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What knowledge is needed to allow the ideas in Science for All Americans (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 1989) to become common practice? What kinds of research are needed to ensure informed decision making that will lead to the kind of science literacy for all envisioned by Project 2061 and other science reform efforts? These are critical questions for a research agenda.

The definition of science literacy in Science for All Americans and Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS, 1993) is not limited to the natural sciences; mathematics, technology, and the social sciences are also included. Adding to the complexity of a broad definition of science literacy is the deeper understanding of curriculum that has developed during the last two decades. Correspondingly, educational research has also become far more complex. Together, these factors all contribute to the challenge of developing a blueprint for needed research.

Building on Benchmarks' Chapter 15: The Research Base, this chapter highlights three major areas for research focus: understanding what students and teachers know and how they learn about science; the possibilities and consequences of building stronger connections among the natural sciences, mathematics, technology, and social studies; and linking educational research with practice.

Since 1985 there have been at least six attempts to set research agendas in science, mathematics, and technology education.1 Reports detailing these attempts can inform the research agenda. They all agree on the need to coordinate the efforts of researchers and other stakeholders who try, usually separately, to improve science education. They also stress how important it is for teachers and curriculum developers to know how students' and scientists' conceptions of nature differ. A third theme is the need to recognize that learning is situated in a complex set of variables, including class, race, and gender.

The Research Base: What's Missing

As noted in Benchmarks for Science Literacy the coordinated, long-term research needed to inform many decisions about reform is largely unavailable. Benchmarks' Chapter 15: The Research Base summarizes the research that supports statements about what students should know and be able to do at specific grade levels. The summary is organized by the chapters in Benchmarks and Science for All Americans, which present a comprehensive and interdisciplinary view of science literacy. Following are examples from this summary, by area of science literacy, of further research that is needed.

The Nature of Science. There are few studies at the elementary school level, and much of the research that is available is limited to multiple-choice questionnaires. How might the results of nature-of-science research change if students were provided with adequate instruction in this area?

The Nature of Mathematics. Researchers have not emphasized the relationships between mathematics and science or mathematics as a modeling process. We must learn more about how students develop connections between phenomena and symbols or expressions and about how they judge the fit of representations to real objects.

The Nature of Technology. Only a small body of research exists on students' understanding of technology and how it relates to science and society.

The Physical Setting. Although much more research has been done in the physical sciences, few studies exist on students' understanding of the processes that shape the earth, or on long-term teaching interventions in the physical and earth sciences. Is it possible for elementary school students to understand many commonly-taught ideas about moon phases, our solar system, galaxy, and universe? To what extent can students of various ages understand the atomic/molecular nature of matter and related microscopic (abstract) ideas? How are students' concepts of forces and motion influenced by instructional and noninstructional factors?

The Living Environment. Little has been published on students' understanding of cells, the flow of energy through the living environment or on effective instructional interventions. Evolution of life as the central organizing scheme in biology and how precursor concepts are learned (or mis-learned) is also understudied.

The Human Organism. Much research is needed on elementary student's conceptions about the human organism.

Human Society. Studies on student learning of cultural effects on behavior, social change and conflicts, and global interdependence are limited. To what extent can students of various ages understand political and economic systems?

The Designed World. There is a very small body of research on what students know and how they learn about the structures and functions of the designed world.

The Mathematical World. Mathematics has benefited from a great deal of research, especially on how children build the ideas of number and space. However, more studies are needed about how students learn graphic skills and the relationship between graph production and interpretation, especially with microcomputer-based laboratories. In algebra, how do students come to understand what a solution means and why it is important? How might students be helped to understand the concepts of argument and proof?

Historical Perspectives. Much more research is needed to assess how historical understanding develops and how students' concepts of time are interrelated.

Common Themes. Insight is needed into how students understand the use of models in science.

Habits of Mind. Although a great deal is known about mathematics computational skills, little is known about how estimation skills relate to other scientific habits of mind or how students can be helped to relate theory to evidence and judge inadequacies in arguments.

These examples represent a bare outline of the research agenda that is needed to focus on how students develop the knowledge to become science literate. In addition, each benchmark across the K-12 grades raises related questions about curriculum and instruction.

