A National Academy of Sciences panel, chaired by Helen Quinn, has released a new report that seeks to identify “the key scientific practices, concepts and ideas that all students should learn by the time they complete high school.” An ambitious undertaking, but a sensible one. At the very least, efforts like this serve to focus attention on what’s important across a wide variety of K-12 curricula, and at best it could help prod schools (or states, really) across the country into teaching more coherent and useful science to kids. Here’s the web page for the report, a summary (pdf), and the report itself (pdf, free after you register).
So what are the core ideas of science? They are all listed in the summary report, and divided into three categories. The first category is “Scientific and Engineering Practices,” and includes such laudable concepts as ” Analyzing and interpreting data.” The second category is “Crosscutting Concepts That Have Common Application Across Fields,” by which they mean things like “Scale, proportion, and quantity” or ” Stability and change.” It’s great that the organizational scheme emphasizes ideas that stretch across disciplinary boundaries, but there is definitely a danger that the resulting items come off as a bit vague. The secret to success here will be how they can be implemented, with concrete examples.
The third category is the nitty-gritty, “Core Ideas in Four Disciplinary Areas,” namely “Physical Sciences,” “Life Sciences,” “Earth and Space Sciences,” and “Engineering, Technology, and the Applications of Science.” (Math is not within the report’s purview.) And here are the actual core ideas proposed for the physical sciences:
- PS 1: Matter and its interactions
- PS 2: Motion and stability: Forces and interactions
- PS 3: Energy
- PS 4: Waves and their applications in technologies for information transfer
These mostly seem like good choices. If you’re wondering where the universe and solar system fit it, remember that “Earth and Space Sciences” is a separate category. The crucial fact that matter is made of atoms appears in PS 1, and the forces of nature appear in PS 2. Personally I think that it would be nice to have something more explicit about the relationship between the idealized physics-teacher’s world and the messy real world — entropy, friction, dissipation, complexity, etc. But you can’t keep everyone happy.
Having “waves” in there is a great idea. This was an addition to the other points, all three of which were spelled out in related previous reports. From a strictly conceptual point of view (although perhaps not from a pedagogical one), I would love to see “waves” replaced by “fields” — a field is an entity which takes a value at every point in some space, while a wave is simply a ripple in a field. There is a very fundamental duality between particles/objects and fields/waves, which would be nice to make clear at an early stage. (Mathematically speaking, the worldline of a particle is a map from the real line to spacetime, while a simple field is a map from spacetime to the real line. But you don’t have to go that deep.) Fields are not intrinsically an advanced concept; temperature is a field, as is the velocity or any other feature of the air, as is the altitude of a topographical map, or of course the height of ocean waves. Not to mention gravity, electricity, and magnetism. Someday maybe this will be seventh-grade stuff.
Whether or not these concepts and the grander conceptual scheme actually turn out to be useful will depend much more on implementation than on this original formulation. The easy part is over, in other words. The four ideas above seem vague at first glance, but they are spelled out in detail in the full report, with many examples and very specific benchmarks. (“By the end of grade 8. All substances are made from some 100 different types of atoms, which combine with one another in various ways.”) Sadly, the U.S. is burdened by a laughably inefficient system of local control of public schools, so any form of large-scale change is extremely difficult. But it will never happen if we don’t try.