TG How is GSS Related to Science Education Reform?

Professional organizations consisting of scientists and teachers, with support from the National Science Foundation and other agencies, are challenging the status quo. Decades ago, several key documents redefined science education in the United States:

Next Generation Science Standards completed in April 2013.

A Framework for K-12 Science Education| Next Generation, released July 2011 by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences.

Science for All Americans, Project 2061, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C., 1989. This book describes what every American should know by the time they graduate from high school.

Scope, Sequence, and Coordination (SS&C), Vol. I The Content Core, National Science Teachers Association, Washington, D.C., 1992. The SS&C project calls for a new arrangement of the middle and high school curriculum, in which every student takes every science, every year. This book describes the SS&C approach and outlines key concepts that students should learn in grades 6-8, 9-10, and 11-12.

Benchmarks for Science Literacy, Project 2061, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C., 1993. The Project 2061 staff published these guidelines for what students should learn about science during grade levels K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12.

National Science Education Standards, National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., December, 1995. The National Standards proposes sweeping changes in the science education system, projects a vision of good teaching practices, guidelines for assessing student learning, and provides its own list of key concepts that all Americans should learn in grades K-4, 5-8, and 9-12.

Although each of these documents focuses on different aspects of the education system, they all offer a similar image of the ideal science classroom as a place where students are actively engaged in inquiry. They all recognize that students enter the classroom with certain information about the world, and that they construct their own meanings from these preconceptions, as well as what they see, hear, and do in school. All identify similar lists of the most important scientific concepts, theories, and attitudes that should form the core of the school science curriculum. All emphasize the need to teach fewer topics in greater depth, and to teach not only what scientists have learned about the world, but how they have learned it. And all of them suggest that high school science courses might be more useful and appealing to students if they focus on interdisciplinary issues relevant to our modern world instead of the disciplines of biology, chemistry, and physics. The Global Systems Science course was developed in response to these principles. 

Teaching About Global Environmental Change

Also relevant to the Global Systems Science program is that each of the reform documents specifically addresses the importance of teaching students about global environmental change. Following are a selection of quotes that address major topics included in the Global Systems Science course. These quotes are dated but still of value. For insights into how GSS supports Next Generation Science Standards, see “About Science Education Standards.”


The concept of Earth systems. 
The idea of systems provides a framework in which students can investigate the four major interacting components of the Earth system—geosphere (crust and the interior), hydrosphere (water), atmosphere (air), and the biosphere (the realm of all living things.) In this holistic approach to studying the planet, physical, chemical and biological processes act within and between these four components on a wide range of time scales to continually change Earth’s crust, oceans, atmosphere, and living organisms.  
— National Standards Draft, page V-87.

Global warming and the
“greenhouse effect.” 

The teacher might lead a discussion or schedule activities about the “greenhouse effect.” Some evidence suggests that the combustion of fossil fuels—the principal process by which electricity is generated—could lead to an increase in the total amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The increased amount of greenhouse gases could lead, in turn, to global climatic changes (warming). Global warming could accelerate glacier and polar ice cap melting and cause a subsequent rise in sea level. The higher sea level could result in greater coastal erosion and the flooding of low-lying coastal areas (in which a large number of people live). The teacher should stress that this chain of events has not been proven to have occurred nor to be occurring. The current data is simply too limited and too complex for scientists to make a definitive statement.  
— SS&C, Volume I The Content Core, pages 86-87.

Loss of biodiversity.

The human species has a major impact on other species in many ways: reducing the amount of the earth’s surface available to those other species, interfering with their food sources, changing the temperature and chemical composition of their habitats, introducing foreign species into their ecosystems, and altering organisms directly through selective breeding and genetic engineering.  
— Benchmarks for Science Literacy, page 57.

Changing ecosystems. 

Human beings live within the world’s ecosystems. Increasingly, humans modify ecosystems as a result of population growth, technology, and consumption. Human destruction of habitats through direct harvesting, pollution, atmospheric changes, and other factors is threatening global stability, and if not addressed, ecosystems will be irreversibly damaged.  
— National Science Education Standards Draft, page V-145.

