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Reinventing FOSS—What Are We Doing and Why Are We Doing It?

Larry Malone, Co-Director of FOSS, Lawrence Hall of Science
September 14, 2010 | Observations by Larry

Top image: Puppet Lake, a typical high Sierra lake, is not too far from Charlotte Lake.

FOSS enjoys a significant degree of success across the country. Our success can be attributed at least in part to our ability to keep pace with and anticipate issues, trends, and policies in science education. The FOSS success has allowed us to grow. New staff members with varied backgrounds and experience have been added to the FOSS team. They have brought new intelligence to the conversation about the future of FOSS.

I used to think I knew everything I needed to know to develop the best elementary science program in the world. Since the last major revision, the 2000 edition, I have learned a few things. My colleagues have helped me understand that there is a positive correlation between language development and thinking. And in order for us to realize our first FOSS goal—scientific literacy for all students—we need to provide students with the ability to think critically about how natural systems operate and to be strong-minded when the time comes to make good decisions about the application of scientific knowledge in large contexts. The latter requires that students think actively, freely, and effectively. Language is one medium of cognitive processing, probably the most important one. And language is the medium of communication, between minds for the purpose of sharing experiences and within minds for developing complex intellectual constructs. The topic of language arts integration into FOSS used to send me running for the door. But I now have a new vision for how important language is to the development of scientific thinking and a better understanding of how the FOSS curriculum can facilitate language development. Here are some of the new directions for the FOSS program.

We are incorporating student science notebooks into the FOSS instructional design. Students in grades K–8 will keep detailed records of their investigations (observations and data), as well as generate a continuous narrative description of their understanding of the science as it develops. And we are incorporating both formative and summative assessments seamlessly into the FOSS instructional design. The assessments are based in large part on written language. Additional attention is being focused on fundamental language development concerns, such as vocabulary development techniques incorporated into the FOSS instructional design. Why have we become advocates of language skills integration? There are two important reasons. First, better language development and language skills will result in better science learning. Secondly, in the current educational policy environment, with schooling dominated by NCLB testing, language arts performance takes priority. If we are to advance our goal of more teaching of science, we can't afford to have the language arts advocates as adversaries. We have to demonstrate that the work we do in science contributes to academic growth in everyone's area of primary concern.

Some trends in science education are exciting, and we join the momentum eagerly. One such issue that has entered the national science education conversation is environmental education. What is FOSS doing about it? We are incorporating outdoor activities into every investigation in every FOSS module. And we are developing new curriculum materials that are separate, but compatible with, the FOSS program.

The day I decided on the topic for this column was April 22, Earth Day. I was feeling some pangs of nostalgia for my planet. Most learned folks agree that the most pressing societal issues before all of us concern the overall health of our planet. We have not done an exemplary job as custodians of the Earth's atmosphere (air), hydrosphere (water), lithosphere (rock), and biosphere (ecosystems). If we don't reach the tipping point in planetary degradation that will lapse into unstoppable environmental decline leading to collapse in our lifetimes, it will certainly be part of the experience of the students in our classrooms today. When those students assume the mantle of leadership, they must be prepared to slam the machinery into reverse in order to avert disaster. Preparation for that responsibility is a tricky business.

Earth was a considerably different place to grow up when, as an 11-year old, I first reached down and touched its surface with purpose and appreciation. The place where I made first contact with my planet is just about the same today as it was 55 years ago when I became infatuated. Not exactly the same, but pretty much the same. I fell in love with Earth at Charlotte Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountain wilderness in central California. And true to any worthwhile long-term love affair, I faithfully return to Earth's gritty embrace every year. I spend a week or two walking among the nearby lakes, streams, and meadows. The physical place is always a little different, but the sense of place is the same. My connection to my planet is a defining characteristic of who I am. And so it must be with our children. In the sage words of David Sobel, "If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it." (David Sobel, Beyond Ecophobia).

And save it they must. They will not achieve the necessary commitment to global rescue by being preached to or scared with portentous scenarios. The commitment to sacrifice and action on behalf of a planet compatible with human life will have to come from the hearts and minds of the players. So what are we doing about it?

We're using FOSS as the medium to broker an introduction that may grow into a torrid love affair between students and Earth. And why are we doing it? We are doing it because it is part of our responsibility to act in the interest of all Americans. In 1988 the National Science Foundation provided money to start developing FOSS based on our commitment to develop a science curriculum that would provide a meaningful science education appropriate for the needs of the 21st century. Our reasons are a little selfish as well. We FOSSers have children and grandchildren and descendents yet unborn who we feel are entitled to a place in the sun and a patch of clean sand or green grass upon which to sit to marvel at the wonder of a planet replete with outlandish possibilities—a happy fruitful planet.

So we continue to labor over our curriculum products with the hope and expectation that when we get them right—that they speak to teachers in a profound way providing access to the natural world for children across the land. When the experience is right, it can transform classroom culture—that is, redefine the rules of engagement for teaching and learning. The encounters between students and natural phenomena are designed to stimulate young brains. The stimulus naturally proceeds to thinking. Student thinking is the Holy Grail of FOSS, that which we hold in the highest esteem. Thinking produces two desired outcomes. First, it motivates discourse—the active exchange of ideas that is critically important in the process of constructing knowledge. And, second, the final product of thinking is knowledge. Knowledge is the coherent, reasoned compilation of experience and possibility. Knowledge allows us to act with purpose and confidence in the natural world. My responsibility at FOSS is to guide and reinvent the natural world experience of the next generation of citizens.