The Core Ideas of Science

By Sean Carroll | July 29, 2011 12:08 pm

A National Academy of Sciences panel, chaired by Helen Quinn, has released a new report that seeks to identify “the key scientific practices, concepts and ideas that all students should learn by the time they complete high school.” An ambitious undertaking, but a sensible one. At the very least, efforts like this serve to focus attention on what’s important across a wide variety of K-12 curricula, and at best it could help prod schools (or states, really) across the country into teaching more coherent and useful science to kids. Here’s the web page for the report, a summary (pdf), and the report itself (pdf, free after you register).

So what are the core ideas of science? They are all listed in the summary report, and divided into three categories. The first category is “Scientific and Engineering Practices,” and includes such laudable concepts as ” Analyzing and interpreting data.” The second category is “Crosscutting Concepts That Have Common Application Across Fields,” by which they mean things like “Scale, proportion, and quantity” or ” Stability and change.” It’s great that the organizational scheme emphasizes ideas that stretch across disciplinary boundaries, but there is definitely a danger that the resulting items come off as a bit vague. The secret to success here will be how they can be implemented, with concrete examples.

The third category is the nitty-gritty, “Core Ideas in Four Disciplinary Areas,” namely “Physical Sciences,” “Life Sciences,” “Earth and Space Sciences,” and “Engineering, Technology, and the Applications of Science.” (Math is not within the report’s purview.) And here are the actual core ideas proposed for the physical sciences:

  • PS 1: Matter and its interactions
  • PS 2: Motion and stability: Forces and interactions
  • PS 3: Energy
  • PS 4: Waves and their applications in technologies for information transfer

These mostly seem like good choices. If you’re wondering where the universe and solar system fit it, remember that “Earth and Space Sciences” is a separate category. The crucial fact that matter is made of atoms appears in PS 1, and the forces of nature appear in PS 2. Personally I think that it would be nice to have something more explicit about the relationship between the idealized physics-teacher’s world and the messy real world — entropy, friction, dissipation, complexity, etc. But you can’t keep everyone happy.

Having “waves” in there is a great idea. This was an addition to the other points, all three of which were spelled out in related previous reports. From a strictly conceptual point of view (although perhaps not from a pedagogical one), I would love to see “waves” replaced by “fields” — a field is an entity which takes a value at every point in some space, while a wave is simply a ripple in a field. There is a very fundamental duality between particles/objects and fields/waves, which would be nice to make clear at an early stage. (Mathematically speaking, the worldline of a particle is a map from the real line to spacetime, while a simple field is a map from spacetime to the real line. But you don’t have to go that deep.) Fields are not intrinsically an advanced concept; temperature is a field, as is the velocity or any other feature of the air, as is the altitude of a topographical map, or of course the height of ocean waves. Not to mention gravity, electricity, and magnetism. Someday maybe this will be seventh-grade stuff.

Whether or not these concepts and the grander conceptual scheme actually turn out to be useful will depend much more on implementation than on this original formulation. The easy part is over, in other words. The four ideas above seem vague at first glance, but they are spelled out in detail in the full report, with many examples and very specific benchmarks. (“By the end of grade 8. All substances are made from some 100 different types of atoms, which combine with one another in various ways.”) Sadly, the U.S. is burdened by a laughably inefficient system of local control of public schools, so any form of large-scale change is extremely difficult. But it will never happen if we don’t try.

  • Tom of the Sweetwater Sea

    I think the scientific method is extremely important and evaluating advertisements (commercial and political).

    National Standardized Testing would be a way to influence what is taught at which grade.


  • Viper


    For a demonstration that teaches students about arguing from evidence and showing how such evidence supports or does not support a particular explanation, see this video:

  • Sam Gralla

    This reminds me of a story a rather eminent relativist once told me. He said a friend–who was well educated, having an advanced degree in a non-science subject–asked him to explain the basics of what he did. So the eminent relativist began by saying, well, Newton’s description of gravity is an inverse square law. At this point the friend stopped him and said, “wait a minute, isn’t a square the same when you turn it upside down?”

