a secret handshake: interlock cupped fingers and pull. Children were thrilled to find when they visited the caboose that their secret handshake mimicked the way rail cars fit together.

Although Susquenita's endeavor may seem haphazard, the spontaneity of the activity made the schools exciting places where students were encouraged to explore, follow connections on their own, and develop their own solutions to problems. And the caboose theme provided fortuitous links to technology, cultural literacy, and scientific and mathematical principles. While Messner and Campbell cannot point to a traditional measure of the project such as test scores, they do indicate that the number of students pursuing postsecondary education has increased during their tenure. Also, students and the community have surely benefited from so much effort and hard work. Sometimes what has value cannot be easily measured.

Making Connections

The examples in the previous section are initial attempts, works in progress. They do not necessarily define what we believe are comprehensive models for integrated curriculum. And although they were not all designed to meet the learning goals of Benchmarks and Standards, they do represent important first steps toward the type of learning and teaching that is advocated by Project 2061. Other examples of this kind of work, including full curriculum projects, are becoming available (see the May 1996 issue of Educational Leadership for descriptions of some of these curricula). Each of the case studies and other exemplars of interdisciplinary curricula has unique characteristics. It is possible, however, to draw from them some general principles about connecting curricula:

Next Steps

Developing interdisciplinary curricula is one of the most daunting tasks teachers face in the current wave of reform. In many cases, however, it is taking place almost by default. Teachers indicate that the standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (1989), which are consistent with the mathematics content of Benchmarks, have influenced them to teach mathematics in ways they never before imagined, such as having children use mathematics to solve problems in social studies and science. These reports come primarily from elementary and middle school teachers, many of whom are still guided by state-mandated curricula and textbooks and prescribed time allotments. Even so, elementary schools offer the advantage of classrooms that are managed primarily by one teacher. Therefore, they still offer the easiest environment in which to develop curriculum connections. Science education reformers should work to support state policies that encourage these endeavors at all levels.

Though team teaching and the interdisciplinary approach in middle schools are experiencing the growing pains typical of any change in methodology, an increasing number of middle schools seem to be moving in that direction. Secondary teachers are generally the most resistant to developing curriculum connections. Because high schools are organized along fairly rigid disciplinary lines, secondary teachers have more invested in their disciplines than other K-12 teachers. Teachers at Middle College High were resistant to the idea of interdisciplinary teaching at first, but the insistence and nurturing of the principal moved them toward it. Many now report a boost in their sense of professionalism and a more valuable experience for their students. Still, the effort to attain the literacy called for in Science for All Americans will be hampered until more schools realize the necessity of building connections into the school curriculum.

Warning Flags for Curriculum Connections

The resistance of a school administrator, especially a principal, can doom most school-site reforms, and science education reform is no different. In addition, teachers themselves can impede change. For instance, during the interviews for this chapter, many stories were related of algebra teachers who would not sit down with physics teachers and earth science teachers who would not talk to biology teachers. Trying to cross disciplinary lines between the sciences and the humanities proves even more difficult, and sometimes impossible.

Many teachers already have the knowledge and ability to think and plan connections, but they need the opportunity, the time, and the sometimes some not-so-gentle nudging to get them to try. In general, a few enthusiastic visionaries lead the charge to integrate curricula. To those who might see themselves as the potential visionaries in their school but feel overwhelmed by their task, this chapter offers one simple piece of advice: start small and start smart. Rather than tackling the whole curriculum, start with well-planned connections for two or three subjects.

External Influences

Ostensibly, schools are locally controlled in the United States. But districts and states exert great control over schooling through mandated tests, required courses, or disbursement of ear-marked funds. All of these factors can influence science education reform. As mentioned previously, however, many states are beginning to adopt agreed-on standards to provide schools with the foundation to design curriculum suited to the needs of their students. Science education reformers should support these efforts in every way possible.

As science educators prepare their standards, goals, and objectives for public display, they must be aware that interdisciplinary connections can be a hard sell. Many parents have been vocal critics of the concept, uncomfortable that their children may not be learning algebra if they are not enrolled in a class called Algebra. Affluent parents have sometimes balked as their children's schools move toward an interdisciplinary framework because they worry that colleges will not accept transcripts that lack references to traditional disciplines.

Educators wishing to institute an interdisciplinary curriculum must above all communicate openly and effectively about the proposed change. In public education especially, working in secret is usually a recipe for failure. At some early point and in some capacity, the public must be involved. An excellent method for accomplishing this is to show parents something tangible. For example, the San Francisco team recruited parent volunteers for the kayak race and later displayed the winning kayak before the Board of Education. These efforts were key in securing public and political support for the team's approach.


An integrated view of science literacy that encompasses natural and social sciences, mathematics, and technology requires connections with areas not traditionally thought of as relevant to the sciences. A curriculum that meets those needs cannot simply be substituted for an existing science or mathematics program; connections have to be made throughout the curriculum. We close with some overall recommendations that are critical if curriculum connections are to be widely adopted.

Unlike the rest of the world, American schools have never embraced interdisciplinary approaches to learning. Some of the reasons, as pointed out in Blueprints' Chapter 5: School Organization, are historical, having to do with the way our schools have long been organized. But in order to achieve science literacy, as well as to prepare students who will work in an increasingly interdisciplinary world, it is time for a change that many educators have already recognized. A great deal of work remains for connections in the curriculum to become a normal and commonplace part of science education. The ideas in Science for All Americans, along with the examples, principles, and recommendations in this chapter, provide a good place to start.
References and Bibliography
Chapter 7 Materials and Technology


Blueprints Online
Project 2061
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Washington, DC

Copyright © 1998 by American Association for the Advancement of Science