A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication

New report lays out what kids should know about science


Theoretical physicist and SLAC Professor Emeritus Helen Quinn chaired a National Academy of Sciences committee that last week issued "A Framework for K-12 Science Education." (Photo courtesy of Helen Quinn)

Theoretical physicist and SLAC Professor Emeritus Helen Quinn chaired a National Academy of Sciences committee that last week issued A Framework for K-12 Science Education, which “identifies the key scientific practices, concepts and ideas that all students should learn by the time they complete high school.” We talked with Quinn about the new framework and its potential impact on science education standards throughout the United States.

This looks like it is quite a departure from previous reports.

The idea of having a framework that spells out what we want kids to know about science is new. Previously there was something called the National Science Education Standards, which was drawn up by the Academy about 15 years ago. But every state created its own standards, and how they decided what parts of the national standards were in and what parts were out was different in every state.

Now because 44 states and the District of Columbia have adopted common standards in math and language arts, there’s beginning to be a demand for a similar thing to happen in science.

So this is the first step of a two-step process. The Academy is doing the framework, and a non-profit organization called Achieve, working with a small group of states, will develop standards that multiple states will choose to adopt if they wish.

What’s the advantage of having common standards?

Well, for example, right now every state has to pay to develop tests for assessing students’ knowledge based on different standards, so test developers are really getting paid multiple times for doing very similar work. It would be better to put that investment into developing more sophisticated kinds of tests that actually measure what it is you want the students to know and be able to do, rather than measure whether they’ve memorized a list of facts. Same thing with the development of curriculum and textbooks. So there are some economies of scale, in a sense.

How different is this from what kids are learning in school today?

It depends on the school. It depends on the teacher. There’s nothing in this framework that hasn’t been done, but there’s probably no classroom that’s doing it all.

The current national education standards push for science as inquiry. And because inquiry has a whole different set of meanings to different people, the understanding that students should be doing science to learn science has sometimes been overwhelmed by the notion that that was just messing around, and that children really needed to be learning facts.

What the research on learning shows is that students learn better when they have a context in which to put those facts, where the facts are developed in a coherent fashion and where they get to understand what science is by engaging in scientific practices.

So we spell out very explicitly the practices of science we think students should be doing. That is quite a departure. That’s a list that has some pieces in it that very few classrooms are doing today.

For instance?

For example engaging students seriously in arguing from evidence – so students are the ones drawing the conclusions and saying how does this evidence support or not support a particular explanation that was given for what’s going on. Another one is using models. Scientists when they’re studying a particular system always have in mind a model for that system that helps them compare and develop their ideas. Let’s take atomic theory of gases. You have the model of a gas as a set of spheres bouncing around in space. It’s a simplification because atoms are not spheres, but you can derive many properties of gases from that model and it gives an understanding of a gas even before you get to the idea of what is an atom or what is a molecule.

Having children explicitly make and discuss models for the things they’re being told about science helps them really capture the ideas as their own. The evidence shows it is important.

I was really struck by that because one of the things the public often doesn’t understand is that all these arguments among scientists – first they say one thing and then they say another – are really an important part of the process.

Absolutely. That’s what we want students to understand, that developing the explanation is what science is doing. And when you get to a certain point of understanding you have one explanation, and when you learn some more you have a more complex explanation, a more sophisticated explanation. The explanations evolve. A classic example I give is that Newton’s laws are not wrong, but they begin to be seen as approximate as you learn the next stage and understand relativity.

The report also recommends encouraging students to ask questions, and developing that ability.

Finding the question that is just beyond what you know, and that is ready to be answered with what you know and what you can now do, is key to science, and it’s key to learning science. Clearly students need guidance to get interested in an area where we want them to be learning something. But once they’re learning something, proceeding in the context of the questions students are asking, rather than a predetermined “this is what you should know,” works better because it’s capturing their interest and engaging them in the process more closely.

The report mentions how kids learn at different levels of development.

What the research shows is that kids learn better if information is coherent – if it takes into account their prior conceptions.

Take the structure of matter. Kids come with some ideas about that. They understand liquids and solids in some way. They may not have any concept of gases, but that comes later. So you develop the language and concept of matter – the idea that different substances have different properties, and that those properties depend on what they’re made of, and what they’re made of is some kind of particles. In each grade you’re working with the knowledge that’s already been developed at the previous stage and building on it, and helping them change their own mental concepts. That change of mental construct takes doing some things as well as being told some things.

For instance, if you put a liter of water and a liter of alcohol together, you don’t get two liters of liquid. The two liquids interpenetrate, and together take up a tiny bit less space. That’s very surprising to most kids, indeed even to most adults. But if you put a liter of sand and a liter of rocks together, you don’t get two liters of stuff either, because the sand fills in and goes between the rocks. So using a concrete example of something they can see to help them understand something that they can’t see is part of how you change their mental concept. Finding those examples and presenting them to kids is an important part of teaching science.

