How Curriculum Materials Make a Difference for Next Generation Science Learning | SRI International

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How Curriculum Materials Make a Difference for Next Generation Science Learning

Christopher Harris

SRI researchers found that when curriculum materials explicitly support the features and practices called for within the new science standards—such as including opportunities for students to engage in science practice—teachers can implement the new standards, and students learn more.

high school students conducing a science lab experimentThe goal of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is to focus students on doing science. The standards revamp how science is taught from kindergarten through 12th grade. These new standards aim to make science education align with how scientists work and think by going beyond acquiring facts. NGSS integrate science knowledge with science practices, such as engaging in investigations, developing and using models, and crafting evidence-based explanations. Many states are recognizing their potential to deepen all students’ understanding of science. To date, the NGSS have been adopted by 11 states and the District of Columbia, representing 26 percent of the student population in the U.S., and more states are soon expected to follow.

An important challenge arises because these new standards require teachers to change how they teach. Today, teachers provide students with few opportunities to engage deeply in science practices, particularly those essential for developing science knowledge as called for in NGSS. Instead, most traditional science instruction emphasizes memorization of discrete facts and focuses on a broad range of topics. To realize the ambitious call of NGSS, all students will need opportunities to go beyond memorizing facts towards engaging in science practices. We wanted to understand whether curriculum materials could support teachers in making this ambitious change in teaching and increase student learning.

To answer this question, SRI Education researchers, together with collaborators at University of Colorado Boulder and Michigan State University, conducted one of the first studies to take a close look at science curriculum materials in light of the new national science education standards. Our findings are outlined in the SRI International Technical Report, Curriculum Materials Make a Difference for Next Generation Science Learning: Results from Year 1 of a Randomized Control Trial.

The report describes how we conducted a randomized controlled trial involving sixth grade science classrooms across 42 schools in one large urban school district. We randomly assigned each school to either a project-based middle school science curriculum that provided structured opportunities for students to engage in science practices or a comparison group that used a standard textbook for Grade 6. Science teachers in both conditions covered the same science topics. We provided teachers in both curricular conditions with professional development on the vision underlying the NGSS.

To conduct a valid evaluation, we had to develop and test new assessments that could measure next generation science learning goals, as there currently aren’t any tests aligned with the NGSS available for states or school districts. The assessment items required students to demonstrate understanding of important science ideas by engaging in science practices. The items looked very different from traditional test items that primarily test for factual recall. Our pilot tests showed we could reliably score these items and that they were sensitive to instruction, two key criteria for validity in assessments.

The project-based science curriculum that we studied is a comprehensive research-based curriculum called Project-Based Inquiry Science. Developed with support from the National Science Foundation by a team of science education experts, this curriculum is among the first widely available materials that reflect what we currently know about how students learn science. Important for our study, these materials address practices that are emphasized in the new standards. We focused our study on two important practices—constructing explanations and developing and using models.

The results from our study show that research-based curriculum materials can impact teaching practice by providing resources that make it more likely that teachers will engage students in science practices. We found that students who participated in the project-based science curriculum outperformed students in the comparison curriculum on outcome measures that were aligned to important core science ideas and science practices outlined in the new standards.

Our findings suggest that investments in well-designed materials and new assessments can make a real difference for achieving next generation science learning outcomes.

In addition, we were encouraged to learn that these materials worked for all kinds of kids; girls and boys learned at similar rates in the study, as did students from different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. The district in which we conducted our study is highly diverse, with a high percentage of students from low-income families and students from groups that are underrepresented in science and engineering fields.

Overall, these results show that science curriculum materials that include opportunities for students to engage in science practices, in a manner called for in the new national standards, can prepare students for next generation science learning. Curriculum materials matter because they guide what teachers do in the classroom. High-quality materials provide structure to engage students in science practices, and they provide tools to help teachers improve their teaching of these practices. High quality materials can help teachers implement new standards, help students learn more, and extend equitable opportunities to learn science to all.