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Science Strategies in Motown

The Detroit schools have taken their share of hits over the years, and many of those blows have been self-inflicted. But a recent study in an academic journal has found that a middle school science curriculum used in the district has resulted in improved science understanding, and higher standardized test scores, particularly among African-American boys.

Students who made the gains were using a curriculum devised by the Center for Learning Technologies in Urban Schools, developed in partnership with the district. Participants in that project published their findings in a recent issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching.


The curriculum used in Detroit was aligned with a professional-development program and the use of classroom technology, according to the study. Their project was funded by the National Science Foundation, and it was developed by faculty from Northwestern University, the University of Michigan, and officials from the Detroit and Chicago school systems.Thirty-seven teachers and approximately 5,000 students in Detroit were involved the study.

The Detroit curriculum places a big emphasis on "inquiry"—sometimes defined as the idea of having students learn science through the process of investigation and discovery used by scientists themselves. (Hands-on experiments are one element of inquiry, though not the only one.) The curriculum was broken into 8- to 10-week units, and was aligned with the standards of the city's school system. Students were given access to various pieces of science software, including something called "Model-It," which the study defines as a "multivariate modeling package," and "eChem," a "molecular visualization package." They followed curriculum units on science topics such as "What Is the Quality of Air in My Community?" "What Is the Water in My River," and "Why Do I Need to Wear a Helmet When I Ride My Bike?"

The findings do not show that "inquiry science units alone will enhance achievement," the authors write, but they do indicate that "incorporating and aligning the best practices in curriculum professional development, and learning technology in the context of a systemic reform can achieve substantive results."

Here's some background information on the NSF-funded project.

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