Student and Teacher Knowledge

Research on students' understandings of particular concepts at certain grade levels was an important influence on where benchmarks were placed. Project 2061's commitment to the use and promotion of educational research in its reform efforts is further underscored by Benchmarks' Chapter 15: The Research Base. Although that chapter identifies more than 300 studies, the research is unevenly distributed across the 12 areas of literacy described in Benchmarks. These studies also tell us little about the nature of conceptual change within grade levels. Understanding the knowledge that students bring and how they are able to change that knowledge in classrooms and through other learning opportunities is crucial.

Most of the research reviewed in Chapter 15 relates to students' understanding of particular benchmarks; however, studies that report on the development of students' ideas across the span of grades K-12 are rare. Studying the nature of conceptual change in students over long periods of time for all benchmarks is an important area of needed research. Such research would entail a comprehensive, long-term project involving many researchers, including teachers.

In addition to understanding the cognitive aspects of student learning, it is important to know how interests and other noncognitive factors contribute to students' attainment of science literacy goals. These contextual factors (Cole & Griffin, 1987) are part of the overall picture of student understanding and should be part of the research agenda. The role of the teacher in helping students attain science literacy goals is also important. However, there is less agreement on what it means to be an effective teacher and only an emerging consensus on how teachers should be prepared as professionals. Agreement with the goals of Science for All Americans provides a basis for consensus on teacher effectiveness. Unfortunately, there is little research-based evidence about how we can educate teachers to use guidelines such as Benchmarks and the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) creatively to promote science literacy.

Many of the same misconceptions that research has documented for K-12 students can be found in college students, including prospective science and mathematics teachers. However, much more research on teachers' misconceptions is needed. How do these conceptions manifest themselves in teachers' instructional strategies and what effects might they have on students' understanding of science? Many other contextual factors at the levels of classroom, school, community, and beyond contribute to the understanding of how teachers convey important science concepts.

Interdisciplinary Connections: Research Implications

Developing connections and common themes across disciplines should encourage more collaboration of K-12 teachers with educational researchers. Perhaps more than any other this theme stresses the importance of rethinking the meaning of science literacy. An interdisciplinary, thematic approach to curriculum organization would require research to determine appropriate curriculum design and instructional strategies as well as studying how learning occurs across traditional disciplines.

Science and Mathematics

The connections between mathematics and science are so numerous and so fundamental that it seems almost irresponsible of educators to not highlight their interrelatedness. The literacy envisioned by Project 2061 requires nothing less than a serious research and development effort to make these connections far more explicit in curriculum and instruction.

Ideas about the nature of mathematics have a clear impact on a research agenda related to teaching and learning mathematics. When mathematics is viewed as fundamentally grounded in natural phenomena, the need to connect science and mathematics education seems more pressing. Guidance on the needed research can be gained from a number of sources including Benchmarks and the Curriculum and Evaluations Standards for School Mathematics (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics [NCTM], 1989), both of which emphasize the importance of connections between mathematics and science. For example, an especially relevant recommendation can be implied from Benchmarks:

Little emphasis has been given to students' understanding of mathematics as the study of patterns and relationships, or to the relationship between mathematics, science, and technology, or to the nature of mathematical inquiry as a modeling process. (AAAS, 1993, p. 333) Statements in the NCTM standards emphasize the importance of connections of mathematics with science and other disciplines and underscore the need for research in this area. For example: As students in grades 5-8 become aware of the world around them, probability and statistics become increasingly important connections between the real world and the mathematics classroom. Weather forecasting, scientific experiments, advertising claims, chance events, and economic trends are but a few of the areas in which students can investigate the role of mathematics in our society (NCTM, 1989, p. 86). An important area for connections between mathematics and science is quantitative reasoning. Students reason about quantities as they construct abstract ideas in mathematics, try to understand phenomena, and represent their thinking. Another theme is reasoning that is grounded in imagery of objects and phenomena, which supports students' construction of the quantities themselves, and from which they develop ideas related to patterns, functional relationships, and geometric properties (Thompson, 1994).

The alliance between mathematics and science has a long history in which both disciplines try to discover general patterns and relationships and, therefore, are part of the same endeavor. An excellent source for examples of this mutually beneficial relationship and, by extension, the implications they have for research, is On the Shoulders of Giants (Steen, 1990). The book's essays on pattern, change, dimension, quantity, shape, and uncertainty provide rich and relevant ideas about mathematics and its connections with other disciplines.

