Theoretical Overview - Science Reform, Science Literacy and the Nature of Science

The curriculum used in this unit comes from the knowledge gained by looking at science reforms, science literacy, and the ways we have taught the nature of science over the last sixty years.  It is interesting to see we are not much further in our curriculum development as a nation than we were six decades ago.    In the 1950’s and early 1960’s our country had a boom in science education funding and concern due to the challenge by President Kennedy to get a man on the moon in ten years time.  (Schademan, 2008)  The driving force of this challenge was national security and to keep our spot as a world leader in economics, technology and science. Imagine the picture of Science education where teachers are being mandated to read scripted lessons from textbooks, to teach exactly in the same manner as their peers, and that a single multiple choice tests is being used to measure all student’s learning, much like today’s classrooms.  

There was a time in the 1980’s the country took another look at science education and another reform started to happen.   Organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), and the National Center for Improving Science Teaching (NCISE) were looking at where our children were failing in their understanding of science; or the nature of science.  Research showed that students were learning scientific facts, covering large areas and vast breadths of disciplines, but missing out on the depth and connectivity of the sciences, consequently students were scientifically illiterate.    The frameworks prescribed by these organizations take a look at the curriculum, by dividing it by themes such as systems, evolution, cycles, energy, and nature of the scientific enterprise instead of by the disciplines of science such as biology, chemistry, physics, and Earth sciences (Bybee, 2005).   The goal of these frameworks was to educate all students so they would be scientifically literate, whether or not they chose a career in sciences.  Science education is supposed to be about scientific literacy; being about understanding the phenomenon around us and to teach that all the sciences, including other disciplines is closely related.  Yet twenty years later we are still teaching to the “test” and to the “textbook”.

Since this unit is developed with the middle school student in mind, it is important to point out direction taken by both of the two major reforms in how they addressed the middle school.  In the 1960’s the reform went from the high school down through the junior highs and into the elementary school (Bybee, 2005).  It also placed emphasis on the idea that those who could “do science” would be selected out of the group to become scientists (Barton and Yang, 2000).  The middle school (even though at this time they were still junior highs and not transformed into middle schools yet) was just that, in the middle of the reform, with more emphasis placed on the high school curriculum.  On the contrary, the second reform in the late 1980’s also went in a chronological order, but this time it started in the elementary school and went up through the high school. (Bybee, 2005)  And again the middle school was just that, in the middle.  

This unit takes this into account and uses the knowledge gained by the 1980’s reform to help students become more experienced and scientifically literate through a theme and hands on approach to learning.  In spite of the high stakes, test and text book driven curriculum now offered, this unit approaches the science theme of evolution by focusing on the scientific literacy of students.

Bybee, Rodger W.  (2005)  Science curriculum reform in the United States.  National Academy of Sciences,

Loague, Keith. (2001) “Teaching Strategies for Case-Based Learning: Environmental Problems in the Classroom”.  April 19, 2001 Hartley Conference Center, Mitchell Earth Sciences Building. Stanford, Ca.

Schademan, Alfred. (2008)  625 History [PowerPoint Slides].  Retrieved from