How does the development of the Internet figure into this framework?

That is part of the reason for stressing scientific practice, right? You will notice one of the practices is collecting, evaluating and presenting information. That’s reading and writing, but it’s also Internet searching and giving slide presentations and communicating in other ways. The evaluating piece is critical, because people do have so much access to so much information, and some of it is very good information and some of it is junk. A student needs to be able to say ok, if I’m looking for scientific information how do I judge if this is a good source or a bad source? How do I know what I trust and what I don’t trust?

That skill needs to be explicitly developed in the science classroom. The students need to be encouraged to go out and find information, but then helped to learn the skills they need in order to do that effectively.

The framework also talks about having students drawing out their ideas, which is the quintessential thing scientists do when they’re trying to explain something.

That’s a piece of the puzzle. Every scientist gives you a diagram or something that makes concrete what they’re thinking. That’s modeling, one of practices we expect students to do, too, all the time.

Does the framework draw any lessons from international comparisons of student performance in science?

The criticism of the US curriculum today is there’s just so much stuff in there that kids don’t get to see how it all fits together. The countries that do best in the international comparisons tend to be the countries that have a more coherent development of fewer major ideas over time, and a clear idea that learning more vocabulary isn’t adding depth. They teach kids how to think about a problem rather than learning a lot of Latin names for parts of the cell. How to think about cells and how they function is more important.

When we just memorize things we have no real understanding of, all of us tend to forget them.

How did you come up with the list of core ideas for each area of science?

We had a set of criteria for what constitutes a core idea for science learning. It’s not just what are the core ideas of the discipline, but what are the core ideas of the discipline that are important for students to learn about in K-12? For example in physical science, the core ideas are matter and energy and forces and interactions; those are the ones everyone would expect. But then another one is waves and their relationship to information technology. That’s for kids to understand that physics and chemistry have applications, and understand how these things play out in things they see in their everyday life.

Similarly, the last idea under earth science is the Earth and human activity; that has things like natural hazards but also human impacts on the planet. Both of those are important for kids to understand.

You also include engineering and technology.

For the same reason. Having a subgroup called engineering, technology and the applications of science is to stress the applications of science. One of the ways kids can develop and demonstrate their understanding of science is by designing something that applies that knowledge. So doing engineering design is a learning practice for students just as arguing from evidence is, or making models.

How much public feedback did you get?

The committee started in January and had its first meeting for public comment in July 2010.

There were about 2,000 people who responded on the website, and also there were a large number of focus groups that we organized – groups of people who would be engaged in using this material, for example the National Science Teachers Association and AAPT, the American Association of Physics Teachers. The Council of State Science Supervisors had three regional meetings where they brought people in from multiple states to discuss and review and give us feedback. Then we really revised a lot, so the document that came out last week is the same in many features, but different in many details from the one that was circulated a year ago.

We knew we had a primitive draft and it needed work. But that work was much more effectively done because we got input from the field.

Are there any aspects of the material that may be controversial?

The standards based on this framework will certainly include evolution, and they will also include climate change. Both of those things are, at least by some people, considered controversial, although scientifically they’re not controversial. As the Academy we can say scientifically that this is what the science says and this is what students should know, and the standards will be written based on that. Then the states will have to decide what they do about adopting them.

In the current political climate there’s a lot of debate about what should happen in education at the national versus the state or local level.

It’s important that these are not federal standards. The National Academy is a non-governmental body, and this framework development was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, another non-governmental body. This work is being done for the states. The development of standards will involve the states – it’s not being done by federal government and pushed to the states.

There still is some political resistance to the whole movement toward common standards. But 44 states have decided they want common standards in math and language arts, so we’re hoping there will be nearly that number for the standards based on this framework.

What happens from here?

The framework is pointing in a direction, and it will probably take some time before everything is in place for the system to arrive in the place described by this framework. The system has many parts – for instance curriculum materials, the tests that students and, to a great extent today, their teachers are assessed by, what the teacher is doing in the classroom, and teacher professional development and teacher preparation. This is a guide for the evolution of all those pieces.

The non-profit, Achieve, will select about six states from the ones that apply and work with those states as kind of a test bed as they develop over the next year a set of standards based on this document. Once there is a set of standards, states will choose whether or not to adopt them. Curriculum developers will be developing curriculum materials that match those standards.

Basically since I retired a year ago January this has been my full-time job, and to some extent will continue to be as I try to guide how this plays out in various areas of assessment, curriculum, materials and teacher professional development. I’m already being asked by people in all those areas to come talk to them about what this is about and how can they help realize it. I tell people this is my retirement career.


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