Science Instruction Changes Course
As for science courses, among the many inquiry-based curricula developed with NSF funds is Active Physics, a course for high school students that creatively organizes physics content. Usually, students study physics in a predictable way: mechanics during the fall term, waves in the winter, then electricity and magnetism in the spring. With Active Physics, students explore concepts in one of six thematic areas, such as medicine or sports.
In one classroom exercise, students draft a mock proposal to NASA under a scenario in which the space agency, as part of its plans for a moon colony, is soliciting ideas for how to encourage exercise among the colonists. The students' challenge is to invent or modify a sport so that colonists can play it in the meager gravity of the moon's environment. As a result, students learn about friction's relationship to weight and discover that there is little friction on the moon. They learn why moon football might put a premium on lifting opponents out of the way rather than trying to push them, and why figure skaters would need larger ice rinks for their quintuple jumps.
Most widely used middle and high school science textbooks do not yet reflect these new approaches, though a growing body of evidence suggests that they should. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), conducted in 1995, involved 41 countries at three grade levels and compared students' grasp of mathematics and science. U.S. students scored above the international average in both mathematics and science at the fourth-grade level, dropped below average in mathematics at the eighth-grade level, and by twelfth grade were among the worst performers in both science and math. In May 1999, however, a study involving NSF-funded curricula and teacher development efforts showed that they seemed to be making a difference. When given the physics portion of the TIMSS test, students who were learning physics with NSF-supported curricula or from teachers trained in NSF-funded projects posted scores significantly higher than U.S. students in the initial TIMSS assessment.
Curriculum reform is a work in progress. However, even the best reformulated instructional materials won't be enough to sustain real improvement in students' grasp of science and mathematics. Just ask their teachers.