Science and Social Studies

A research agenda should build a more solid foundation for curriculum decisions about when and how students can understand the social science content described in Benchmarks' Chapter 7: Human Society. The Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning (Shaver, 1991), for example, addresses the interrelations between social studies and other curriculum areas, but shows that connections between science and social studies have not been a major research agenda item.

Much of the critical research in social studies education is directed at the question of equity. What practices in society, and education in particular, result in inequitable treatment for people? To achieve science literacy for all will require knowledge of how the current system might discriminate against some students while favoring others. Other areas of research include exploring how science/technology/society (STS) issues (such as population growth, water resources, world hunger, food resources, and extinction of plants and animals) might be connected to issues of interest to social studies researchers (Hickman, Patrick, & Bybee, 1987). Many natural connections seem to exist between STS and social studies. Research can help to identify these connections and explore ways to use them effectively in schools.

Science and Technology

It can be useful to keep in mind the fundamental differences between science and technology when considering implications for curriculum and instruction as well as for research. Chapter 15 in Benchmarks concludes that the research base for technology education is small. This is not surprising, because technology is largely ignored in U.S. schools. We need to understand in a much more detailed way what students think about the purposes of experimentation, as well as how science teachers convey the differences between scientific and engineering approaches to problems and experimentation.

Models developed in engineering may be more closely tied to relevant, everyday problems and may be more beneficial for teaching science than models organized by abstract principles (Linn, 1994). It is important to include teaching about technology to help students understand both the differences and similarities between science and technology. Research on these issues is needed as curriculum and instruction based on Benchmarks are used to promote reform.

Research Connections Among Blueprints Chapters

Most of the chapters in Blueprints identify research knowledge that will be necessary to allow the ideas they address to become common practice. In this section, the importance of a comprehensive research agenda for science education reform is underscored. Many of the observations and suggestions for research can be traced to the Blueprints chapters themselves, while others grow out of other sources.


Issues of equity are clearly on the minds of many educators involved in science education reform. In Creating a Civic Culture in a Scientific World, Ladson-Billings (1994) writes:

Unfortunately, one of the last issues given consideration in all of this talk of standards is that of equity. Thus, the essential question for me is: What will national standards mean for those students who traditionally have been ill-served by the public schools? (p. 2) She goes on to say: If teachers are not prepared to engage in rigorous debate about the intersections of social and scientific studies, creating standards that list them cannot make them happen. If opportunities for educational excellence are seriously compromised because students are poor, speak a language other than English, are members of non-white racial or cultural groups, or are female, the standards are likely to do nothing more than reproduce the same inequalities. (p. 11) How can the tools of science education reform, such as Benchmarks and Standards, be used to target the ill-served in our society? Especially for the children of this nation's poor, how can the vision of Science for All Americans be translated into learning opportunities that allow an escape from poverty? A research program designed to focus our attention on possible answers to these questions is sorely needed.

School Organization

Is it necessary to alter traditional school organization to accomplish the science literacy goals of reform? How can research help in answering this question? Research on school organization should continue to be a part of systemic reform efforts as schools adopt various alternatives to the traditional discipline-based, grade-level option most commonly found in our schools. Decision making at the grassroots level empowers teachers, parents, and others to make necessary changes. A great deal of locally generated information on school organizational change will be needed to find what works in the many different schools in the country. Case studies of alternative school organizations will provide valuable information as schools use tools such as Benchmarks, Standards, and other reform tools to improve science literacy.

Curriculum Connections

The case studies described in Blueprints' Chapter 6: Curriculum Connections illustrate attempts to weave connections among the traditional school subjects-mathematics, science, language arts, and social studies-through projects that involve student learning inside and outside of schools. Research is needed to determine the effectiveness of these kinds of interdisciplinary curricula in terms of agreed-upon measures of science literacy. As pointed out in Blueprints' Chapter 8: Assessment, multiple measures and alternative assessment strategies are needed to reflect student learning in these new curricula. Most teachers want to know if and how these kinds of interdisciplinary curricula work. Assessment research will therefore need to be tied closely to research on curriculum development.

