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Big ideas in science

An interesting approach to curriculum design is based around the ‘Big Ideas’ of Science’ (Harlen et. al, 2010).

The project aimed to respond to “students’ perceptions of science as a fragmented collection of facts and theories of little relevance to them, by building ideas into a coherent picture of how the world works.”

The team developed ten big ideas of science, and four ideas about science. Each idea is mapped through to an age-appropriate level, which can help with progression of the ideas, in breadth and depth.

Big Ideas of Science

  1. All material in the Universe is made of very small particles.
  2. Objects can affect other objects at a distance.
  3. Changing the movement of an object requires a net force to be acting on it.
  4. The total amount of energy in the Universe is always the same but energy can be transformed when things change or are made to happen.
  5. The composition of the Earth and its atmosphere and the processes occurring within them shape the Earth’s surface and its climate.
  6. The solar system is a very small part of one of millions of galaxies in the Universe.
  7. Organisms are organised on a cellular basis.
  8. Organisms require a supply of energy and materials for which they are often dependent on or in competition with other organisms.
  9. Genetic information is passed down from one generation of organisms to another.
  10. The diversity of organisms, living and extinct, is the result of evolution.

Big Ideas about Science

  1. Science assumes that for every effect there is one or more causes.
  2. Scientific explanations, theories and models are those that best fit the facts known at a particular time.
  3. The knowledge produced by science is used in some technologies to create products to serve human ends.
  4. Applications of science often have ethical, social, economic and political implications.

However this approach is not without its critics, namely that chemistry seems to be represented less than the other two sciences. Nevertheless, it is a useful addition to the process of how progress can genuinely be planned.

In schools where primary and secondary students are taught in the same establishment, as well as clusters of primary and secondary schools working together to plan a cohesive approach, using the “Big Ideas” may well be a highly pragmatic starting point for curriculum design.


What are your views of these Big Ideas? Do you feel anything is left out?

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Curriculum Design for Secondary School Science

National STEM Learning Centre

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