What is PULSE?

PULSE is an interdisciplinary curriculum (1) that uses environmental health (2) as a context for units. The design is constructivist in nature, using a learning cycle approach (3) and was designed using current curriculum design methods (Understanding by Design) (4). National standards in the four disciplines (science, social studies, language arts and math) play a central role in the design (5).

1. PULSE is an INTERDISCIPLINARY curriculum rather than an integrated curriculum. (An integrated curriculum might be contained within one classroom.) The aim is to create a curriculum that can be used in a variety of school settings (it must be able to taught within traditional disciplines as well as a more fluid setting) that allows and encourages students to synthesize lessons and develop conceptual understanding that they can apply to the world around them.

Part of the purpose of the PULSE project is to assess the impact of an interdisciplinary approach on student attitudes especially as regards science.

2. PULSE uses ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH as a CONTEXT. Environmental health and biomedical issues are historical and ongoing and we believe capture the student’s attention, they are issues that students can be passionate about.

Part of the purpose of this project is to assess what the impact of using environmental health as a context is for increasing scientific literacy.

3. PULSE is CONSTRUCTIVIST in nature. The lesson set up of PULSE is based upon a constructivist approach to learning and uses the learning cycle described below. Students come to the classroom with a personal understanding about the world around them. Lessons should engage students to ask questions about the topic including what they may already know. Lessons allow students to explore these questions and ideas. Students should have opportunity to articulate and explain their understanding based upon their earlier explorations. Finally, students should be given opportunity to apply their understanding in another setting. An ongoing feature of this learning cycle is self and teacher assessment of understanding.

4. Each learning cycle (engage lesson, explore lesson, explain lesson and apply lesson) addresses a big idea for a discipline. Each big idea is central to a student’s understanding of a larger concept. Understanding the big ideas helps a student develop comprehension that allows them to address the driving question behind a unit. For example, “ Migration and migrants are a central feature in American History. Why and how are some migrant populations marginalized? How might this marginalization impact a population’s environmental health and impact American society on a larger scale?”

To establish what the driving question is we use ‘backwards design’: What do we want students to be able to do at the end? What do the standards say? How will the students demonstrate their understanding? What concepts and skills do students have to have? What exercises will teach to those concepts?

5. National Standards have to play a central role in our design; they provide a framework and credibility to our lessons.

PULSE Example
Big Picture – High School
A universal theme that encompasses all 4 grades.
Understanding Environmental Health & Biomedical Issues
A specific theme per grade (9th, 10th, 11th, 12th) that is primarily reflected in the curricula of the science and social studies classes. Typically, language arts act as the bridge between science and social studies. Due to the nature of mathematics curricula, mathematics provides optional supportive lessons that can be taught in another discipline.
10th Grade: Grubs, Germs and Genes - During this year the predominant theme is Revolution
Four quarter themes per grade that support the year-long theme. Each quarter represents 9 weeks of study. Each quarter ends with a major project component.
Dawn of New Revolutions (4th quarter theme)
Big Idea
Each quarter, within each discipline, several big ideas are covered. Each big idea is addressed with a series of lessons that constitute a learning cycle. A learning cycle is the opportunity to become engaged in, explore, explain and apply the understanding behind the big idea.
Why do wars occur? (Social Studies Big Idea)
Individual lessons that support the ‘Big Ideas’ in Science, Social Studies, Language Arts, and Mathematics.
What are you eating? (Science lesson)

Curriculum Design Team
Drawing upon multiple resources Rachel Hughes, Sara Chavarria, Kirstin Bittel, and Catharine Honaman have, as a team, developed the specific approach used in the PULSE curriculum design.

Rachel has led the team in developing the particular approach used, specifically incorporating a learning cycle into the ‘Understanding by Design’ approach to design (see the big idea charts). Sara articulated the various tiers within the PULSE curriculum into the graphical format (see above). Together Rachel, Kirstin, and Sara worked on the use of the lens (link) to represent a unit’s themes at multiple levels. As a team, all members revised initial design models so that they might work for all disciplines.

Particular thanks is due to M. Jean Young for providing focus and direction in the use of learning cycles and to Marti Lindsey, PI for overseeing curriculum development.

PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

1996-2007, The University of Arizona
Last update: March 7, 2007
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