The impact of human population growth.  

The Earth does not have infinite resources, and increasing human production and consumption places severe stress on the natural processes that renew some resources and depletes those resources that cannot be renewed. 
— National Science Education Standards Draft, page V-162. 

Teaching Fundamental Science Concepts

The reform documents purport to identify all of the most important concepts and theories that high school students should learn. Many of these key concepts and theories underlie the science of global environmental change, so they are presented in some detail in the GSS course materials. For example, the following quote from the National Standards Draft shows how fundamental concepts in geology, evolution, and climatology can be brought to bear on today’s issues of global environmental change. This quote neatly summarizes key objectives of the GSS unit Life and Climate.

The co-evolution of life and climate.In studying the evolution of the Earth system over geologic time, students develop a deeper understanding of the evidence, first introduced in grades 5-8, of Earth’s past and unravel the interconnected story of Earth’s dynamic crust, fluctuating climate, and evolving life forms. The students’ studies develop the concept of the Earth system existing in a state of dynamic equilibrium. They will discover that while certain properties of the Earth system may fluctuate on short or long time scales, the Earth system will generally stay within a certain narrow range for millions of years. This long-term stability can be understood through the working of planetary geochemical cycles, and the feedback processes that help to maintain or modify those cycles. As an example of this long-term stability, students find that the geologic record suggests that the global temperature has fluctuated within a relatively narrow range, one that is narrow enough to enable life to survive and evolve for over three billion years. They come to understand that some of these small temperature fluctuations have produced what we perceive as dramatic effects in the Earth system, such as the ice ages and the extinction of entire species. They explore the regulation of Earth’s global temperature by the water and carbon cycles. Using this background, students can examine environmental changes occurring today; and make predictions about future temperature fluctuations in the Earth system.  
— National Science Standards, page V-148, 149.

Getting Started 

If you’ve made it to this page of the Teacher’s Guide, you have already started the implementation process. The next step is to find a niche for Global Systems Science at your school. Several alternatives are discussed in “How Can I Customize GSS for My Students?” on pages 13-15. If you choose to start by implementing a one or two semester course in Global Systems Science, you will probably need approval. In districts where the top-down approach is preferred, talk with the Superintendent, Principal, or Science Coordinator as soon as possible. In districts where teams of teachers have taken the lead, you’ll want to meet with the curriculum committee, or just start talking informally with other teachers. In still other districts, where change is likely to be very difficult, you may want to request budget approval to order a class set of just one of the GSS Student Guides to enrich your chemistry, physics, Earth science, or biology course.

$20 bills

Getting Funding

Whatever approach you take to integrating Global Systems Science into your school, some funds will be necessary to purchase class sets of the Student Guides and laboratory supplies and equipment. Most of the equipment that will be needed is commonly available in science labs, or easily obtained from local sources; but some funds will certainly be needed to support the lab activities. School districts generally budget funds for lab supplies, new textbooks, and “enrichment” materials, so this is one possible source. Another source is donations from local companies.

Getting Your Feet Wet

Most of us on the GSS staff are former high school teachers. It’s our impression that most high school teachers understand the nature of science, and the important theories, concepts, and techniques of one or two scientific disciplines. Consequently, it will probably not be too difficult for you to do a good job of teaching Global Systems Science, provided you have time to read through the Teacher’s Guide and try out the experiments and activities in advance. 

Is a Professional Development Program Necessary? 

If Global Systems Science takes off at your school, and other teachers become involved, you will eventually be asked if a professional development program is necessary. The answer is a definite “No!” and an enthusiastic “Yes!” No, it is not necessary for teachers to undergo an expensive training program in order to use the GSS materials; but on the other hand, opportunities for teachers to improve their knowledge and capabilities will certainly improve the quality of the experience for students. This suggests a two-step strategy. First, get your feet wet by using some of the GSS materials with students. Then, as your efforts expand and other teachers become involved, set up a program that gives you the time you will need to work together with them, and help each other improve the course for students.

