An Innovative College Curriculum Model for
Teaching Physical Science to Pre-Service Elementary Teachers


James Edward Lilly
Arkansas Tech University


Rudy F. Sirochman
The University of Southern Mississippi


The curriculum model discussed in this paper was designed to take into account the usually poor science background of the pre-service elementary school teacher. This curriculum model has its roots in the Learning Cycle method of teaching science. The learning cycle approach to instruction can be traced back to the Science Curriculum Improvement Study (SCIS) during the late 1950's (Atkin and Karplus, 1962). Since the 1960's many science educators such as Anton Lawson have successfully applied the learning cycle method in the pre-college classroom, and much research in favor of the learning cycle has been conducted ( Lawson, Abraham, & Renner, 1989).

We briefly describe the theory which drives the PIPS model and why we feel it is an effective way of introducing pre-service elementary school teachers to the concepts of physical science. We discuss the rationale for implementing a curriculum model of this type and the main ideas of the learning theory on which the model is based. We then illustrate how the theory is applied by discussing a section of the PIPS model, showing how it works in a classroom. Assessment methods must correspond to the teaching and learning philosophy, and therefore, we also discuss a possible assessment scheme.

A Good Time for Fundamental Curriculum Changes

Elementary school teachers, the backbone of our education system, assume the enormous responsibility of introducing our children to reading, writing, mathematics and science. It has been documented that of those four areas, science gets the least attention (Tilger 1990). Many teachers especially avoid teaching physical science because of their inadequate preparation in this area throughout their own education. The outcome to be expected from a lack of science education in the elementary years is that middle and high school students will demonstrate a low proficiency in science.

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) report stands as evidence that this is exactly what has happened in our schools (United States Department of Education 1996). TIMSS compared eighth grade American students to their international counterparts and showed that the US ranked 27th in mathematics and 17th in science compared to the 41 countries which participated in the survey. Linn (1987) stated the quality of the science training received beginning with the pre-school years affects how well citizens understand their increasingly complex world and how effectively they cope with change".

In response to problems revealed by the TIMSS report, educators, scientists, and mathematicians came together to explore ways of improving and enhancing science and mathematics education. The National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) is a major culmination of many of their efforts, and provides the framework for improvements in K-12 science education in the United States. These Standards provide a well-organized, spiral design enabling science educators to implement results of science education research in their classrooms.

There are many curriculum projects currently underway to implement, in the classroom, these Standards and results of research in science teaching. We describe in detail in this article one of the most recent of these efforts-- the Powerful Ideas in Physical Science (PIPS) project-- designed and developed by a sixteen-person group under the auspices of the American Institute of Physics and the American Institute of Physics Teachers. This project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is consistent with the ideas presented in the National Standards.

The members of the Development Group are: Dominique P. Casavant; Robert Beck Clark; Dewey I. Dykstra; Dorothy L. Gabel; Patsy A. Giese; Fred M. Goldberg; Sandra Harpole; Jack G. Hehn (AAPT Liaison); Bernard V. Khoury (Project Director); Donald F. Kirwan (Project Director); Gayle M. Kirwan (Project Coordinator); John W. Layman; Van E. Neie; Robert H. Poel (Program Manager); Wayne W. Sukow; Leon Ukens.

Theoretical Considerations of the PIPS Model

The PIPS project design has utilized the ideas in teaching and learning, which have been developed by some of the nation's leading researchers in Science Education. The following outlines the fundamental principles by which learning and teaching should be governed according to the PIPS philosophy.

All students have preconceived notions concerning the physical world as they perceive it the roles of students and teachers in a science classroom , and the nature of science These beliefs dictate the student's learning. As beings possessing preconceptions about their environment, students learn by interpreting what happens in their classrooms according to their existing knowledge and notions. Students will therefore construct meanings that may be totally different from what was intended by the teacher. For conceptual learning to occur, therefore, not only must the teacher and student understand these conceptions but they also must monitor the student's conceptual change. For learning to occur, the students must constantly check, compare, and monitor their ideas and be guided in this process by the teacher who understands the concepts the students need to construct. The PIPS model is consistent with these requirements.

A principal assumption of learning in the PIPS model is that students' construct their own concepts. This construction takes place when a need for learning exists in the student's mind, and this need arises when the student recognizes a weakness regarding his or her own existing ideas or model which explains a physical phenomenon. This in turn occurs when the student is faced with some physical phenomenon that is in conflict with or is not consistent with his or her current idea or model.

