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Private Universe Project in Science

Background Information

History of A Private Universe

In 1985, Matthew H. Schneps and Philip M. Sadler of the Science Education

Department at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics created A
Private Universe, a video program for science teachers. The program opens
with a segment in which newly minted Harvard graduates, dressed in caps
and gowns, discuss their theories for the causes of the seasons. The Harvard
grads, intelligent and articulate, speak eloquently about their ideas, which
are, for the most part, erroneous. Through interviews with high school
students and teachers, and scenes of classroom activities, A Private Universe
demonstrates how a student's preconceived ideas and beliefs can pose
critical barriers to learning science, whether the learning environment is a
public school or a prestigious private college.

Encouraged by the success of the original video, the Harvard-Smithsonian

Center for Astrophysics continued the work of A Private Universe by creating
the Private Universe Project. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the
Annenberg Media Math and Science Project, and the Smithsonian Institution,
the Private Universe Project has produced a series of interactive
teleconferences for teachers, an instructional television series, and a public
broadcast series, all of which examine current research on how children
learn science and the implications of that research for the classroom.

Origin of the Private Universe Project in Science Workshop

The nine sessions of the Private Universe Project in Science are the edited
versions of the nine interactive teleconferences broadcast in the fall of 1994.
These teleconferences reached thousands of teachers at sites across the
United States, in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Costa Rica. The
teleconferences were created to accomplish the following:

• To gather feedback from K-12 classroom teachers on the video

materials and to extrapolate ideas and suggestions from the feedback
to use for a future public television broadcast series on science
• To introduce current educational research on how children learn
science, including a learning theory applicable to all ages;
• To share classroom strategies that teachers are using in response to
this research.

The remote site participants were asked to fax, telephone, E-mail, and mail
in comments; to send examples of their students' work; and to answer
specific questions regarding the content of each teleconference. We received
thousands of responses, many of which have been incorporated in the
written materials as well as in the final version of the broadcast series on
science education.

NOTE: Because the workshop tapes are edited versions of live, on-air
interactive teleconferences that took place in the fall of 1994, it is important
to note that the audiobridge (telephone connection to the studio from the
sites around the country) no longer exists and feedback is no longer being

Format of the Workshops

The teleconferences have been adapted for use as professional development

workshops, which can be viewed independently or in sequence. Some
elements of the live, on-air teleconferences (i.e., studio site discussions and
telephone calls from remote sites), have been retained in the workshop
tapes when they are relevant to the topic being discussed. All discussions
are built around rare and difficult-to-obtain footage of students discussing
their ideas and the question of how students assimilate science concepts.
Each program is structured as an experiment that investigates how a
student's ideas change or do not change in response to a given teaching

1. Each workshop focuses on an educational theme:

• Workshop One: How can teachers learn to elicit student ideas?

• Workshop Two: How can teachers map the scope of student ideas?
• Workshop Three: What are the differences between hands-on and
minds-on science education?
• Workshop Four: When should students be expected to learn abstract
fundamental concepts?
• Workshop Five: How can we teach a science concept that contradicts
personal experience?
• Workshop Six: How might a teacher create a constructivist lesson plan?
• Workshop Seven: What are the risks and classroom issues in trying out
this "new" teaching strategy?
• Workshop Eight: How can teachers identify and implement realistic
strategies for science education?
• Workshop Nine: How can we enlist the help of education leaders to
encourage constructivist approaches in the classroom?

2. Each workshop explores the themes listed above by showing examples

from a specific grade level and posing a broad question within a specific
science discipline. However, K-12 science teachers should benefit from each
of these programs.
Workshop One
Subject: Astronomy Age: Grade 9 & College
Question: What causes the changing seasons?

Workshop Two
Subject: Photosynthesis Age: Grade 7 & College
Question: Where does the weight of drywood come from?

Workshop Three
Subject: Electricity Age: Grades 11, 12 & College
Question: Can a light bulb be lit with a battery and wire(s)?

Workshop Four
Subject: Chemistry Age: Grades 3, 6, 8, & 10
Questions: What is air made of? What is between the particles of air?

Workshop Five
Subject: Vision & Light Age: Grades 5, 8 & College
Question: If a mirror is mounted flat against the wall, how long must it be for
you to see your whole body in it?

Workshop Six
Subject: Gravity & Friction Age: Grade 7
Question: Can a machine be built that will operate forever?

Workshop Seven
Subject: Environmental Science Age: Grade 4
Question: What causes an apple to rot?

3. Each workshop consists of the following components:

• Video clips of interviews with students and teachers as well as

examples of classroom teaching that illustrate the science education
issues being discussed;
• Presentation of current science education research;
• Activity discussion: Studio and remote site discussions of the science
education issues raised in the video clips with a STOP TAPE AND
DISCUSS instruction for the viewing workshop audiences;
• Phone calls (via audiobridge) from remote sites;
• Explanations of the specific science concept being explored;
• Examples of feedback from previous workshops;
• Activities to be completed either during or prior to a workshop.
4. Each workshop includes a particular cast of characters:

• The Host, Nancy Finkelstein, who introduces and provides the

continuity for each workshop;
• The Content Guide, a science teacher educator who is well-versed in
the specific science being addressed and who leads the discussion
throughout the workshop;
• The on-Site Teachers, six-eight teachers and teacher researchers in the
studio who participate in on-site discussions; and
• The remote Site Teachers, those who are watching the teleconference
by satellite and who communicate to the studio via audiobridge, fax, or