Curricular fit?

When we met with the first group of SciJourn teacher participants, most identified their goal as “finding a way to support and add depth to the curriculum”. To that end they sought to coordinate student topics with what was being taught in their biology, chemistry, physics or earth and space science classes, making fairly specific assignments. Assigning topics that match issues addressed in the curriculum seemed to show much promise; for instance, when studying the elements, a teacher might guide students to write about the authentic and current concern about rare earths. “Could students research issues related to Chinese and African use and export of specific chemical elements? Or perhaps issues related to helium might be easier for students to grasp,” the teacher muses. Ties like these may anchor and make the study of the old tried and true topics come to life for students.

One place where teachers find an easy fit between the curriculum and SciJourn practices is in what we call read aloud/think alouds that invite teachers to model their own understanding of text so that students get a holistic view of what happens when a scientifically literate adult reads (Chapter 5). In an earth science class, for example, the teacher might follow stories with her students about an event, such as the Russians drilling through two miles of Antarctic ice to sample a trapped, liquid water lake below. In a physics class, stories could report the latest planets found around distant stars.

Other teachers have tended to focus more on science processes. A chemistry teacher used a story about the discovery of a “new blue” (i.e. newly discovered) to talk about the relevance of methods he had recently addressed in class. Two teachers, worried about the end-of-the-year high-stakes testing, asked students to read newspaper articles with graphs and identify the scientist’s hypothesis, dependent and independent variable, what aspects of the experiment were kept constant, etc. And since human beings can do more than one thing at a time, the students also learned something about science content and newspaper form along with the science skills and processes the teacher had highlighted.

The teachers who had the easiest time imagining the addition of a science article to the curriculum were those who taught environmental science, forensics, or journalism, since these classes seemed to be more applied and the curriculum less jam-packed. What has happened over time, however, is that participating schools and teachers have recognized the value of science journalism as a way of showing the relevance of science to the lives of informed citizens and offered students more freedom in topic choice.

Regardless of approach, by dipping your toes into “what’s new”, something is added that can’t be found in a textbook. Too often students, even our brightest students, acquire knowledge about chemistry that seems valid only in the chemistry lab—just as they memorize names and dates in history and often do not recognize how relevant this information is to modern problems or write essays for English using a predetermined structure that too often feels more like following a formula than a thoughtful reconstructing of tough issues. Each department, trying desperately to cover as much material as possible, has found its own way of “scaffolding” learning. However, in the process, have we actually removed thinking and problem solving from the curriculum? Teachers have sought a way to engage students, to help them see the personal and civic questions they struggle with informed by the rigorous sorting through of information that SciJourn calls for.

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