Less memorization and deeper engagement is the way of the future for K-12 science classrooms, says Stanford University physicist Helen Quinn.
Quinn chaired a top-level committee of the National Research Council, which last week released a 282-page report calling for a new approach to science education.
The first such review in 15 years, the Framework for K-12 Science Education Standards is likely to affect the way science is taught in all 50 states, with consequences for low-performing schools as well as high-end districts such as Palo Alto.
The framework also will form the basis for "common core standards" in science, similar to those already in place for math and language arts. The existing common core standards have been adopted by 44 states, including California.
Quinn, a theoretical physicist and professor at Stanford since 2003, has long been interested in science education, running summer programs for teachers and bringing college students from around the country to do research at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.
She retired from SLAC last year to devote herself full time to the science framework committee "without feeling guilty about not doing any physics."
In an interview last week, she described the committee work as "enormous and fascinating intellectually.
"One of the challenges was to make the parallels across the disciplines (biology, chemistry, physics) such that they are coherent, so that what students are learning about energy in the physical science stream matches what they're asked to apply in life science.
"For example, if you talk about the water cycle and you don't know the particulate nature of matter, how do you understand what evaporation is? Those things need to match."
If someone walked into discussions about energy in today's classes in biology, chemistry and physics, "you'd be hard put to figure out they're talking about the same thing," which is confusing to kids, Quinn said.
The framework stresses core ideas in four areas: physical science, life sciences, earth and space sciences and engineering, technology and the application of science.
It incorporates new scientific findings of the past 15 years, in areas such as DNA and climate change.
It also incorporates research on how kids learn, Quinn said.
"The research says that kids don't change their mindset by being told a fact.
"For kids to really understand an idea, they have to work with that idea. So what you need to do is have fewer facts and more development of ideas," she said.
"It's a whole different culture of the classroom."
Even in top districts like Palo Alto, she said "if you assess the discourse in a classroom today, 90 percent or more of what goes on is the teacher asks a question and a student answers and the teacher either affirms or critiques the answer."
The new model would have students debating one another about whether measurements made in the classroom confirm a certain hypothesis, with the teacher guiding the process.
Quinn's committee, comprised of university scientists and education scholars from across the country, said educators should de-emphasize "discrete facts" and refocus on "a limited number of core ideas and crosscutting concepts." Every student should have a chance to work with the ideas, make connections and experience how science is actually done.
By the end of 12th grade, students should be able to "engage in public discussions on science-related issues, to be critical consumers of scientific information related to their everyday lives," the committee said.
Quinn said her committee's work is consistent with the direction the College Board has taken in revising its Advanced Placement science curricula to place greater emphasis on being able to apply knowledge and less emphasis on memorization of facts.
"We're cutting out details that are not depth," she said. "People tend to think of detail as depth. But -- talking about a cell, for example -- it's much more important to take the time and depth to understand how a cell functions than to be able to give the Latin names for all parts of the cell.
"If you're going to be a biologist or medical researcher, you will need to know the Latin names because that's the language of the discipline. But what we have right now is too much the language of the discipline and not enough of the idea."
The framework report will be passed to Achieve, a Washington-based organization created in 1996 by the nation's governors and corporate leaders, to raise academic standards and graduation requirements.
Achieve will translate the framework directives into standards, expected to be released in late 2012.
Major support for the framework project came from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, as well as from the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.