Activities in the PIPS curriculum are carefully designed to provide these physical situations that contradict the students' preconceived notions. The learning must be guided so that the students' need to change their own ideas and build new bridges to true understanding is continuous through the curriculum.

Pre-service teachers, as all students, must be actively involved in their own learning. This must occur if they are to truly understand and ultimately explain physical phenomena. We maintain that the PIPS curriculum model, when properly adapted to a classroom, will facilitate the students' own concept construction. In order to understand how the PIPS model promotes students' conceptual development through its activities, it is important to examine a sample unit, in this case, the Heat & Conservation of Energy unit. The PIPS model contains four units: Heat and Conservation of Energy; Nature of Matter; Light and Color; and Electricity.

A Sample Unit

Each unit is designed to reveal and account for students' preconceptions while guiding the students' conceptual change. Often students share common preconceptions regarding a given science concept and these common preconceptions are documented by science education researchers. Each of the four PIPS units consists of an instructor's version and a student's version. The instructor's version of the Heat and Conservation of Energy Unit begins with a discussion of the common student preconceptions and then a discussion of conceptions the students should develop. Common preconceptions are discussed, for example, for the ideas of equilibrium temperature, specific heat, and the difference between temperature and heat. The instructor's manual is an enhanced student manual with extensive comments throughout regarding common preconceptions, common problems, conceptual explanations, and hints and suggestions for teaching the material. See table 1 for a complete list of activities in the Heat and Conservation of Energy unit.

The Teaching Method

The large majority of the PIPS model consists of student investigations/activities. These consist of hands-on, inquiry-based learning methods that are designed to allow the pre-service elementary teachers, as students, to construct their ideas of physical science, a process called hypothesis formation. Some demonstration activities are also included when the use of multiple sets of equipment is not practical. All experiments and activities are designed to require a minimum of desk space and a minimum of expenditures for laboratory equipment. Students are able to set up and begin activities and experiments in a reasonable amount of time.

The goals of the student activities include: (1) determining student prior knowledge, (2) engaging the student groups and the whole class in lively discussions and debates regarding their predictions, preconceptions, and observations, and (3) presenting a situation whereby students encounter conflict with their existing conceptions, if incorrect, and are forced to confront these preconceptions and build new knowledge. Each activity builds on the previous one. The instructor rarely directly answers student questions, rather these questions are answered through activities and the discussions, both in their groups of three or four and as a class guided by the instructor. Consistent with the National Science Education Standards, the teacher's role is mainly to guide and facilitate rather than to lecture. Minimal lecturing can occur, however, depending on the instructor. See table 2 for an outline of the PIPS Five Instructional Phases.

Note that the five instructional phases are consistent with the three stages of the Learning Cycle. Phase 1, Eliciting and Elaborating the Student's Ideas, corresponds to the first stage of the Learning Cycle, which is the Exploration Stage. Phase 3, Resolving Discrepancies between Ideas, corresponds to the second stage of the Learning Cycle, which is the Conceptual Invention Stage and Phase 4, Applying the Ideas, corresponds to the third stage of the Learning Cycle, which is the Application Stage.

A Typical Class Period

A typical class period involves several of the above referenced instructional phases. If, for example, the students have just completed an activity during the previous class, they will start by discussing their conceptions concerning that activity. The discussion generally is structured in the following manner. The instructor will elicit from the students their predictions regarding a given situation and always emphasize that they supply their reasoning on which their prediction is based. This reasoning derives from the student's current ideas regarding the phenomenon. The value of the student's prediction is not always based on its correctness, but rather on how well the student's current ideas correspond to and support this prediction. The accuracy of a student's idea is more important near the end of studying a particular concept.

Next, in the discussion, the instructor might ask the students to state what they actually observed and if their current ideas or model fits these observations. Often, the observations are not consistent with their existing ideas and conflict occurs in the student's mind. The students often feel compelled to revise their ideas at this point. This process of model revision is key to this method so that the instructor should emphasize it during the discussion. At this point, the revised model does not necessarily have to be the accepted, correct scientific model, but at least must fit the student's preconceptions and observations thus far.

Remember that this method is guided inquiry. We should not expect the students to reinvent the laws of physics and chemistry, rather the instructor must help guide the students to an understanding of these laws. It is not uncommon for the class to hold more than one type of preconception of a given phenomenon, and the PIPS instructor's manual discusses the commonly occurring preconceptions in the four units. The instructor must skillfully guide the discussion to account for these differences in students' preconceptions, with the ultimate goal being that the students agree on a particular accepted concept. Students take notes regarding their own and their group members' preconceptions, and how well these fit the evidence, and their conceptual change. With this process, students learn not only the content, but also the inquiry method, which is central in the National Science Education Standards. The PIPS curriculum models for the pre-service teachers these inquiry methods of teaching, which in turn will promote the pre-service teachers' use of inquiry teaching methods in their future classrooms.

