LabLearner Core Concepts

Spiraling STEM Education: The Core Concept Approach

Schools often group science concepts into the categories such as biology, chemistry, physics, earth science, and so on. Such categories have existed at the heart of the curriculum for over a century. We have Chemistry, Physics, and Biology textbooks. High school teachers are certified in Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Physical Science, and so on. Everyone is familiar with and apparently comfortable with this structure.

The problem is that, while this structure for science education is broadly accepted, it is highly artificial. It not only implies that biology is somehow separate from physics, chemistry, and earth science, but it offers no satisfying or logical explanation of the world around us—where physical and biological processes occur without any lines of distinction between them.

One result of this artificial differentiation of science categories is that these different areas of science are often taught in a particular order. This is particularly true—and counterproductive—in high schools, where the order is usually Biology, then Chemistry, and then Physics. Outside of being in alphabetical order, there is little logic to this sequence. In fact, from a conceptual perspective, one could easily argue that the order should be exactly reversed. In middle school a similar system prevails and a common sequence is a year of Earth Science, then a year of Life Science, and then a year of Physical Science.

Core Concept Science Instruction

By 2004, rather than thinking in separate terms like Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science and Physics, our LabLearner science curriculum began to revolve around nine Core Concepts which we believed offered a much more useful way to organize elementary and middle school science instruction. The nine Core Concepts that we chose were:

Force and Pressure
Force and Motion
Properties of Matter
Changes and Reactions

LabLearner's Core Concepts are entirely aligned with the "Crosscutting Concepts" of the Next Generation Science Standards.  Nonetheless, we must recognize that these categories are, in some ways, as artificial as former, domain-specific categories. Science is so integrated that virtually any subdividing of it will introduce some artifact. However, if we recognize in our teaching that Core Concepts can and do interact with each other, we may use them to bring a much more meaningful order to the curriculum than that offered by the Biology-Chemistry-Physics structure of old.

Let’s take the Core Concept of Energy for example. By teaching age-appropriate aspects of this concept across grade levels, we can improve students’ overall understanding and retention of the concept. In early elementary school we can discuss the different forms of energy, such as sound, electricity, chemical energy, heat, and light. We can explore these forms of energy in very simple terms, accentuating similarities and differences between them. We can then return to each form of energy at appropriate times in the elementary school experience and discuss them in greater depth. As children move through elementary school and gain more math skills, we can explore concepts of energy that require those skills, thereby improving both math and science learning. In our discussions of energy, we can also discuss related topics such as vision and the eye, the ear and hearing, and so on, thus blending biology and physics and making both subjects more relevant and understandable to students.

We can take a similar approach with each of the other Core Concepts. Each academic year should have a dose of each Core Concept. Thus, the Core Concepts-driven science curriculum integrates different science topics, with increasing levels of complexity and depth, year after year. This, in turn, can be matched with students’ developmental stages as they grow from five-year-olds to eleven and twelve-year-olds – moving from concrete to formal operations (see figure 4.4). This is the essence of a spiraling curriculum.

Coincident with the annual development and elaboration of the nine Core Concepts is the integration of language arts, mathematics, social studies, and health into the STEM curriculum – accentuating the cross-curricular nature of science, lessening the drain of time from these curricular areas, and making both science and these other topics more relevant and meaningful to students.

Finally, the nine science Core Concepts can be easily applied straight through middle school – through eighth grade. In this model of science curriculum, each of the nine Core Concepts are covered every year from kindergarten through eighth grade – always increasing in depth while referring back to previous knowledge of the subject. By the end of the eighth grade, students begin to develop their cognitive executive functions and become capable of abstractions, internalizations, and other formal operations and can begin to see science as a vast array of interrelated concepts rather than as discrete and isolated subject areas.