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Science education is the field concerned with sharing science content and process with individuals not traditionally considered part of the scientific community. The target individuals may be children, college students, or adults within the general public. The field of science education comprises science content, some social science, and some teaching pedagogy. The standards for science education provide expectations for the development of understanding for students through the entire course of their K-12 education. The traditional subjects included in the standards are physical, life, earth, and space sciences.

Historical background[]

Science education in secondary schools began in the UK around 1870, but it was not widespread until much later. The first step came when the British Academy for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) published a report in 1867 (Layton, 1981). BAAS promoted teaching of “pure science” and training of the “scientific habit of mind.” The progressive education movement of the time supported the ideology of mental training through the sciences. BAAS emphasized separately pre-professional training in secondary science education. In this way, future BAAS members could be prepared.

The initial development of science teaching was slowed by the lack of qualified teachers. One key development was the founding of the first London School Board in 1870, which discussed the school curriculum; another was the initiation of courses to supply the country with trained science teachers. In both cases the influence of Thomas Henry Huxley was critical (see especially Thomas Henry Huxley educational influence). John Tyndall was also influential in the teaching of physical science.[1]

In the US, science education was a scatter of subjects prior to its standardization in the 1890’s (Del Giorno, 1969). The development of a science curriculum in the US emerged gradually after extended debate between two ideologies, citizen science and pre-professional training. As a result of a conference of 30 leading secondary and college educators in Florida, the National Education Association appointed a Committee of Ten in 1892 which had authority to organize future meetings and appoint subject matter committees of the major subjects taught in U.S. secondary schools . The committee was composed of ten educators (all men) and was chaired by Charles Eliot of Harvard University. The Committee of Ten met, and appointed nine conferences committees (Latin, Greek, English, Other Modern Languages, Mathematics, History, Civil Government and Political Economy, and three in science). The three conference committees appointed for science were: physics, astronomy, and chemistry (1); natural history (2); and geography (3). Each committee, appointed by the Committee of Ten, was composed of ten leading specialists from colleges and normal schools, and secondary schools. Each committee met in a different location in the U.S. The three science committees met for three days in the Chicago area. Committee reports were submitted to the Committee of Ten, which met for four days in New York, to create a comprehensive report (NEA, 1894). In 1894, the NEA published the results of work of these conference committees (NEA, 1894).

Of particular interest here is the Committee of Ten recommendations for the science curriculum. It recommended four possible courses of study: Three of the courses of study had the following science recommendations

  • High School Science (9-12)
      Grade  9: Physical Geography (3p)
      Grade 10: Physics(3p), 
                         Botany or Zoology (3p); 
      Grade 11: Astronomy 1/2 year & Meteorology, 1/2 year (3p)
      Grade 12: Chemistry (3p)
                         Geology or physiography,  1/2 year 
                                                      &                                                    (3p)
                          Anatomy, physiology, and hygiene, 1/2 year

For the classical course of studies Greek replaced many of the sciences

      Grade  9: Physical  geography (3p)
      Grade 10: Physics (3p), 
      Grade 11: 
      Grade 12: Chemistry (3p)

See Sheppard & Robbins (2007) For a more full discussion of the recommendations of the Committee of Ten.

The curriculum shown above has been largely replaced by the physical/earth science or biology, chemistry, and physics sequence in most high schools.

According to the Committee of Ten, the goal of high school was to prepare all students to do well in life, contributing to their well-being and the good of society. Another goal was to prepare some students to succeed in college.[2]

This committee supported the citizen science approach focused on mental training and withheld performance in science studies from consideration for college entrance (Hurd, 1991). The BAAS encouraged their longer standing model in the UK (Jenkins, 1985). The US adopted a curriculum was characterized as follows (NEA, 1894):

  • Elementary science should focus on simple natural phenomena (nature study) by means of experiments carried out "in-the-field."
  • Secondary science should focus on laboratory work and the committees prepared lists of specific experiments
  • Teaching of facts and principles
  • College preparation

The format of shared mental training and pre-professional training consistently dominated the curriculum from its inception to now. However, the movement to incorporate a humanistic approach, such as is science, technology, society and environment education is growing and being implemented more broadly in the late 20th century (Aikenhead, 1994). Reports by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), including Project 2061, and by the National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment detail goals for science education that link classroom science to practical applications and societal implications.


