The fundamental premise underlying our program is that teachers must participate in a properly structured research experience so that they may learn its value and be willing and able to design appropriate research opportunities for their students.
We designed our program so that teachers could learn about real-world topics that engage students' interest by using experimental systems and methods that are feasible, inexpensive, realistic and nontrivial. This program presented the concepts and related issues in several environmental science areas and used these to generate a variety of simple, safe, and interesting experiments that could be done during our training sessions and in the classroom. It presented teachers with a broad range of options as a tool box that they could adapt to their classes according to their needs, including field and laboratory studies of many physical and biological systems. The major emphasis was on the process of doing research "from scratch", so that the teachers are empowered to generate research projects on any topics that arise in their curricula or their day to day work with students.
Our project was designed in response to the national need for a citizenry and work-force that has the knowledge and skills demanded by the information and technology-based economy of the twenty-first century (SCANS, 1991). An underlying premise is that all students are capable of learning mathematics and science at relatively sophisticated levels. The fact that this has not always been true in practice is a reflection of our lack of understanding of how people learn. Cognitive science research has shown that individuals construct a personal view of the natural world based on their experiences. They need involvement in challenging experiences and the encouragement to think deeply about their meaning (Mestre, 1994). The classroom must be designed to offer such opportunities.
Many of the national reports focus on the interweaving of curriculum, pedagogy and professional development. All stress the importance of creating an environment in which students are engaged in long-term investigations and cognitive problem solving. All believe that we have underestimated students' conceptual abilities and stress the importance of their having the opportunity to think like scientists. (NSTA, 1995; NCTM, 1995; NRC, 1994; AAAS, 1993). There have been many efforts to develop the necessary school environment. One of the most comprehensive programs, the NSF State Systemic Initiative, focuses on transforming the whole system. SSI considers the school curriculum, classroom instruction, assessment, professional development, management, and governance. It also stresses the partnerships among the schools, the parents, and the larger community (Earle and Wan, 1995). The Partnership, which serves as one of the Regional Resource Providers for the Massachusetts SSI (Project PALMS), has found that this project enhances the other work in systemic reform.
One of the best ways to work towards these national goals is to have students engage in original scientific research in their classrooms, something that has not even been considered in most schools in the past. Why is this a new idea -- why haven't we always expected students to conduct research as part of their science classes? Some of the reasons are logistical: too many students, too few supplies and equipment, too much information to cover, too little time. These are formidable problems, but many teachers have overcome them. There is a more fundamental reason why K-12 students have not been expected to do research: the teachers have never experienced it themselves.
Teachers teach the way they were taught. Unfortunately, their own college experience usually did not include any expectation that they would engage in research. That opportunity has been limited to some colleges and some honors programs. Teachers trained as secondary school science teachers have completed more science courses than elementary teachers, but with rare exceptions neither group has had the opportunity to do research of any kind either as undergraduates or as graduate students. Since they have not done research as students, they have not experienced the difference between learning through research and learning in a cookbook-laboratory environment.
Early in our planning, we found ourselves continually making the distinction between "research" and what might be called "science activities." Activities include "cookbook" exercises where students follow carefully outlined plans, where the methods are already chosen for them, and where no new knowledge is sought or where the answer is clearly known in advance. There is little encouragement or opportunity for students to follow up on surprising results or for them to ask their own questions. Activities can be very useful and have a real place in the curricula, but by themselves they are an incomplete picture of how science is really done. In 5C5E we insisted on developing methods by which students can experience true research.
We emphasized that the "scientific method" is not the cut and dried model that is often fantasized in textbooks. In reality, there is a lot of trial and error and evaluation and rethinking of the methods used and the results obtained. But certain methodological tools are used to allow sound conclusions, such as the use of controls in experiments, avoiding confounding effects in observations and including sound principles of experimental design such as replication, randomized sampling, estimation and comparison rather than just collection. We have made use of various approaches to help students choose questions, especially the four-question strategy (Cothron, Julia H., Ronald N. Giese and Richard J. Rezba, Students and Research: Practical Strategies for Science Classrooms and Competitions, Second Edition, Kendall/Hunt. 1993).