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I like my son’s new science textbook

The school has started and I have not yet met my son’s teachers, but he brought home his science textbook yesterday. Of course I had to take a look….and I really liked it! It is North Carolina Edition of McDougal Littell “Science” for 8th grade.

While I am still stunned that all of science is bunched together this late in schooling (I had physics, chemistry, earth science and biology as separate subjects from 5th through 12th grade every year), but at least the way this is bunched looks good. It is divided into five units, each taking, I guess, about two months to cover. The first unit is earth science, second is biology, third is oceanography, fourth is chemistry and fifth is again biology.

The earth science unit covers structure of Earth and plate tectonics; the geological time scale, rocks and fossils (connection to biology); and natural resources, including energy sources from oil to wind power.

The water unit covers water cycle, fresh water, frozen water and underground water; fresh water as a resource; ocean systems, currents, waves and tides; and oceanic environments (connection to biology) and resources.

The chemistry unit covers atomic structure, elements and the periodic table; chemical bonds and compounds; chemical reactions and energy; and carbon-based molecules (connection to biology).

The second biology unit covers the cell structure and function; biochemistry, energy and membrane transport; cell division; growth, development and health; and bacteria, viruses and protists.

But it is the first biology unit that I was really interested in, as it covers evolution, classification and population ecology. I have to say that I was very impressed with the evolution chapter. It is long, it is clear and explains evolution very well. It explains the scientific method, defines the scientific (as opposed to colloquial) meaning of ‘theory’, tells the story of Charles Darwin, and explains natural selection in a nice, easy-to-grasp way. Nothing wishy-washy about it.

I am just as happy with the classification and ecology sections as well, except that I am not so sure about their continued use of the Six Kingdoms division of Life – is the Three Domains system still that new and controversial, or did the authors think that the old division is easier to teach?

I particularly like the long chapter on evidence for evolution. It is divided into three parts: fossil evidence, biological evidence (i.e., comparative embryology, anatomy, physiology and behavior) and molecular evidence. For the latter, they printed a sequence of a gene, placing the human and mouse versions of the same gene one below the other and highlighting nucleotides that differ. When I looked closely, I realized they chose to use the sequence of Clock gene! I felt right at home. That sequence has been known for only about ten years now. We certainly did not know anything about this back when I was in school.

I’ll have to get in touch with the science teacher to see how closely the curriculum follows the book – I’ll be very happy if it does. At least here in Chapel Hill there should be no fear of any parents complaining about evolution for dogmatic reasons.


  1. #1 DRR
    August 30, 2006

    I teach 8th grade science in North Carolina out of another textbook that I like, though could stand to be improved in the evolution areas.

    I don’t know how your son’s teacher is planning on running things, but I can tell you that evolution is in the state standards, but generally only as it related to geologic history. The district in Chapel Hill may choose to include it elsewhere, but I know that we don’t really deal with it until the last 6 weeks or so of the year, and then it is not covered in nearly as much depth as I would like.

  2. #2 kelly_vaughan@mac.com
    September 6, 2006

    Another notable thing is that the unit is FIRST in the textbook. Many texts (esp. bio texts) put it last or near the end, where it is easy to just kind of… never get around to.

  3. #3 Mark Montgomery
    September 6, 2006

    My kid came home yesterday from middle school to complete a lab report. It was a stupid lab: “let’s make tie-dye shirts and ‘hypothesize’ about how our designs will come out. They we’ll write it up as if we used controlled variables and did several trials, which we didn’t, but who cares, wasn’t that just great FUN!?”

    I’m appalled.

    But I’m also appalled by the fact that the best science education material in the country are not published by the big textbook companies. The best science curriculum in the country is the reform curriculum that was funded by the National Science Foundation. And yet, according to some research I learned about at the alst NSTA convention, only 7% of US schools are using the stuff. Districts dutifully go back to the trough of books pushed by the major publishers, including McDougal Littell.

    I’m glad you like your son’s book. But there is even better stuff out there. As a scientist, I’d bet you’d be even more impressed by the stuff that actually teaches science as inquiry, rather than a bunch of static information that needs only to be memorized.


  4. #4 coturnix
    September 6, 2006

    Thank you. How do I find out about the best textbooks and how does one go about lobbying the school system to adopt them?

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