Whilst public image of science education may be one of simply learning facts by rote, science education in recent history also generally concentrates on the teaching of science concepts and the addressing misconceptions that learners may hold regarding science concepts or other content. Research shows that students will retain knowledge for a longer period of time if they are involved in more hands on activities [citation needed].

United States[]

In many U.S. states, K-12 educators must adhere to rigid standards or frameworks of what content is to be taught to which age groups. Unfortunately, this often leads teachers to rush to "cover" the material, without truly "teaching" it. In addition, the process of science, including such elements as the scientific method and critical thinking, is often overlooked. This emphasis can produce students who pass standardized tests without having developed complex problem solving skills. Although at the college level American science education tends to be less regulated, it is actually more rigorous, with teachers and professors fitting more content into the same time period.

In 1996, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences of the U.S. National Academies produced the National Science Education Standards, which is available online for free in multiple forms. Its focus on inquiry-based science, based on the theory of constructivism[citation needed] rather than on direct instruction of facts and methods, remains controversial.[citation needed] Some research suggests that it is more effective as a model for teaching science. Other approaches include standards-based assessments such as Washington Assessment of Student Learning, which emphasize devising experiments at early grades at a level traditionally not covered until college (traditionally, students conducted rather than designed experiments), based on mock data with very little testing of factual knowledge.Template:Clarify me Their eight categories of national science education standards reflect a new emphasis on the themes of constructivist approaches, diversity, and social justice common throughout the education reform movement. These categories are unifying concepts and processes, science as inquiry, physical science, life science, earth and space science, science and technology, science in personal and social perspectives, and history and nature of science.[3][dead link]

Concern about science education and science standards has often been driven by worries that American students lag behind their peers in international rankings.[4] One notable example was the wave of education reforms implemented after the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite in 1957.[5] The first and most prominent of these reforms was lead by the Physical Sciences Study Committee at MIT. In recent years, business leaders such as Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates have called for more emphasis on science education, saying the United States risks losing its economic edge.[6] To this end, Tapping America's Potential is an organization aimed at getting more students to graduate with science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees.[7] Public opinion surveys, however, indicate most U.S. parents are complacent about science education and that their level of concern has actually declined in recent years.[8]

Physics education[]

Physics is taught in high schools, colleges, and graduate schools. Physics First is a popular movement in American high schools. In schools with this curriculum 9th grade students take a course with introductory physics education. This is meant to enrich students understanding of physics, and allow for more detail to be taught in subsequent high school biology, and chemistry classes; it also aims to increase the number of students who go on to take 12th grade physics or AP Physics, which are generally electives in American high schools.

Physics education in the high schools has suffered the last twenty years because of the fact that many states now only require 3 sciences, which can be satisfied by earth/physical science, chemistry, and biology. The fact that many students do not take physics in high school makes it more difficult for those students to take scientific courses in college.

At the university/college level, using appropriate technology-related projects to spark non-physics majors’ interest in learning physics has been shown to be successful [9]. This is a potential opportunity to forge the connection between physics and social benfit.

Informal science education[]

Informal science education is the science teaching and learning that occurs outside of the formal school curriculum in places such as museums, the media, and community-based programs. The National Science Teachers Association has created a position statement[10] on Informal Science Education to define and encourage science learning in many contexts and throughout the lifespan. Research in informal science education is funded in the United States by the National Science Foundation[11]. The Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE)[12] provides resources for the informal science education community.

Examples of informal science education include science centers, science museums, and new digital learning environments (e.g. Global Challenge Award), many of which are members of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC).[13] The Exploratorium in San Francisco and The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia are the oldest of this type of museum in the United States. Media include TV programs such as NOVA, Newton's Apple, The Magic School Bus, Dragonfly TV and Dora the Explorer. Examples of community-based programs are 4-H Youth Development programs, Hands On Science Outreach, NASA and Afterschool Programs[14] and Girls at the Center.