Articulating Needs for Staff Development

A little personal reflection may help to illustrate this point. Each of us on the staff of the GSS project considers ourselves to be “innovative” teachers; so we were quite surprised to find out how much we needed to learn when we switched from discipline-based teaching to an interdisciplinary course. Our need to devise new lessons would take us to unfamiliar territories in libraries and bookstores. In many cases, we had to switch from physics to biology as we went from one chapter to the next, or from science to economics and politics, so that we could follow up the implications of an issue instead of going on to “cover” the next science topic. Working together helped immensely, since our team had experience teaching all of the sciences plus social studies and mathematics; but we each had to learn a great deal as well about each others’ fields, and about how to involve students in thinking deeply about social and ethical issues.

Professional Development Strategies

Once your Global System Science program is underway, you will probably be able to articulate specific needs for professional development. Seasoned teachers tell us that the best time for starting new collaborations and programs is in the summer, when the daily demands of teaching do not intrude on the need to think, read, try out new experiments, and plan together. Unless you and your colleagues are independently wealthy, you will want to approach your administrators to ask for funds that have been reserved for staff development in your district. Alternatively, you may want to write a grant proposal for state funding, or to a corporation in your community.  

Following are some of the professional development activities that may meet some of your needs, beginning with those that will probably be easiest to implement:

  • Summer Institute. An institute of 1-4 weeks provides an intensive period of time for experienced teachers and new teachers to work together, to be involved in hands-on activities, and to share strategies for teaching and student assessment.
  • Peer coaching. Agree to work with a colleague, possibly in a different field of science, or in social studies or mathematics, to assist each other. You may develop and teach a course together, or visit each others’ classes providing helpful suggestions and helping each other solve problems.
  • Mentoring. A more experienced veteran can take a new teacher under his or her wing, helping the new teacher plan lessons, develop new techniques, gather materials, and solve problems. Mentoring activities can take place entirely at school, or in other educational settings such as universities and museums.
  • Team Teaching. Form a group of teachers who will work together to develop a single course, or develop complementary courses for the same group of students. This could involve teachers from more than one department at your school. Time will be needed—either before or after school, on weekends, or staff development days, when you will all be free. Decide on common goals, strategies, and methods for assessing students learning, so you will know if you have been successful. 
  • Teacher as Researcher. As you and your colleagues become more comfortable with integrated science teaching you may want to conduct a more formal research study of student learning. For example, students’ pre-post-test results can be categorized and analyzed to specify what students typically know at the beginning of a course and how their knowledge and opinions change after instruction. If you do not feel entirely comfortable with educational research techniques, you may want to contact a graduate school of education for assistance and collaboration. 
  • Teacher as Curriculum Developer. If you encounter difficulties in teaching certain concepts, or if you see opportunities to relate one of the concepts presented in the GSS unit to a local resource, then you are ready to undertake curriculum development. The development of new activities does not need to take a great deal of time, and can be a magnificent learning experience in itself. If you do develop activities related to GSS, please share them with others, either through publications in teacher’s journals, by presentation at local, state, or national conferences, or by sending them to GSS Headquarters at the Lawrence Hall of Science! 

When choosing professional development activities think about meeting your own needs—not just to increase your knowledge base and teaching capabilities, but to give free rein to your creativity, and to experience the exhilaration of learning new things. It’s a good bet that your students will sense your enthusiasm, and enjoy sharing your newest insights. One final thought is that implementing a new program is not easy. Michael Fullan and Suzanne Stiegelbauer’s book, The New Meaning of Educational Change (1991) analyzes hundreds of studies of educational change, and offers a variety of insights. Among these is the importance of sharing your vision with others—with fellow teachers, parents, students, and most certainly with administrators. Without their support it’s difficult to implement anything new. With their support, implementation of a new program can be an exciting and rewarding experience that invigorates the entire school community.