Secondary School Science Trends
There is widespread support for continued improvement of the educational system. Scientific and technological literacy is the main purpose of science education in grades K through 12. This goal is for all students, not just for those individuals destined for careers in science and engineering.
In the early decades of the twenty-first century, the curriculum for science education at the secondary school level is not meeting the challenge of achieving scientific and technological literacy. Many scientists and science educators are urging a review of school science programs, a review that would affect millions of school personnel in thousands of autonomous school districts, but one that is necessary. Increasing the scientific and technological literacy of students also requires several fundamental changes in science curricula at the secondary school level. First, the information presented must be balanced with key conceptual themes that are learned in some depth. Second, the rigid disciplinary boundaries of earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics should be softened; greater emphasis should also be placed on connections among the sciences and among disciplines generally thought of as outside of school science, such as technology, mathematics, ethics, and social studies (Confrey, 1990; Newmann, 1988).
Achieving the goal of scientific and technological literacy requires more than understanding concepts and processes of science and technology. Indeed, the need exists for citizens to understand science and technology as an integral part of society. Science and technology are enterprises that shape, and are shaped by, human thought and social actions (Bybee, 1987; Yager, 1996). Our recommendation includes some understanding of the nature and history of science and technology. There is recent and substantial support for this recommendation, though few curriculum materials. Including the nature and history of science and technology provides opportunities to focus on topics that blur disciplinary boundaries and show connections between such fields as science and social studies.
The substantial body of research on learning should be the basis for making instruction more effective (Bransford et al., 2000; Tobin, Tippins, & Gallard, 1994). This research suggests that students learn by constructing their own meaning of the experiences they have. A constructivist approach requires varied methods of science instruction in the secondary school (Driver & Oldham, 1986; Sachse, 1989; Watson & Konicek, 1990; Bruer, 1994; McGilly, 1995; Bransford et al., 2000).
Related to the implications of research on learning theory is the recommendation that science teaching should consist of experiences exemplifying the spirit, character, and nature of science and technology. Students should begin with questions about the natural world (science) and problems about human beings adapting (technology). They should be actively involved in the processes of inquiry and design. They should have opportunities to present their explanations for phenomena and solutions to problems and to compare their explanations and solutions to those concepts of science and technology. They should have a chance to apply their understandings in new situations, as well. In short, the inquiry-oriented laboratory is an infrequent experience for secondary school students, but it should be a central part of their experience in science education. Extensive use of the inquiry-oriented laboratory is consistent with the other recommendations made in this section, and it has widespread support.
The issue of equity must be addressed in science programs and by school personnel. For the past several decades, science educators at all levels have discussed the importance of changing science programs to enhance opportunities for historically underrepresented groups. Calls for scientific and technological literacy assume the inclusion of all Americans. Other justifications—if any are needed for this position—include the supply of future scientists and engineers, changing demographics, and prerequisites for work. Research results, curricula recommendations, and practical suggestions are available to those developing science curricula for the secondary school (Gardner, Mason, & Matyas, 1989; Linn & Hyde, 1989; Malcom, 1990; Oakes, 1990).
Science education in middle schools is a special concern as educators look toward achieving higher levels of scientific literacy. Numerous reports and commissions have addressed the need for educational reform for high school science education, but few have specifically recognized the emergence of middle schools in the 1980s. The movement toward implementing middle schools, and phasing out junior high schools, was a significant trend in education. Yet, thus far, the middle school reform has not thoroughly addressed the particular issues of subject-matter disciplines—in this case, science and technology. Contemporary reform must not allow the science education of early adolescents to be overlooked or assumed to be part of either the elementary school or secondary school curriculum.
Improving curriculum and instruction will be a hollow gesture without concomitant changes in assessment at all levels, from the local classroom to the national and international levels. In general, the changes in assessment practices must reflect the changes described earlier for curriculum and instruction. Incongruities, such as teaching fewer concepts in greater depth but testing for numerous facts in fine detail, will undermine the reform of science education. New forms of assessment are available and being recommended by researchers, policy makers, and practitioners (Frederiksen & Collins, 1989; Murnane & Raizen, 1988; Shavelson, Carey, & Webb, 1990).
Reform of science education at the secondary school level must be viewed as part of the general reform of education. Approaching the improvement of science education by changing textbooks, buying new computers, or adding new courses simply will not work. Fortunately, widespread educational reform, which includes science education, is underway. The improvement of science education in the secondary school must be part of the reconstruction of science education for K–12 and must include all courses and students, a staff development program, reform of science teacher preparation, and support from school administrators. This comprehensive or systemic recommendation is based on the research on implementation (Fullan, 2001; Hall, 1989) and research literature on school change and restructuring.
Early in the twenty-first century we think the improvement of science education is a national mandate. You will be a part of that process. Although the challenge is large, we have clear guidance in national standards and benchmarks. These guidelines will be followed through changes in instructional materials and increased support of professional development to help science teachers improve. We have all the tools for the job; now we need commitment at the local, state, and national levels.