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Integrated Science at Avenues – Part I: A Brief History of Science Education in the West

By Mike Maccarone – Global Academic Dean for Science at Avenues: The World School

Since before our school opened in 2012, the Upper School science department at Avenues has been working to embody the “New School of Thought” that is at the heart of our mission statement. We began with a physics > chemistry > biology sequence of study in the sciences, but quickly identified the opportunity to innovate by building on the strengths of this sequence and remodeling our approach to address current issues in the study of science. Internationally, the approach to science education is varied and diverse, but many curricula reflect the importance of spiraling both the skills of scientific investigation and inquiry, and the content knowledge of the sciences throughout the education of a high school student. Within the past decade, the Framework for K–12 Science Education highlighted the need for an enriched program such as the one we have developed at Avenues. Even more recently, in 2013, the Next Generation Science Standards further identified opportunities for application, integration and problem-based, project-based and challenge-based thematic learning in the sciences. At Avenues, we have taken these various calls to action to heart.

Part I: A Brief History of Science Education

In the early 1990s, Leon Lederman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, author of The God Particle and director of Fermi-Lab, called for a “Physics First” curriculum as a way of restructuring the traditional approach to teaching science. This sequence of physics > chemistry > biology in high schools, Lederman argued, was more coherent in terms of the complexity of scientific concepts and provided better sequential foundations for student learning. Challenging chemistry concepts were bolstered by a basic understanding of atomic structure, forces and motion in physics, while a true biology curriculum necessarily relied on student knowledge of chemical reactions and properties in context. American schools were slow to listen, but those schools that took Lederman’s message to heart found that a “Physics First” sequence (not just teaching physics to ninth graders, but restructuring the curriculum to develop knowledge and skills at an appropriate level of complexity) was indeed richer and more rewarding for science students and teachers alike. Students in “Physics First” programs were making meaningful connections between the sciences in a way that their peers taking a less intuitive, but more familiar, science course sequence, were not.

In the early years of the 21st century, the problems addressed by scientists became less canonical, prescribed and distinct. Most importantly, the boundaries between physics, chemistry and biology became more and more difficult to establish. Over the course of the 20th century, physicists and chemists had grown closer to one another in content knowledge. The technological advances of the end of the 20th century brought studies of the environment, climate and the origin of life into the scope of scientific research and education. Biochemistry, molecular biology, bioengineering and medical physics became courses of study in colleges and universities. Careers in applied sciences became more abundant and diverse. Engineering grew from traditional mechanics and electronics to include areas like robotics and genetics. Purely scientific research institutions began to identify the need for researchers with more diverse academic backgrounds, as experts studying the origins of life called upon their colleagues in other fields for support and explanation. Physicists seeking answers to the largest and smallest questions—astrophysicists and string theorists—reached further into the purely mathematical realm, using equations and computer models to make predictions about possibilities that lie beyond our observation.

Today, in the Avenues integrated science program, we continue to strive to blur the lines between the traditional scientific disciplines. This way, we are ensuring that our students not only learn to appreciate the mathematical elegance of physics, the exciting reactions of chemistry or the dynamic life cycles of biology, but most importantly, they grasp the creative possibilities of science.

This is part 1 of a three-part series of articles on integrated science at Avenues. Continue reading part 2, or skip ahead to part 3.