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May 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 8

Narrowing the Achievement Gap in Science

By creating an integrated, untracked science curriculum, an inner-city school in Omaha has increased students' interest in and aptitude for the sciences.

As the school year begins, I visit my colleagues' classrooms. In the first, 9th graders are having an animated conversation with a visiting criminologist about crime in North Omaha, Nebraska. Across the hall, 9th graders conduct water quality tests on samples from the Fontenelle Park lagoon. Outside the building, other students excavate a simulated archaeological dig of an Omaha Indian earth lodge.
All of these students are enrolled in Integrated Science 1-2, the first in a two-year sequence of their required science curriculum at Omaha North High School. Why Integrated Science? Why not Biology or Chemistry? Because there has been a growing gap in enrollment and achievement between Caucasian students and students of color in science classrooms (Bates 1993, Kahle 1993, Linn 1993-94), and our experiences in the Omaha Public Schools reflect this. Although the number of students of color in gatekeeper classes has risen, the two populations continue to be far apart in achievement. Our replacement of Biology and Chemistry with Integrated Science is our attempt to close this gap.
Before we made this shift, we tracked students into three levels of science classes: fundamentals, academic, and honors. The number of students of color enrolled in honors classes (10-15 percent) was far below their representation in the school (29-34 percent). Their enrollment in fundamentals classes, on the other hand, was high (more than 50 percent), and even here, as many as half of these students failed.
Although Omaha North High is a magnet school and fosters voluntary integration, segregation occurred at the classroom level as a result of tracking. Qualified students of color voted with their feet and opted out of enrollment in upper-level classes. Tracking seemed to unequally allocate success to students, and the results were seen in achievement, class enrollments, and levels of student participation.

Seeds of Change

As a science department, we faced a problem that many urban schools face, but we had a unique opportunity. Twelve of our 17 science teachers had participated in a multicultural science project called Solving Problems and Revitalizing Curriculum (SPARCS), funded by the National Science Foundation. This project shifted our perceptions of who could learn science and how science might be taught. These critical staff members gave us a collaborative team that could overcome the obstacles to reforming the curriculum and teaching strategies.
Yet this alone was not enough to change our classrooms. Other factors were also critical—administrative support, peer coaching, and staff freedom to make decisions about the curriculum.
Multicultural and science education literature provided support for our proposed alternatives, which included heterogeneous grouping; integration of disciplines; cooperative learning; infusion of technology; and constructivist methodologies that build on student knowledge, include meaningful curriculum, and establish student-centered classrooms (for example, Barquet 1993, Baruth and Manning 1992, Drake 1993, Hale 1986, Kahle 1993, Lebow 1993, Linn 1993-94, Mathison and Young 1995, Pohan et al. 1993-94, Shor 1992, Sleeter 1992, Wallach 1993). Working collaboratively, teachers wrote curriculum and searched for curricular options that were pedagogically aligned with the research.
Our solution—which was fully implemented in the 1995-96 school year—was a two-year thematic-based curriculum with the general theme "I Can Make a Difference." This theme reflected our belief that all learning in the classroom should empower students to improve their lives or their communities.
Now, all 9th graders are enrolled in Integrated Science 1-2, and all 10th graders in Integrated Science 3-4 (about 700 students in each grade). Classes are heterogeneously grouped because we eliminated all tracking. The curriculum is taught around six central themes in 9th grade and four in 10th grade. At the end of the two-year sequence, students will meet the district graduation requirements for science and will be eligible to enroll in any upper-level science course.

One Theme: Outdoor Community Study

  1. A simulated archaeological dig of an Omaha Indian earth lodge, providing a historical and cultural perspective of North Omaha. Our staff built a permanent outdoor dig site (a cement slab with a concrete block containment filled with sand). The Nebraska Historical Society donated Native American artifacts, and we also constructed simulated artifacts. Student teams excavate layers of the site, with new teams continuing each class period. Teams from a single period share data (recorded and plotted on grids) to build a composite picture of their layer. They also study the data from each class period's layer in order to build an image of the site at lower depths.Practicing field archaeologists work with the students to critique their analyses of the site. After studying this "North Omaha" culture, members of each student team produce an assessment tool for this component, research other past cultures of the area, create scale drawings of possible site excavations for their assigned culture, and analyze one another's schematics.
  2. A study of the current ecological status of the school's grounds. Students use the school grounds to design and conduct scientific studies, which range from soil analyses to research on insect diversity. Student teams, each responsible for its own study, disburse around the grounds. Once a team completes its data collection and analysis, members share results with the other teams. Students participating in this activity realized that life around their school was not very ecologically diverse. This led to a discussion of monoculture vs. the diversity of natural habitat.
  3. The design of areas along a proposed nature trail. A nature trail would provide the school and community with more diverse natural habitats, similar to the native areas of the past. Working in teams, students have developed a construction proposal for this trail. They presented the proposal to the director of the YMCA and the principals of Omaha North High and Eugene Skinner Elementary Magnet School—the three sites along which the trail would run. Next, students contacted the local AmeriCorps office for project support and generated lists of possible funding sources for the trail. Construction is to begin in the spring of 1996, with the assistance of elementary students from Eugene Skinner.
The 9th grade curriculum includes five other six-week units, also problem-solving and thematic in design. The 10th grade curriculum includes four nine-week units. Upon the successful completion of the second year of Integrated Science, students receive credits in Biology 1-2 and Chemistry 1-2, thus meeting all of the district outcomes for these courses. In addition, they have been exposed to central concepts of earth science and physics. They are now ready to elect any upper-level course.