Typically, after the discussion, the students will begin another activity. They will first make some predictions about another situation and, as in the discussion, they are required to give their reasons behind their predictions. The prior activities as well as the students' preconceptions will influence these predictions. Students then actually make the observations and then revise their ideas. Sometimes a particular concept requires more than one class period of instruction, and sometimes a set of concepts can be covered in one class period.


The expectations placed on the students of a class implementing the PIPS model differ from those placed on students in more traditional physical science classes. Emphasis is on learning how to learn, not just on learning concepts. That is, because we want the students to construct their own ideas, they must be rewarded for developing a rational path leading from their preconceptions to the correct conception. This should include their ability to understand, monitor, and formulate their own preconceptions and conceptual change. However, keep in mind that ultimately, it is the accuracy of the students' ideas that is important. The activities, with the instructor's guidance, will lead the students toward correct understanding.

Multiple choice exams can be appropriate for testing "right" or "wrong" answers, but exams requiring longer responses are often necessary to assess the student's ability to think rationally in relation to their current evidence and observations. Given students' preconceptions of some phenomenon that they observe, they are assessed on their ability to logically revise their concepts. Students may differ in their concepts and their revisions of these concepts along the path toward a correct understanding of an accepted scientific concept.

To account for these nontraditional expectations, laboratory and activity write-ups and student portfolios can be used as a form of assessment in addition to examinations. A portfolio can reflect the student's ability to apply and extend their understanding in their collection of items related to the particular unit. A rubric can be used for each of these assessment types to structure the grading. In general, a rubric is a detailed set of criteria by which points are assigned. These rubrics can be designed to assess student awareness of preconceptions, conceptual change, conceptual understanding, and concept application. See table 3 for a sample rubric that can be used to assess student activity/lab write-ups.

To find out more about this curriculum model, contact the PIPS World Wide Web site:

Or write to:

Jean Edwards
One Physics Ellipse
College Park, MD


American Association of Physics Teachers. 1996. Powerful Ideas in Physical Science. College Park, MD: American Association of Physics Teachers.

Atkin, J. M. & Karplus, R. (1962) Discovery or Invention? The Science Teacher, 29(5), 45-51.

Lawson, A.E., Abraham, M. R., Renner, J. W. (1989). A theory of instruction: Using the learning cycle to teach science concepts and thinking skills [Monograph, Number One]. Kansas State University, Manhattan, Ks: National Association for Research in Science Teaching.

Linn, M. C. 1987. Establishing a research base for science education: challenges, recommendations, and trends. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 24:191-216.

National Research Council. 1996. National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Tilger, P. J. 1990. Avoiding science in the elementary school. Science Education, 74(July): 421-431.

United States Department of Education; National Center for Education Statistics. 1996. Third International Mathematics and Science Study. Washington DC: Government Printing Office.

About the authors...

James Edward Lilly is an Assistant Professor of Physical Science at Arkansas Tech University. He will also be working for Xavier University at New Orleans in the Division of Education in the fall of 2001. Dr. Lilly received his Ph. D. in Science Education with Physics Emphasis from the University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg, Mississippi. His research interests include the development of effective science content and methods programs for preservice elementary school teachers.

Rudy F. Sirochman is an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Southern Mississippi. He is also an affiliate of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education there. His main area of research is Physics Education Research (PER). Dr. Sirochman is currently working on an NSF funded project studying the affects of a molecular visualization and authoring application on student learning. He is also involved with a project to completely redesign the general physics labs at USM, to incorporate computers and give the experiments an inquiry base. He will also be evaluating the affects of these labs on student understanding and interest. His future research interests include understanding the role of logic in students' physics abilities.

Table 1

A List of Student Investigations/Activities Used in the Heat and Conservation of Energy Unit:

Investigation Hl: Melting Ice

Activity Hl.l: How long can you keep an ice cube?

Activity Hl.2: How quickly can you melt an ice cube?

Activity Hl.3: Ice Cube Melting II

Investigation H2: Telling Hot from Cold

Activity H2.l: Is it hot or is it cold?

Activity H2.2: Can you tell hot from cold?