Materials and Technology

Little research has been done on how teachers and students access and use resources in teaching and learning science. Likewise, few studies describe the effect of various materials on teachers and students. We need to answer questions like those raised by Berger, Lu, Belzer, and Voss (1994): What are the capabilities of hypermedia, microworlds, expert tutoring systems, and telecommunications that allow students to share, exchange, and even reconsider what they have learned? What are the capabilities of database systems that permit students to retrieve information and make flexible connections between related ideas? What are the effects of microcomputer simulation environments that give students the opportunity to make hypotheses, test them, observe results, and come to conclusions?


The most important question facing science education reform efforts with regard to Benchmarks and Standards is this: How will student progress through benchmarks at each grade level be monitored, and how can science literacy at the end of K-12 be assessed? Consensus on this issue will not be easy to attain. Who will decide and how will it be decided? Moreover, how can we know what students might be able to achieve if schools could provide ideal learning conditions? Extensive research on conceptual change will be needed to inform the assessment component of science education reform.

As reported in Blueprints' Chapter 8: Assessment, research suggests that teachers often are unaware of good assessment techniques. How can they be helped to improve their assessment strategies? This important research question relates both to assessment and to teacher education chapters, as discussed in Blueprints' Chapters 8 and 9. The issue of fairness has implications for research related to assessment and to equity which are addressed in Blueprints' Chapters 8: Assessment and 1: Equity. How should fairness of assessment measures be judged? How well do teachers recognize the degree of fairness of a test?

Teacher Education

Assuming that teachers teach as they were taught in college science courses and that more science knowledge is important for inquiry-based teaching, the vision of Blueprints' Chapter 9: Teacher Education is tied closely to undergraduate education in the sciences. However, it seems prudent to at least question the assumption that K-12 science teachers teach as they were taught in college science courses. Of the many factors that influence how school science is taught, how influential are college science teachers? Can we turn to research-based knowledge for guidance? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

A research program designed to sort out the influence of content knowledge and teaching models in university and college science courses would be very helpful. How and where do effective K-12 science teachers learn to teach? How much of their effectiveness can be attributed to the influence of college science teachers? How much and what aspects of their effectiveness can be explained by their knowledge and understanding of science? A teacher education program informed by research must be able to answer these and related questions.

Higher Education

Blueprints' Chapter 10: Higher Education assumes that as science education reform goals are reached in K-12 schools, colleges and universities can build upon these achievements. During their preparation as undergraduates, many prospective science teachers take more science courses than education courses. Blueprints' Chapter 9: Teacher Education argues that these college-level science courses should be changed to provide prospective teachers with good models of science teaching. These assumptions raise interesting research questions probed earlier: What are the effects of college science teaching on prospective teachers' ideas about science teaching? How do these ideas get translated into actual teaching strategies? Careful study of the effects of college science teaching on the teaching ideas and habits of future school teachers should be undertaken to establish more clearly the "sensible" conclusion that we teach as we were taught in college.

Family and Community

Research on family involvement in schooling should be carried out at the early stages of reform to allow for better informed decision making throughout reform. Just as teacher-education research shows that it is important to involve teachers in decision making, research on parent involvement shows that learning improves when parents have meaningful roles in their children's education (see Blueprints' Chapter 11: Family and Community). Given the wide variety of home environments of today's children, what kind of family involvement is reasonable to expect? A research program that can provide answers to this question will be helpful to science education reform.

Business and Industry

Blueprints' Chapter 12: Business and Industry states that evidence of the effectiveness of business involvement in education is mainly anecdotal. The chapter also assumes that this involvement is desirable, focusing mainly on how to make the partnership more effective. A research agenda in this area would include questions designed to probe the nature and consequences of various kinds of involvement of business and industry in education.

Connecting Research With Practice

Research and practice in education are multifaceted and can influence each other in many ways. This section considers some of the common views of education research, and practice, and the relationships between them. Suggestions are offered on ways to connect these often separate enterprises within the reform framework.

Research in Context

How can research on schooling be improved? How can research be tied more closely to practice? The journey that education research has taken from the 1960s to the 1990s can be thought of as a transition toward placing research in more meaningful context. Qualitative research methods are often better able to capture the rich detail of teaching and learning in complex classroom and school settings than are the quantitative, experimental methods that dominated pre-1970s education research. Having more research methods to use in trying to answer questions of interest to researchers and teachers ensures more realistic and meaningful results and conclusions. It seems obvious, but it is crucial to know that both the discipline/subject content and the pedagogy used in teaching that content will influence the results of research on teaching or learning. Research that ignores one or the other lacks that context necessary to provide teachers with meaningful information.

