Science in the City: Meeting the Needs of Urban Gifted Students with Project Clarion

by Lori C. Bland, Ph.D, Steve Coxon, Kimberley Chandler Ph.D., and Joyce VanTassel-Baska Ed.D.

Long before children knock on the kindergarten door… forces have already been put in place that encourage some children to “shine” and fulfill their potential in school and life while other forces stunt the growth and development of children who have just as much potential.  The cost to the nation in terms of talent unfulfilled and lives of promise wasted is enormous (9)

Gifted urban children encounter many forces that derail the development of their full potential. A report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and Civic Enterprises found that more than a million children in poverty rank in the top quartile academically, but few of these children will find adequate opportunities to fulfill such potential in urban schools (18). The same report found that only about half of these students will continue as high achievers by fifth grade, and they are twice as likely to drop out of school as their middle class, same ability peers (18) . Multiple debilitating factors impinge upon urban gifted children’s abilities to develop to their full potential. Although much research suggests that focusing on students’ strengths yields higher academic achievement (e.g., 14), most teaching models focus on the academic deficits that our urban children face, completely ignoring their strengths.  The National Research Council (12) has provided convincing evidence that expertise develops over time and through intentional practice.  What if we started the expertise development process earlier for urban gifted children by concentrating on their interests and strengths?  The focus of this article is on how we can help to ignite a fire of interest in science in urban gifted children and nurture scientific habits of mind beginning in the primary grades while providing specific strategies to mediate gaps in understanding and skills.

Project Clarion was a five-year Javits project funded by the United States Department of Education, and was initiated by the Center for Gifted Education (CFGE) at the College of William and Mary (16).  Project Clarion’s purpose was to “scale up” rigorous science curriculum with broad populations of K-3 students.  Project Clarion has been implemented and researched in Title I schools.

Project Clarion’s goals were to:

  • Use instrumentation sensitive to low socio-economic learners for identification and assessment of learning.
  • Implement, refine, and extend research-based science concept curriculum in grades K-3.
  • Develop and implement professional training models for teachers, administrators, and broader school communities.
  • Conduct research on short-term and longitudinal student learning gains as well as the mechanisms that promote the institutionalization of innovation through scaling up.
  • Project Clarion’s products included eight science curriculum units for K-3 learners, pre-post curriculum-embedded performance-based assessments, a professional development program, and research results.  Table 1 (next page) lists each of the units.

The Clarion Models Clarion was developed based on the Integrated Curriculum Model which provides for equal emphases on the teaching of rigorous content, process/product development, and concept development (17).  Each unit includes multiple teaching and learning models that provide the instructional scaffolding to integrate concept development, contentattainment, and process/product development.  Problem-based learning acts as the foundation for helping students to understand how science is conducted by scientists (15) .  The students learn that science is an iterative and integrated

Table 1
Grade(s) Macro-Concept Science Domain Unit Title
K-1 Change Earth and Space How the Sun Makes Our Day
 K-1 Change Life Survive and Thrive
 K-1 Change Physical Water Works
1-2 Systems Life Budding Botanist
2 Change Earth and Space The Weather Reporter
2-3 Change       Physical      What’s the Matter?
3 Change Earth and Space Dig it!
3-4 Systems Physical Invitation to Invent

process using The Wheel of Scientific Investigation and Reasoning (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,10,13). Pre and post performance-based assessments were developed to measure students understanding of the macro-concept, key science concepts, and science investigation.

A systematic professional development program was key to the successful implementation of the units and assessments.  A training model was developed for Project Clarion.  Figure 1 provides an outline of Clarion training.  (We will also include more information about the Project Clarion curriculum, such as the Wheel of Scientific Investigation and Reasoning, the performance-based assessments, and professional development in subsequent newsletters.  Stay tuned.)

