What should a kid get out of high school science?

Some friends asked me this question recently, and I gave a bad answer. In my bad answer I said something like “They should know some things. Some big ideas.” And I listed a few that came to mind, like conservation of energy. I don’t think there’s anything too terribly wrong with that idea, I just don’t think it’s enough. Students should know some “big ideas”, but also they should be able to do some science. This post is an attempt to give a better answer.

First, about the big ideas kids (and everybody) should know.  I’ve always liked the book Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy by Hazen and Trefil. It’s still in print,25 years after I first read it, and still relevant.  It’s written for everybody. It’s engaging, and the prose has a sense of style. And it relays a good summary of the basic science concepts in every discipline; the big ideas a person should understand after a basic course in science  like astronomy, biology, chemistry, or physics. So read the book, or this one you can download for free, if you are really interested.

That said, here are a few big ideas I hope students leave school conversant in:

  1. atoms , since somebody else said it better, I quote: “all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.” R.P. Feynman Lectures on Physics
  2. some things we can calculate (“quantities”) are conserved. in a closed system, the amount never changes: matter, energy, momentum, angular momentum, charge
  3. the universe, galaxies, solar systems, stars, planets are continuously changing in ways that are both understood and mysterious
  4. the earth is the only living system known, and it is a system of interconnected parts, both living and non-living
  5. organisms evolve, and their evolution can be understood both through fossils and observing living things; there is a common chemical basis for all life
  6. at different scales (of space, time, and energy), different methods of investigation and description are needed
  7. scientific understanding is constantly changing. a community of scientists works together to create the current best understanding. there are still many unanswered questions and huge gaps in our understanding

Now, about the science students should do (influenced by/condensed from modeling instruction and by the College Board’s Advanced Placement Science Practices):

Scientists make observations. Observations in science are usually measurements. No measurement is perfect; there is a limit to what can be known by measurement. The limits keep changing as technology improves, but there will always be a limit. Students should be able to make accurate measurements with classroom equipment, and be able to describe the limits of those measurements. Experiments are situations we create in order to make very specific observations.

Students should be able to create an experiment, or critique the flaws in somebody else’s experiment. They should understand the limitations of an experiment and also recognize when an experiment could be performed to find an answer, or at least the beginnings of an answer to a scientific question.

Observations/measurements are described by patterns. This is one of the deepest big ideas in science: there are recognizable patterns in nature. Some patterns are easier to observe, some more difficult. Patterns can be described by mathematics. When we know enough about a pattern, we use math, words, graphs to describe a conceptual model that encapsulates what we know about the pattern. Students should be able to describe the patterns in measurements using mathematics. They should be able to generalize these descriptions to describe conceptual models about nature.

Scientists make claims that are evaluated on the basis of evidence. Students should be able to make and evaluate scientific claims.

What’s the balance here between learning ideas and doing science? Ideally, students would learn science by doing science, as in methods like Modeling instruction, Process-Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning, Problem-Based Learning, and other inquiry instruction.

This is a very idealistic discussion. Being science literate depends on having a good understanding of these concepts and practices. Most students, those who just go through the motions in school as we know it, are not going to have that understanding. This discussion also leaves out engineering practices and applications, something important in the Next Generation Science Standards (and likely the to-be-released Arkansas High School Frameworks). So, I think this is a better answer, but not THE answer. Comments?


About marcreif

I live and teach high school physics in the town I was born in, Fayetteville, Arkansas. My professional interests include modeling instruction and Advanced Placement courses. I do a fair amount of work as a College Board Workshop Consultant.
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