Changes Coming to AP Science Program

Written by David Bender

The College Board is revising its AP Science courses so that they are more student-centered.

The changes are being made in order to help students develop the 21st century skills of critical inquiry and reasoning. The goals of the course revisions include helping students learn to think like scientists and making the courses reflect college-level expectations.

The changes to the AP Biology curriculum will be initiated during the 2012-2013 school year, while the changes to the AP Chemistry curriculum will be applied during the 2013-2014 school year.

A significant modification to the courses is a reduction in the breadth of required material that must be covered in favor of increased depth and skill development.

“The purpose of the redesign is to give teachers the time to delve more deeply into the content,” Seaholm AP Biology teacher Linda Wichers said.

Another important change to the curriculum is the introduction of student-designed laboratory experiences. Less class time will be spent taking notes and doing preset labs so that students can actually engage in the scientific process.

“Students will be asked to research their own questions, construct their own hypotheses, conduct their own experiments, and present their findings to their peers…[teachers will] make sure the students have the knowledge and tools they need to safely conduct investigations in the lab setting,” said Deborah Davis, the Director of College Readiness Communications at the College Board.

In a College Board press release on February 1, 2011 James W. Pellegrino, distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the changes will provide a new “framework [which] emphasizes the types of reasoning about scientific ideas and principles and their use that is at the heart of the scientific enterprise.”

“The labs are designed to make students think more like scientists,” Wichers said.

Innovative, student-centered changes to teaching such as these are happening across the country. Eric Mazur, a Harvard Physics professor and creator of the Peer Instruction learning method, is critical of the emphasis on lecturing in teaching. He favors teaching methods that are more student-centered such as his Peer Instruction system, during which students discuss and work through questions together rather than only taking notes.

“Sitting passively and taking notes is just not a way of learning. Yet lectures are 99 percent of how we teach!” Mazur said in the March 2012 edition of the Harvard Magazine.

The changes to the AP Science curriculum intend to increase student-centered learning by having students actually apply scientific techniques to answer questions rather than simply taking notes and following preset lab procedures.

“Learning by doing is more meaningful than learning by memorizing,” Birmingham Public Schools Science Coordinator Jennifer Gottlieb said. “I am thrilled that students will be expected to design their own experiments.”

Not all evaluations of the changes are quite as optimistic.

“{I am] somewhat worried about the student-designed portion of the labs because students in high school are not necessarily aware of the tools available for a college-level experiment,” Wichers said.

Several students were even harsher critics of the changes to the lab philosophy. “I think that it’s ridiculous,” current AP Biology student Reid Davison said. “I don’t think students know enough about what they are doing to make their own labs. It will be complete chaos.”

“Our time is already strained and the last thing our science curricula need is a procedure that will take more time while conveying less information,” current AP Biology student Cullen O’Keefe said.

While the changes will not directly impact non-AP science courses, the trend set by these changes will likely alter the way science is taught within all science courses.

“Over the next couple of years, more of our science classes will be moving toward this type of model, if they are not already there,” Gottlieb said.

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