Figure 1

        Clarion Research The units were rigorously field-tested in heterogeneous classrooms to ascertain whether the curriculum and assessments could be used to benefit all learners, including learners in Title I settings and from backgrounds that potentially “stunt growth and development” (9).  The units were intricately designed to develop deep understanding by focusing on mutually supportive skills and concepts.  Participants included 3,462 students in 48 experimental classrooms and 43 comparison classrooms in six Title I schools in three school districts.  Students who participated also included a range of ability levels as measured by the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (11).  Some of the highlights from this 5-year study include:

  • Clarion produced positive gains in conceptual understanding, science content    attainment, and the scientific process.
  • Clarion improved critical thinking.
  • Clarion science instruction had greater impact on long-term gains in science when the instruction began in kindergarten or first grade.
  • The performance based measures and rubrics were effective measures of growth in gifted learners.
  • Clarion acted as an equalizer for traditionally underserved and under-identified students after receiving instruction with Clarion units over multiple years, they performed as well on science achievement measures as students from the majority culture
  • With professional development and support from building and district administrators, Clarion effected change in the way teachers conduct science lessons.

Excerpted by Dr. Lori C. Bland with the permission of Prufrock Press Inc. www.prufrock.com .

Bland, L.C., Coxon, S., Chandler, K.L., & VanTassel-Baska, J. (2010). Science in the City: Meeting the Needs of  Urban Gifted Students With  Project Clarion. Gifted Child Today, 33(4), 48-57.


Science in the City

1. Center for Gifted Education. (2008a). Water works: A physical science unit for high ability learners in grades K–1. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press

2. Center for Gifted Education. (2008b). What’s the matter? A physical science unit for  high- ability learners in grades 2–3. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

3. Center for Gifted Education. (2010a). Budding botanists: A life science unit for high-ability learners in grades 1–2. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

4. Center for Gifted Education. (2010b). Dig It! An Earth and space science unit for high-ability learners in grade 3. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

5. Center for Gifted Education. (2010c). How the sun makes our day: An Earth and space science unit for high -ability learners in grades K–1. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

6. Center for Gifted Education. (2010d). Invitation to invent: A physical science unit for high-ability learners in grades 3–4. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

7. Center for Gifted Education. (2010e). Survive and thrive: An Earth and space science unit for high- ability learn ers in grades K–1. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

8. Center for Gifted Education. (2010f ). Weather reporter: An Earth and space science unit for high- ability learn ers in grade 2. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

9. Hodgkinson, H. (2007). Leaving too many children behind: A demographer’s view on the neglect of America’s youngest children. In J. VanTassel-Baska & T. Stambaugh (Eds.), Overlooked gems: A national per spective on low-income promising learners: Conference proceedings from the National Leadership Conf erence on Low-Income Promising Learners (pp. 7–20). Washington, DC: National Association for Gifted Children and College of William and Mary.

10. Kramer, S. P. (1987). How to think like a scientist. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

11. Naglieri, J. A. (1991). Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test. San Antonio, TX: Harcourt Assessments.

12. National Research Council. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC:National Academy Press.

13. Paul, R., & Binker, A. J. (1992). Critical thinking: What every person needs to survive in a rapidly changing world. Dillon Beach, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

14. Sternberg, R. J. (1998). Teaching triarchically improves school achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 374–384.

15. VanTassel-Baska, J. (1998). A national study of science curriculum effectiveness with high ability students. Gifted Child Quarterly, 42, 200–211.

16. VanTassel-Baska, J., & Bracken, B. (2004). Project Clarion: An integrative curriculum scale-up to promote scientific conceptual understanding in promising young children. Williamsburg, VA: The College of Wil liam and Mary, Center for Gifted Education.

17. VanTassel-Baska, J., & Stambaugh, L.T. (2006). Comprehensive curriculum for gifted learners. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

18. Wyner, J. S., Bridgeland, J. M., & DiIulio, J. J., Jr. (2009). Achievement trap: How America is failing. millions of high achieving students from lower-income families. Retrieved from: http://www.jkcf.org/assets/ files/0000/0084/ Achievement_Trap.pdf