If a student is taught to think like a scientist, they are more likely to want to become one. This is the idea behind the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), designed to replace rote memorization with active learning that encourages students to pursue STEM disciplines. This shift is a new dawn for scientific education and recent events suggest the change is here to stay!
NGSS are a set of standards designed to bring K-12 science education into the 21st century. They were developed by 26 states along with partners across the nation like the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and released in 2013. Since the release, many states have voted to implement the standards in their school districts.
“The Next Generation Science Standards was written by teachers from throughout our nation, as well as people from higher education and the business world. There are 30 teachers from throughout our nation that served as primary writers. There are probably 6-8 faculty members from universities and colleges, as well as a handful of people from the workforce (engineers, for example) — on this committee. This was a collaborative effort. This was a document written by teachers to take the vision in the [K12] Framework and make it more concrete.” — Joe Krajcik (Professor of Education at Michigan State University, Director of Create for STEM Institute, and one of the lead writers for the NGSS, @krajcikjoe)
This past week offered exciting news for NGSS supporters. On November 4th, the Connecticut State Board of Education unanimously approved adopting the standards in their state. On November 10th, the Michigan State Board of Education also voted to adopt NGSS. With the addition of these two, one-third of states have officially adopted the standards. Interestingly, many of the states involved in forming NGSS have not formally adopted it.
Educators in Michigan, Connecticut, and beyond are rejoicing. They took to Twitter to show their support:
An article by Education Week followed the news. In it, Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education, Dianna R. Wentzell, talks about why she’s excited for NGSS in her state. Explains Wentzell, “With new science standards and a renewed focus on STEM careers, we not only set students on a path to success, we set up Connecticut for long-term economic growth.”
Meanwhile, Michigan’s State Board of Education President, John Austin, echoed the praise, saying “[The NGSS] is a really important application of science, which is also helpful to get more young people saying this is interesting, exciting, and important and I can see why I’m learning this. They also send a clear message that Michigan is serious about being the top science and engineering state, preparing the talent to solve the problems of the future right here in Michigan.” (Michigan Has New Science Standards for K-12 Students, Michigan Radio)
Project-Based Learning: the Key That Unlocks Learning and Engagement
Why exactly are so many teachers excited about NGSS being adopted in more states? Because the NGSS offers a new framework and way of teaching science that puts students at the center of their learning, and gives students the tools to question, research and discover scientific principles the way real-world scientists do — and that’s exciting!
The standards are a set of student performance expectations which highlight three chore elements:
- Disciplinary Core Ideas (science specific concepts in the life, earth, and physical sciences)
- Science and Engineering Practices (the practices of engaging in scientific investigation to answer questions, and engineering design to solve problems)
- Cross-Cutting Concepts (conceptual ideas common to all areas of science)
These standards encourage the use of project-based learning (PBL) to engage students using real-world problems. The projects students participate in mimic real-life scientific investigation and puts scientific learning into context, helping them to ask and answer the question, “Why is this concept important?” Instead of relying on memorization, students explore concepts and utilize problem-solving skills through hands-on, collaborative learning. Here’s an example of how PBL works:
“Currently, PBIS is one of the few curricula available that are fully aligned with the new science standards, and its structured activities emphasize core practices such as carrying out investigations, constructing science explanations and developing and using models. For instance, one physics project poses the driving question, “Why should I wear a helmet when I ride my bike?” – an inquiry that’s compelling because it connects directly to kids’ everyday lives. To answer it, students work on a series of activities leading them to explore related questions that build their knowledge of the principles of force, motion, acceleration and gravity, so that they can grasp how a helmet would protect their heads from the impact of a potential collision.” (Can Project-Based Learning Close Gaps in Science Education?, by Infie Chen)
Another example of how NGSS-aligned, real-world problems are being used to engage students can be found in this Slideshare presentation: 8 Awesome Project-Based Chemistry Challenges That Engage Students!
Project-based learning is not only fun and relatable for students, research shows that students learn more effectively through problem-based inquiry learning than traditional science curriculum. A National Science Foundation (NSF) funded study published in 2014 sent rumblings throughout the education community with its findings indicating that students taught using the NGSS-aligned, PBIS curriculum not only tested better than students taught using traditional curriculum, but it also leveled the playing field for students traditionally underrepresented in STEM, such as girls, minorities, and students in low income areas — these students tested just as well as other students using NGSS-aligned PBIS. (Can Project-Based Learning Close Gaps in Science Education?, MindShift)
New Science Standards Address Real-World Challenges
In Michigan, adopting NGSS means students will be taught engineering as early as kindergarten, according to Michigan Radio. Engineering will be integrated into existing classes to illustrate how over-arching scientific concepts can span multiple subjects. Journalist Gabrielle Emanuel (@gabrieman) notes, “This would mean that when kindergartners study weather, they may also figure out how to insulate an outdoor dog house, or when middle schoolers learn about force and motion, they may build a model bridge that can support a certain amount of weight.”