    You’d think we could cover this in high school =).

  • Brian

    I really like the example of thinking of temperature as a field. But now I’m wondering how accurate that is, though. I think of temperature as more of an emergent property of particles taken en masse. From that perspective, it seems like you could only treat temperature as a field if you don’t look too closely.

  • Jochen

    The core idea of science is to find out the truth. Albert Einstein said “Meine wissenschaftliche Arbeit wird durch ein unwiderstehliches Verlangen vorangetrieben, die Geheimnisse der Natur zu verstehen, und durch nichts sonst (My scientific work is motivated by an irresistible desire to understand the secrets of nature – by nothing else)”.

  • Hephaestus

    Only a field theorist would say that defining temperature and velocity as fields is not intrinsically complicated and should be taught to seventh graders.

  • Sean

    You only think that because you weren’t taught it in seventh grade.

  • AJKamper

    As someone else who was not taught this at all… explain, please, how temperature or velocity could be a field.

    Thanks in advance. :)

  • Sean

    A “field” is just a function; i.e., something that has a value at every point. In the atmosphere, there is a temperature at every point; therefore, temperature is a field. Likewise the velocity of the air. Or humidity, pressure, etc. On the surface of the earth, there is a number called the “altitude” at every point; that is also a field. Likewise the height of water in the oceans. If the ocean-height field oscillates in a certain way, we call that a “wave.”

  • Rob


    Standardized testing is a good way to get rid of learning completely, if it’s done poorly. You need to teach concepts, not how to perform well on a test.

  • Matt Strassler

    @Brian — you said “I think of temperature as more of an emergent property of particles taken en masse. From that perspective, it seems like you could only treat temperature as a field if you don’t look too closely.”

    But that’s true of lots of things. Sound waves in air or in metals — waves on a string or in the ocean — these are all very effectively understood using field theory. Yet not one of those fields is truly continuous; each is an emergent phenomenon. It is often wise not to “look too closely”– one should look only as closely as necessary and useful. This’ is a powerful lesson of modern science, and it too could be taught in 7th grade.

  • Fermi-Walker Public Transport

    Speaking of waves/fields, I heard that there is at least one first year university course
    for physics students that reverses the usual order of topics. That is it begins teaching about waves , then E&M, next comes the usual topics of particle kinematics and dynamics, and finally concluding with wave-particle duality and the rest of modern physics. I forgot where this done. Does anyone know where, and how successful the approach has been ?

  • spyder

    Perhaps before we leap directly into the schools, we might consider demanding these standardized outcomes in our teacher education curricula. Reform must begin in the graduate programs that prepare our future teachers. Continuing education is a wonderful concept, but it doesn’t provide the deep foundation that a potent science education curriculum could provide. Remembering a few weeks back, the discussion on non-academic jobs for physics graduate students, encouraging some of these finest minds to enter into the k-12 teaching worlds may be more helpful than imagined.

  • kirk

    Good general outline but until this is an online curriculum (like California is attempting without much success now) this is just another dead tree textbook project. The other point is that a nation-wide curriculum (interactive, customized,…, open source) or a state curriculum like Texas – teh crazies will never, never, never stop until they have a majority on the SBOE and the USBOE and unring the bell.

  • Matt

    I bring to your attention Project 2061 and The National Science Education Standards. Bot of these are getting near their 20th birthday. Or might we consider the Woodshole Conference. Aside from small differences, conceptual ideas have been revisited far to often in what students need to learn. But there is where the trails end, since after that the discussion leads to how we summatively measure student knowledge and not how we successfully help students to learn these core concepts. There continues to be this call for standardized testing, but the most prominent standardized tests correlate more with socioeconomic background and parental education than with subject knowledge.

    I can’t find the source right now, but early IQ tests were written in the military such that whites would have a higher score than non- whites. The scores on these standardized tests were used for promotions.