United Kingdom[]

In England and Wales schools science is generally taught as a single subject science until age 14-16 then splits into subject-specific A levels (physics, chemistry and biology). However, the government has since expressed its desire that those pupils who achieve well at the age of 14 should be offered the opportunity to study the three separate sciences from September 2008.[15] In Scotland the subjects split into chemistry, physics and biology at the age of 13-15 for Standard Grades in these subjects.

In September 2006 a new Science programme of study known as 21st Century Science was introduced as a GCSE option in UK schools, designed to "give all 14 to 16 year olds a worthwhile and inspiring experience of science"[16].

Research in Science Education[]

The practice of science education has been increasingly informed by research into science teaching and learning. Research in science education relies on a wide variety of methodologies, borrowed from many branches of science such as cognitive psychology and anthropology. Science education research aims to define or characterize what constitutes learning in science and how it is brought about.

In John D. Bransford, et al., the fruit of massive research into student thinking is presented as having three key findings:

Prior ideas about how things work are remarkably tenacious and an educator must explicitly address a students' specific misconceptions if the student is to abandon his misconception in favour of another explanation. Therefore, it is essential that educators know how to learn about student preconceptions and make this a regular part of their planning.
Factual Knowledge 
In order to become truly literate in an area of science, students must, "(a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application."[11]
Students will benefit from thinking about their thinking and their learning. They must be taught ways of evaluating their knowledge and what they don't know, evaluating their methods of thinking, and evaluating their conclusions.

See also[]

  • Controversial science
  • Education
  • Educational research
  • Environmental groups and resources serving K–12 schools
  • Epistemology (the study of knowledge and how we know things)
  • Graduate school
  • Inquiry-based Science
  • National Science Education Standards
  • National Science Teachers Association
  • Pedagogy
  • School science technicians
  • Science
  • Science achievement
  • Science, Technology, Society and Environment Education


  1. Bibby, Cyril 1959. T.H. Huxley: scientist, humanist and educator. Watts, London.
  4. [1]
  5. [2]
  6. [3][4]
  7. [5]
  8. [6]
  9. Joshua M. Pearce, "Physics Using Appropriate Technology Projects", The Physics Teacher, 45, pp. 164-167, 2007. pdf
  10. [7]
  11. National Science Foundation funding for informal science education
  12. [8]
  13. [9]
  14. [10]
  15. Kim Catcheside (2008). 'Poor lacking' choice of sciences. BBC News website. British Broadcasting Corporation. URL accessed on 2008-02-22.
  16. Welcome to Twenty First Century Science
  • Layton, D. (1981). The schooling of science in England, 1854-1939. In R. MacLeod & P.Collins (Eds.), The parliament of science (pp. 188–210). Northwood, England: Science Reviews.
  • Del Giorno, B.J. (1969). The impact of changing scientific knowledge on science education in th United States since 1850. Science Education, 53, 191-195.
  • Hurd, P.D. (1991). Closing the educational gaps between science, technology, and society. Theory into Practice, 30, 251-259.
  • Teaching Inquiry Science Downloadable book about teaching science through inquiry.
  • Jenkins, E. (1985). History of science education. In T. Husen & T.N. Postlethwaite (Eds.) International encyclopedia of education (pp. 4453–4456). Oxford: Pergamon Press.
  • National Education Association (1894). Report of the Committee of Ten on Secondary School Studies With The Reports of the Conferences Arranged by The Committee. New York: The American Book Company Read the Book Online
  • Sheppard, K. & Robbins D. M. (2007). High School Biology Today: What the Committee of Ten Actually Said. CBE-Life Sciences Education. 6 (3) 198-202.
  • Aikenhead, G.S. (1994). What is STS teaching? In J. Solomon & G. Aikenhead (Eds.), STS education: International perspectives on reform (pp. 74–59). New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Dumitru, P. & Joyce, A. (2007) Public-private partnerships for maths, science and technology education. Proceedings of Discovery Days conference.
  • European Schoolnet (2007) National and European Initiatives to promote science education in Europe. Insight portal.

Further reading[]

External links[]

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