Curriculum, Teaching and Learning: A Deeper Look at Our Approach

Over the course of an academic year, students engage in developmentally appropriate learning in the major science disciplines—-Earth and Planetary Sciences, Life Sciences, Chemistry and Physical Sciences. Each trimester typically includes an underlying and fundamental concept (to facilitate advanced thinking and learning), whether "systems," "adaptation," "model" or "change" using the science disciplines for content. The Innovation Institute's curriculum integrates the science content in an interdisciplinary manner to foster student ability to make linkages between scientific areas of study--often the intersection of scientific and technological innovation. Using an inquiry-based, depth approach, instructors facilitate student learning through active exploration and investigation using science methods and practices.

The curriculum ensures the application of these concepts using an engineering discipline (e.g., biomedical mechanical, environmental, materials, industrial, agricultural, electrical engineering, etc). We introduce the engineering element as a challenge, asking students to design/solve a problem related to the science concept they have been learning. Again, instructors facilitate student learning through active exploration and investigation using engineering methods and practices. This approach helps to complete the learning cycle from a concept to its application. It gives the students real-life examples of why science and engineering are important to their lives. At the Innovation Institute, our students become youth scientists, who hypothesize and investigate, as well as youth engineers, who problem solve and creatively innovate through design.

Our Geographical Context

Our approach draws from both the general critique of current science education, which should not be interpreted as our implicit criticism of day-school programs. We live in an area where science and engineering matter and are of interest to our families, community and economy. And, as educators, we seek to support our day-school colleagues to a meet a goal of offering the highest quality education to students.

Some express concern that science is taught in discrete themes, with insufficient attention to fundamental underlying concepts and cross cutting linkages, and with a lack of well defined learning progressions across grades that excite students to want to learn more, delve more deeply. The major concern might be captured best as: students are engaged in science and engineering “activities;” however, the activities’ purposes and connections to science or engineering are not made meaningful.

We have reached out to science middle and high school teachers to identify the most frequently misunderstood concepts by their students as well as explored the educational and cognitive psychology literature to understand the varying perspectives about how and when to teach certain concepts successfully. We have identified what are considered to be the fundamental concepts in each science discipline, integrated a variety of ways to make them accessible to students and built learning progressions of these concepts into each grade to reinforce and deepen understanding of them and excitement about them.

We have also taken a “position” that young people have rather sophisticated abilities to conceptualize, relate to and understand scientific concepts and properties. We believe that they are natural scientists and engineers. We also understand developmental readiness. We think that a larger barrier for very young people is language. So, as teachers, we need to be excellent listeners to recognize and understand student communications, rather than discount student abilities.

Drawing Upon Research about Area Day School Science Programs and Theories of Learning

Our curriculum content is based on our research of the current curricula used at the public schools in Belmont, Cambridge, Lexington, Lincoln, Needham, Newton, Waltham, Wellesley and Weston along with eight area independent schools. For a complete list, please contact us.

Given that students cover Earth and Planetary Sciences, Life Sciences, Chemistry and Physical Sciences disciplines in their day schools according to fairly predictable themes by grade bands (based on child development and philosophies of learning), The Innovation Institute’s objective is to deepen, strengthen and augment that learning. For example, children in kindergarten and grade one are typically introduced to earth science cycles (e.g., seasons and weather); ecosystems and habitats (e.g., living organisms and their needs); life cycles (e.g., frogs and butterflies); basic observable concepts of force and motion as in introduction to the physical sciences within the earth’s atmosphere;  the five human senses, which are fundamental to observation and knowing; and states of matter (e.g., liquids, solid and gases), a basic chemistry building block.

How these subjects are introduced differs from school to school and importantly the extent to which the underlying concepts demonstrated by these explorations are made explicit varies.

The Innovation Institute’s approach involves ensuring that the concept that the science activity demonstrates is being learning. We undertake informal formative assessments to ensure that this is the case. We also think that the integration of concepts into overall pictures, narratives and systems:

  • stirs student imagination;
  • helps them to grasp and describe the concepts; and
  •  stimulates their creative and critical thinking skills.

We believe in early demystification of “difficult” topics thoughtfully balanced by understanding the developmental readiness of students to learn certain concepts versus their properties only. We keep students curious and engaged, so that they are unafraid of the so called “tough” topic until they are ready to learn it. This is one reason why we introduce physics (e.g., gravity) and neuroscience early (nervous system, genetics, etc.). We want our students to believe in their capabilities to learn and not become intimidated when for a variety of reasons they might. The following two examples illustrate the ‘twist’ we take that (1) ensures concept understanding and (2) ensures the complementary nature of our program with a student’s day program.

To deepen and strengthen student understanding of the earth’s cycles, human life cycles, living things and their needs, and force and motion, we introduce an integrated and interdisciplinary narrative that includes exploration of the following questions:

  • What happens to life cycles (butterflies and plants) when altered by microgravity? This question enables us to increases student ability to understand fundamental physics concepts, introduce or deepen their understanding of life cycles and adaptation, and draw upon their imaginations and critical thinking skills to hypothesize and test.
  • To enhance student understanding of the five senses, we know that they are capable of more than observing what these senses help them to explore in the world around them. They can also understand the organ (i.e., the brain), which enables them to be student scientists. With this early introduction to the nervous system, we help lay the ground work for solid understanding of neurosciences.
  • How do the five senses change when one of those senses is impaired temporarily? This question, approached in developmentally appropriate manner, uses stories and experiments to make the neurosciences accessible. It makes the underlying concepts palpable and creates exciting learning opportunities that open doors of the imagination and critical thinking skills development.

Learning Methods and Practices of Science Inquiry and Exploration

We build methods and practices for observation, investigation, evidence collection, analysis, and argumentation that draw upon a student’s naturally curiosity and imagination into the teaching approach for each science discipline. Rather than offer a separate science methods course, the students will engage in these practices and methods as the lesson’s content stirs their curiosity and desire to learn. The methods and tools will become more sophisticated over time. So, a kindergartner might use a magnifier (i.e., hand-held lens), a first and second grader may use a field microscope and higher grade levels may use a variety of microscopes to investigate. While younger students may not be use compound microscopes, they will be introduced to them and the digital images produced by microscopes. We want to give them appropriate access and previews. We seek to introduce them to methods that enhance understanding, skills development and promote curiosity and continued interest.

Methods and Practices of Engineering Design

Our approach to engineering methods and practice learning is similar to our approach in science. We build problem definition, research, model building, testing and evaluating, modifying and improving into the teaching approach for each engineering discipline. We do not offer a separate methods class; we integrate the methods into the design challenge so that they emerge organically as part of the student problem-solving process. Just as children are natural born scientists, they are also intuitive engineers. We believe that it is incumbent upon us to facilitate this natural curiosity and cognitive ability at the youngest ages with process, practice, and methods that enhance understanding, skills development and promote curiosity and continued interest.