There’s a lot to be said for integrating engineering as a foundation for science learning. Schools like Clearway School (a school for children with learning disabilities) in Newton, Massachusetts, are seeing great success with incorporating NGSS engineering concepts. We recently visited Clearway, along with Congressman Joe Kennedy (@RepJoeKennedy), to witness first-hand how students who have been traditionally underrepresented are now excelling in STEM. Clearway teacher, Becky Holloway, explained to us the significant changes in her students:
“After students go through the Engineering the Future™ course, I see significant growth in their ability to work with peers to solve problems in class. We are always working on social skills, and this course is set up to really help students learn the skills they need to work collaboratively. Another takeaway from the course for students is that failure is part of the process and can lead to important learning. I also see them asking questions in different ways, both about class content and how things in their world work in general. They seem to gain a sense that their ideas matter and could make a difference.” — Becky Holloway (Do Politicians Really Care About STEM Education?)
Peter Rosen, Clearway’s Educational Director, underscores the importance of giving students an NGSS-aligned, engineering foundation for science learning:
“We use Engineering the Future — it’s typically the first science class students take in high school. We think it sets up our students beautifully for future science classes. They will see concepts in this class with a hands-on approach with a lot of partner work and group work which is so critical to meeting our students’ needs. When they have a physics class later, they’ll revisit [and understand] the concepts.”– Peter Rosen (Peter Rosen on Why Clearway School Students are Succeeding in STEM)
This real-world, inquiry-based approach to teaching science is having a profoundly positive affect on how educators teach, and on how students learn.
What Adopting NGSS Means for Science Teachers
Although many teachers are expressing their excitement over the new standards, other educators are skeptical. These standards can represent a big change from the norm for teachers who are accustomed to the traditional science curriculum. For many teachers, new standards means more work, even though the work pays dividends in terms of student learning and engagement. Just ask science teacher and curriculum specialist, Gary Curts, whose personal journey from traditional science teaching to NGSS, PBL teaching helps and inspires teachers through implementation in their classrooms (Gary Curts on Why PBL Active Physics & Active Chemistry Is a Game-Changer).
Luckily, the creators and supporters of new science standards want to make transitioning to them as easy as possible. Teachers looking for help can take advantage of tools like videos and e-books, for example, Science for the Next Generation: Preparing for the New Standards, on the NSTA’s website to learn the new standards. NSTA also offers a helpful guide for implementing NGSS in schools as well as regular webinars, extensive professional learning and events. They share important implementation processes like organizing a curriculum review team and developing a timeline for implementation.
And let’s not forget that, when it comes to sharing new learning techniques and ideas for implementation, a teachers personal learning network becomes a powerful support system and learning platform. In addition to tapping into personal learning networks at events and in social media (like #NGSSchat, #scitlap, #PBLchat, and #scistuchat on Twitter), science educators are creating fun ways to help other teachers implement NGSS. Middle school biology teacher, Tom McFadden, and his NGSS rap videos are such a hit, he’s been featured in the New York Times and on the Meredith Vierra Show and other media outlets (“Science with Tom” Goes Full STEAM Ahead on NGSS with Rap Videos).
Having a plan can make the NGSS transition feel more like baby steps instead of a giant, overwhelming leap. This is key to getting teachers and parents on board with new curriculum. Professional development is also key to adopting the new science standards, as teachers must learn to teach very differently than the way they were initially taught and need continuous support.
One adoption success story is New Jersey, another state that recently adopted the standards. Administrators and teachers from one district, Warren Township Schools, share how they are implementing the change. Warren schools plans training workshops for teachers to attend. Science teachers in grades 6-8 will attend workshops on planning and executing scientific investigations, engineering design and technology, developing and using models, and planning NGSS-aligned lessons.
So far, their teachers and administrators are taking the challenge in stride and embracing change (a prerequisite for success). Kelly Brown (8th grade, science teacher who attended the NGSS training) notes, “[The new science standards] focus on student-centered learning, which is the direction we have already taken. There are a few changes that we are in the process of making, like teaching the students to be more evidence-based in their investigations and communicating results based on their evidence. We like how the NGSS involve the engineering practices and the cross cutting concepts of language arts and math, preparing our students for jobs that have not yet been created.”
With the recent adoption of NGSS in Connecticut and Michigan, more states will likely follow soon, opting to teach student-centered, inquiry-based science to prepare students for the 21st century world.
The future of STEM education looks promising. Change is happening!
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