The next step toward achieving a necessary richness of context in education research is developing the teacher-as-researcher or research-partner concept. The teacher-as-researcher is seen by many to be an important component in making the research-practice connection. Teachers must come to see the value of conducting informal research in their classrooms. At the same time, university researchers must come to understand the value of having teachers become members of the formal education research community. A continual exchange of ideas is critical to both initial and long-term change in instructional practice.

Multiple Meanings of Educational Research

Trying to connect research with practice requires a careful definition of research so we can know better where some useful connections can be made. Research is now defined in many different ways, in contrast to the earlier notion of quantitative methods. Among the terms used to refer to these approaches are qualitative, descriptive, interpretive, naturalistic, ethnographic, and phenomenological. The purpose here is not to sort out the nuances of modern forms of research but to emphasize the complex nature of the research picture.

Romberg (1992) noted the importance of understanding the various "conceptual lenses" used by researchers. These lenses often affect researchers' initial assumptions about the world to be investigated. For example, in studying schooling, these perspectives reflect researchers' assumptions about what knowledge is to be taught, how learning occurs, the role of teachers and other professionals, and the classroom environment.

Teacher as Researcher

A primary reason for including teachers is to provide a rich context for research efforts. Few people in the educational research community have as much knowledge of what goes on in schools as teachers, yet teaching is mainly studied by outside researchers. There are probably many reasons for this situation, but one that should be considered is the lack of value placed on teachers' knowledge of their own classroom and school environments. Researchers generally see a narrow range of the depth and complexity experienced by teachers every day, year after year. There are a few signs that this situation is beginning to change (for example, Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993; Schon, 1990; Whyte, 1991), but relatively little evidence exists to support the idea that teachers are active research partners.

A strong support system is needed if teacher-as-researcher programs are to be successful in the long term. Both schools and universities must sufficiently value the idea to provide the funds, time, and flexibility for teachers and researchers to interact professionally. Short of involving the teacher directly as a partner in research (i.e., teachers as researchers), teachers must be involved as "research users" throughout a given study. Teachers must be shown the value of doing action research in their classrooms, and university researchers must come to understand the value of having teachers as members of the education research community.


Because science education reform-especially if it intends to be interdisciplinary-casts a wide net, it is important to focus on a relatively small number of research themes; otherwise, the research effort will be as diluted and fragmented as the current education research picture. Teams of researchers across disciplines working on common research questions offer the promise of coordinated, longitudinal research projects. The teacher-as-researcher or research-partner concept must be developed to ensure both improved research and closer ties between research and practice.

Research should stay close to the subject matter content in Benchmarks and Standards that defines science literacy. Research questions should be related to the various content themes in Benchmarks so that findings bear directly on the outcomes defined as science literacy. Losing sight of the central focus of Science for All Americans would dilute research findings, making progress toward achieving science education reform goals more difficult.

Finally, a research agenda for science literacy should reflect the following general recommendations for how it should be conducted and what tools need to be developed to carry it out:

In addition, the following specific areas of research have been raised in the chapter and are necessary to build the research base for reform in science education: Successful science education reform needs a foundation of research-based standards, curriculum, and teaching. The grade level delineations in Benchmarks that show how learning develops across the grades are drawn from research on teaching and learning. This is a first step that can be extended. Science teachers should require that curriculum and performance frameworks, instructional materials and technology, teaching strategies, and assessments also be based upon research.

References and Bibliography
Introduction to the School Context
Chapter 5 School Organization


1They include: Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education: A Research Agenda (Committee on Research in Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education, 1985); Establishing a Research Base for Science Education: Challenges, Trends, and Recommendations (Linn, 1987); Setting a Research Agenda: Research Agenda for Mathematics Education (Sowder, 1989); Establishing a Research Agenda: Critical Issues of Science Curriculum Reform (Shymansky & Kyle, 1992); Toward a Research Base for Evolution Education: Report of a National Conference (Good et al., 1993); Blueprints Research Conference (Science Education Research Agenda Coalition [SERAC], 1994).


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