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A New Approach to Science Curriculum: The Pitsco Guides

Written by Bernie Zubrowski

In the early '90s, my last years at the museum, we received funding from the National Science Foundation to develop science curriculum for middle schools. This was an involved effort. Over the course of three years we pilot-tested topics ourselves in various museum programs and then asked Boston city schoolteachers to field-test the final eight topics. I drew heavily upon all of my previous curriculum development work in this new effort. Some of the topics were recycled from the already published trade books, such as Drinking Straw Constructions, Tops, and Yo-Yos. Other topics, included and refined during these three years, were extensions of a great deal of previous work.

The guides, eventually published by Pitsco Education, a kits and curriculum publishing company, are: Drinking Straw Constructions, Toys and Yo-Yos, Inks and Papers, Salad Dressing Physics, Ice Cream Making, Air and Water Movement, Water Wheel, and Wind Mills. All of these curriculum guides developed physical science concepts by using guided inquiry in which students are led through projects by means of starting questions that trigger new discussions about additional ideas and methods.

The pedagogical approach in the Pitsco guides differs from most curricula published over the past twenty years. A lesson started with a phenomenon or technological artifact from which the concepts emerged through a series of structured activities. This is in contrast to what nowadays is called a "backward design" approach where you first determine what concepts you want to teach, then enumerate ways of assessing the learning of those concepts and, finally, find activities that will bring this about. In the Pitsco guides the approach was more dialectical: I went back and forth among the phenomenon, the students, and the targeted concepts.

The Pitsco partnership ended, and a new publisher, Kelvin, resumed publication of the guides; that partnership, too, ended after a couple years. I still run into teachers—especially middle school teachers—and museum educators who continue to use my books, and some activities in the trade books have been adapted for use in museum exhibits.

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