    In my education research I used standardized tests that have been studied and verified to not select out for any group but select for concepts. These are only part of the data I use. There a also observations, interviews, open- ended exercises, etc. And we never tell the instructor what or how to teach the concepts. We create an instrument that aligns with the core concepts that the teach believes she is teaching and we try to measu whethere the students are internalizing those concepts. In the end the best measurer of student learning is the teacher that works with these kids every day. That teacher knows how much the student has grown and how much they have internalized the ideas.

    By the way, if you think about temperature as energy, which it is, then it is much easier and mire correct to treat temperature as a field and particles as information carriers for that field.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I don’t know about this. I watched The Core and I do not consider it a good source of sound science.

  • Brian

    @Matt Strassler: Interesting — thanks for the response. I think I may have a slightly better understanding of fields now.

    As for myself, I wish I had been taught field theory, period, at whatever point in my education.

  • James

    You went from waves to fields – fair enough – but as an example of a field you focused on temperature, which doesn’t really wave, rather it diffuses (Unless you meant heat waves, I suppose, but then still I would vote for seismic Love waves)

    I would suggest that the important stuff for kids should be about concepts and ideas, but of course they need to be illustrated by examples. In maths, at about that age, we spent lots of time learning how to factorise quadratic equations, and how to find the inverse of a matrix. I can report that this has been of no use whatsoever in my adult life.

    A useful thing would be an understanding of how to make decisions based on the tools that we have available: evidence and reason. Unfortunately an appreciation of how science works, and what a “proof” means, and statistics in general, is sadly lacking in my experience, and yet essential when people come to make up their minds about climate change, MMR vaccine safety, nuclear power, gay penguins, or whatever may be in the news at the time.

  • Julien

    No category devoted to the human sciences? No single topic devoted to economy and social psychology? Well… result of this kind of omission can be seen at the congress right now. Enjoy the next avoidable economic meltdown.

  • diogenes

    Anyone who thinks field theory should be taught to seventh graders hasn’t taught seventh graders, or probably anyone except grad students. Reminds me of the tremendous failure of the “new math” fad of the 60s and 70s.

  • Barry

    Surely the key concept we should be pushing in Science education is 1. model/hypothesis making, 2. model/hypothesis testing 3. model/hypothesis changing? This is the essence of Science. The 4 ‘fields’ outlined above for physics are all well & good as ‘useful general chunks of physics’, but underpinning whatever your favorite field is should be: how do we think phenomenon X works, how do we test our model of how X works & depending on the results, how do we change our model?
    That’s what we want to teach *every* kid. Every citizen should understand this stuff. It would eliminate much of the anti-science misunderstanding & BS in our societies. Science education in schools (US & European) is a hodge-podge of stuff drawn from all over, reliant on rote learning, with little thought given to context or the essential underlying principle: develop model, test model, alter model, repeat.

  • tim Rowledge

    “Standardized testing is a good way to get rid of learning completely, if it’s done poorly. ”
    And it is never, never done well.

    It’s an example of what I’ve come to call the Benchmark Problem. It is very difficult to design good tests of performance, even with the best of intentions. People obsess on single values of merit – the 0-60 time of a car, the MegaWonderBenchmark figure for a new computer, the breast size of a porn star, or the results in a standardised school test. Single values never tell you much. Add in political or monetary pressures and you might as well forget it.
    Schools end up teaching nothing but how to get a good score in a warped, pointless test. Car makers aim at meaningless acceleration regimes (midrange acceleration like 100-160 is more interesting) and on and in.
    Meaningful measures are hard to find and hard to make good sense of and so nobody much even tries.

  • wds

    You specifically mention entropy and friction as not included, but isn’t entropy pretty fundamental to any introductory Chemistry class? Likewise for friction in mechanics. How do you explain why you need to peddle on a bike without using the concept of friction (for example)?

  • iolo system mechanic

    “I would love to see “waves” replaced by “fields” — a field is an entity which takes a value at every point in some space, while a wave is simply a ripple in a field.”

    I agree 100% with that comment, however when people hear the term “fields” they probably think more about electric and magnetic fields and dont equate that with waves.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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