Investigation H3: Conservation of Energy Model Development

Activity H3.l: Can you predict the temperature?

Activity H3.2: Charting Method for Mixes

Activity H3.3: More Mixing of Like Substances (Optional)

Activity H3.4: The Water Equivalent

Activity H3.5: Comparison of Materials

Activity H3.6: Flame Temperatures

Investigation H4: Change of State

Activity H4.l: Freezing and Melting

Activity H4.2: Freezing Water

Activity H4.3: Energy to Melt Ice

Activity H4.4: Condensing Steam

Investigation H5: Other Forms of Energy

Activity H5.1: What are some familiar forms of energy?

Activity H5.2: Introduction of the Energy of Motion and Position

Activity H5.3: Systems and Energy of Position and Motion

Activity H5.4: How general is the hypothesis?

Investigation H6: Disorder

Activity H6.1: Disorder

Activity H6.2: Disorderly Activities

Activity H6.3: Relationship Between Increasing Disorder and Probability I

Activity H6.4: Relationship Between Increasing Disorder and Probability II

Activity H6.5: Disorder and the Environment

Table 2

The PIPS Five Instructional Phases

Phase 1. Eliciting and Elaborating the Student's Ideas

Objective: To enable students to realize and express their own ideas.

Methods: Present an observable example of the phenomenon that eventually can be manipulated. Ask for a prediction of what would happen if some particular change is made and write why that prediction seems reasonable.

Personal Introspection

Students write, draw, or describe their own personal predictions and explain why they seem reasonable to them.

Objective: To discover their own raw ideas. Introverts may draw on their own internal resources, extroverts must stop and think before they blurt out their ideas.

Methods: Ask each person to write, draw, etc.

Clarification and Exchange - Students

Objective: To clarify their own ideas by articulating them to others and to discover alternative ideas. All ideas presented are critically examined.

Methods: Students engage in small-group discussion, some reporting back to the whole class.

Phase 2. Testing and Comparing the Ideas with Nature

Objective: To compare the student's beliefs with nature to discover if they make sense.

Methods: Small groups test the predictions, observe and record the results, identify and record matches and differences with predictions, discuss and check new ideas that arise, and report back to the class with notes, drawings, charts, or other visual aids.

Phase 3. Resolving the Discrepancies between Ideas

Objective: To generate and test any new or modified ideas about the phenomena that make sense in the light of discrepancies that occurred between the predictions and the actual experiments.

Constructing New or Modified Ideas

Objective: To generate new ideas or modify existing ideas and to explain the discrepancies.

Methods: The whole group discussion evolves from reports of small groups on their experimentation results. Discussion must focus on the ideas and not be addressed to the instructor for validation or approval.

Evaluating New or Modified Ideas

Purpose: To test whether to believe the newly constructed ideas.

Methods: Experimenting and further discussion continue.

Repeat the Previous Two Steps until Ideas Appear to Stabilize

Comparing the Ideas with Established Convention

Objective: To match newly developed ideas with approaches and views of scientists.

Methods: Instructor provides additional reading, filmstrips, videos, etc.

Phase 4. Applying the Ideas

Objective: To become more familiar and comfortable with the newly developed ideas through application to familiar and novel situations.

Methods: Instructor assigns personal writing, problem solving, project work, and journal work.

Phase 5. Reviewing and Summarizing of Ideas

Objective: To become aware of changes in ideas and familiarization with the learning process. To allow students to reflect upon the extent to which their ideas have changed, why they decide to change them, and the reasons that the new ideas are plausible.

Methods: Instructor-assigned group discussion, personal writing, review of personal journals, presentations based on discussion and review of journals.

Table 3

Sample Grading Rubric for Written Material

Points Writing Mechanics Ability to formulate and state preconceptions Ability to use preconceptions to explain and predict Development of concepts
1 greater than 4 grammar/spelling errors per page (non-typed) Preconceptions are not stated No demonstrated ability to use preconceptions to explain and predict No concepts are developed
2 3-4 grammar/spelling errors per page (typed) Preconceptions are stated but are not clear and are incomplete Demonstrates use of preconceptions to predict and explain less than ½ the time Concpets are developed less than ½ the time
3 1-2 grammar/spelling errors per page (typed) Preconceptions are clear but are incomplete Demonstrates use of preconceptions to predict and explain more than ½ the time Concepts are developed more than ½ the time
4 No grammar/spelling errors (typed) Preconceptions are clear and complete Demonstrates clearly and completely the ability to use preconceptions Conceptual development is complete and clear

Back to the EJSE