Unusual Inner-City Fare

We have found that our science course is relatively unique among integrated and thematic courses. First, such curriculums seem to be more common in smaller communities or suburban areas. As an inner-city school, we work with a more diverse student body, and our total enrollment of 1,400 students is relatively large.
Second, we do not work with a highly select, homogeneous student population, as do many teachers of integrated science courses. We serve all students in these courses—from special needs to gifted and talented—and we teach them in a heterogeneous setting.
Third, our curriculum is project-based, and each project incorporates all science disciplines. By contrast, some schools minimally integrate the curriculum by including bits of each discipline in a layer cake manner.
Finally, we infuse a wide variety of technology into the curriculum in an attempt to make all students technologically competent.
In general, teachers hold high expectations for all students, and students—not the teacher—are at the center of the class. This is a departure from our old fundamentals classes, where students were likely to be involved with more worksheets and less hands-on learning.

An Engaged Classroom

If you drop into one of our Integrated Science classes, what do you see? On one typical day, students entered their classroom quietly, chatting amiably, gathering necessary materials, and continuing with their ongoing projects, without teacher instruction. They were responsible for directing their own work on a final product, and they knew the due date. They also knew how to access necessary information, and several asked for passes to make a phone call or to go to the library. Some asked the teacher to log them in to the Internet.
A student in one group coordinated the start of the day's work; she was the group leader for this activity. Another student in the group was seated at the computer, entering data into the group spreadsheet. A third needed additional materials and the teacher directed him to the appropriate area. The other group member began a nitrate test for the group's water quality study.
The students' ease in entering the classroom, their natural pace in conducting their work, and the air of familiarity in the room didn't happen by chance. They reflected extensive team- and class-building at the beginning of the year and periodically throughout the year; the atmosphere and attitude were achieved through the hard work of students, teachers, and administrators. Our science students know one another's strengths and weaknesses; they know they must depend on one another; and they often cooperate better than many adult groups do.
This same attitude is evident among the staff. During the class period I described, several teachers wandered in and out of the room, but not without stopping to chat with the teacher or students. One even stopped to assist a group with its project. Teachers also share space, technology access, and materials. And they continue to work to strengthen curriculum and revise strategies.

Touching Lives and Communities

As we developed the curriculum, we always asked, "Who cares?" We wanted a curriculum grounded in the lives of the students. This would enable them to more easily learn meaningful content and skills and to focus on their own needs and the needs of their community.
Community involvement and community action are, in fact, a major focus of our work. Work on the nature trail, for example, will later include creation of an exercise trail. Students are compiling and selling a multicultural cookbook, which includes a dietary analysis with each recipe. Some 10th graders are working as mentors to elementary students.
We're also reaching out to a national community. We are beginning to work with students in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who are taking a three-year sequence of integrated, project-based science courses with a strong technology focus. We plan to conduct joint projects (epidemiological and water quality studies), collaborating and sharing results via the Internet.
These efforts will be facilitated by our move to block time next year. That schedule should give us more time in the field and more time to make further interdisciplinary connections in our own building.
The changes we've made have resulted in growth for all of us. We await results from district benchmark tests that assess outcome mastery. Clearly, though, student achievement has risen, with fewer failures among African-American students who were formerly tracked in fundamentals classes. In addition, our own attitudinal surveys indicate that students now enjoy science more, feel more comfortable in the science classes, and perceive science as being more important than they did before. Most important, we now see learning as a way to make a difference—in our own lives, in our community, and in our world.

Barquet, N. (1993). "Making Science Learning Meaningful for Language Minority Students." Equity Coalition for Race, Gender and National Origin 3, 2: 13-16.

Baruth, L. G., and M. L. Manning. (1992). Multicultural Education of Children and Adolescents. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Bates, P. (1993). "Say Yes to Science." Equity Coalition for Race, Gender and National Origin 3, 2: 1, 29.

Drake, S. M. (1993). Planning Integrated Curriculum: The Call to Adventure. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Hale, J. (1986). "Cultural Influence on Learning Styles of Afro-American Children." Extracting Learning Styles from Social/Cultural Diversity: A Study of Five American Minorities. Southwest Teacher Corps Network.

Kahle, J. B. (1993). "Teaching Science for Excellence & Equity." A Presentation at the AAAS Science Teachers Forum in Washington, D.C.

Lebow, T. (1993). "Twelve Answers to the Question: What Can I Do In My Science Program?" Equity Coalition for Race, Gender and National Origin 3, 2: 25-29.

Linn, E. (1993-94). "Science and Equity: Why This Issue is Important." Equity Coalition for Race, Gender and National Origin 3, 2: 3-5.

Mathison, C., and R. Young. (Summer 1995). "Constructivism & Multicultural Education: A Mighty Pedagogical Merger." Multicultural Education: 7-10.

Pohan, C. A., T. E. Aguilar, and R. H. Bruning. (1993-1994). "Developing Multicultural Teachers: A Constructivist Perspective." National Association for Multicultural Education: 1993 and 1994 Proceedings. San Francisco, Calif.: Caddo Gap Press.

Shor, I. (1992). Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sleeter, C. E. (1992). Keepers of the American Dream: A Study of Staff Development and Multicultural Education. Bristol, Pa.: The Falmer Press.

Wallach, K. M. (1993). "Tracking and Gifted Programming: Implications of Class Structures." National Association for Multicultural Education: 1993 and 1994 Proceedings. San Francisco, Calif.: Caddo Gap Press.

Susan B. Koba has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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