Ideas about designing science programs

Brenda J. Gustafson and Dougal MacDonald explain how education researchers advised one Canadian province on a new elementary science program  

A FEW YEARS AGO, the Alberta (Canada) Ministry of Education announced it was time to review and rewrite the provincial K–6 science program. The existing program was 11 years old and reflected ideas popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. We were asked to support the program rewrite by reviewing and summarizing recent research studies in K–6 science education that could inform the overall framework and content of the new program.

What we know
● Science program content should be connected to children’s lives and community contexts.
● Children’s existing ideas may be strongly held and serve to remind us that new ideas can be difficult to grasp.
● Scientific inquiry should include opportunities to investigate questions, gather evidence, and construct defensible explanations.
● Teachers are key to program success and children’s learning.

Selecting research

We used a best-evidence approach to provide a balance in what could have been an overwhelming task. This approach involved identifying and using leading peer-reviewed English language science education journals as the main source of articles, consulting international standards documents, and identifying research written about our local context. In all, we reviewed 1,020 research articles published between the years 2000 and 2006, and selected 167 articles that addressed K–6 science education issues.

As with many ideas presented in research articles, complete consensus among researchers did not exist. However, there were ideas that enjoyed considerable support and we identified those that should be given due consideration by the program revision team. Fundamental to these ideas was an agreement amongst researchers that science (and technology) infuses economic, social, and political life. For the many students who will not seek scientific careers, the program revision team needed to think about how to help children transform science information into a working knowledge they could use in personal and civic contexts – a challenging task for the team.

Maximizing the potential of science programs

We recognized that science programs need to be designed to help children:

  • Make connections (i.e., connect science to everyday life situations, connect science to technology, connect science concepts).
  • Understand the nature or character of science (e.g., some scientific knowledge is relative, stable, and durable whereas some knowledge is less substantiated and subject to change).
  • Participate in scientific inquiry (e.g., investigate and explain the results of investigations).

Overall, many researchers wrote about the need for programs to help students begin to develop scientific literacy. Scientific literacy was a term assigned a variety of definitions but most commonly was seen as the understanding of science that people need in order to live more thoughtfully and effectively within society and in relation to the natural world.

In order to achieve these goals, the program revision team was advised to:

  • Include learning experiences that help children develop scientific literacy within a science/technology/society (and environment) learning approach.
  • Include ideas about the nature of science and relationships between science and technology – and embed these ideas in an inquiry approach to science.
  • Include an interconnected framework of concepts (statements of science knowledge), skills (e.g., communicating, observing), and attitudes (e.g., persistence, open-mindedness) that children need to understand and develop in order to engage in scientific inquiry and a lifetime of learning.
  • Connect program content to the culture of children by helping them apply science to public, social, and community purposes.

Learning science

Over the past 30 years, research has increasingly been framed by a constructivist view of learning. In these studies, researchers have worked to identify students’ misconceptions of science concepts, understand how children construct science ideas in classrooms, study how language shapes their ideas, and conceptualize teaching and learning science from a social perspective. These ideas continued to influence the studies we reviewed, showing the importance of incorporating them into the revised program.

Important ideas highlighted for the program revision team included:

  • Children have many existing ideas (some correct and others incorrect) about science topics prior to classroom instruction and these existing ideas influence their understanding of classroom lessons.
  • Children’s existing ideas can be strongly held and resistant to change.
  • Children tend to retain their existing ideas until they replace them by what they perceive to be better and more useful ideas.
  • Language is an integral part of doing science and constructing understanding.

Teaching science

In the last decade, scientific inquiry has remained an important organizing framework for many science programs. Similar to many terms, what is meant by scientific inquiry has changed over time and currently includes children a) investigating scientific questions, b) providing evidence to support their explanations, c) connecting their explanations to existing scientific concepts, and d) justifying their explanations. Researchers argue that teaching science through inquiry is meant to mirror the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world, gather evidence, and formulate explanations. Children who learn science through inquiry have more positive attitudes towards science and can gain insight into the professional practice of science.

Suggestions about how to teach scientific inquiry emphasize that children need science programs that provide them with opportunities to:

  • Participate in classroom activities that allow them to investigate and analyze scientific questions.
  • Construct meaningful understandings through having time to revisit concepts within a variety of contexts and study concepts in depth.
  • Engage in argumentative reasoning that allows them to practice justifying claims, argue different views, and begin to develop an understanding of how to evaluate scientific evidence.

Supporting teachers

A critical idea throughout the research articles we reviewed was that teachers are key to program success and children’s learning. It is relatively easy to write about how things should be but it is quite another to implement these suggestions in today’s busy, diverse, and demanding schools. Many researchers wrote about the kinds of knowledge science teachers need in order to do a good job – and the list was daunting. Science teachers need to know science content, how to make these ideas teachable to children, and how to help children see that there is some pay-off to learning science. In the end, we want children to understand that learning science has the potential to help them engage intelligently and with deep understanding of issues related to their community and the natural world.

Clearly, teachers need to be supported in this important endeavor and researchers agreed that teachers must be provided with systematic, ongoing, collaborative professional development and appropriate teaching resources to help them develop the knowledge needed to teach science effectively.


There were a variety of important messages for the program revision team:

  • The program should be organized to help children make helpful connections between ideas and their world.
  • The program should contain a limited amount of topics in order to allow children the time needed to investigate questions, sort through ideas, and construct explanations.
  • The program should include opportunities to think about the nature of science.
  • The program implementation should be accompanied by ongoing, collaborative teacher professional development.

About the authors

Brenda J. Gustafson is a professor of elementary science education and Dougal MacDonald is a full-time sessional instructor in the Department of Elementary Education at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. They have written the book A Conceptual Approach to Teaching Children About Science, Technology, and Society and have published research articles about elementary science education and design technology with children.

Further reading

Gustafson BJ, MacDonald D, and d’Entremont Y (2007) Elementary Science Literature Review: Final Draft. Alberta: Alberta Education. ht

AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) (1993), Project 2061: Benchmarks for Science Literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Driver R, Asoko H, Leach J, Mortimer E, and Scott P (1994) Constructing Scientific Knowledge in the Classroom. Educational Researcher, 23(7), 5–12.


June 2010