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), Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 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, including the recent addition of Michigan and Connecticut earlier this month (Michigan and Connecticut Adopt NGSS – Why It Matters So Much and Why Science Teachers Are Rejoicing).
In this post we’ll talk about what they are, how they’ll affect your child’s education at school and at home, and where you can find more information about them.
The big idea of NGSS is this: focus on a limited number of core science ideas over a long time period (Kindergarten-12th grade) to create a foundation for students to better understand the world we live in.
By focusing on a limited number of concepts, these standards should help simplify what has become a convoluted, disparate, plug-and-chug style science education sure to make any talented educator wince. The goal is for science classrooms across the country to be more project-focused, hands-on, and student-directed. Ultimately, classrooms should more closely mimic how scientists and engineers work in real life.
These goals appear to be scientifically substantiated. In a 2014 randomized controlled trial funded by NSF, and published by the SRI International (How Curriculum Materials Make a Difference for Next Generation Science Learning), students who were taught using NGSS-aligned, Project-Based Inquiry Science™ (PBIS) scored 8% higher on end-of-year tests than students taught using traditional instruction and were significantly more engaged in classroom activities. Unlike the traditional scientific method taught in most schools today, the study also found that students taught using PBIS did well regardless of their gender or ethnicity. The results of the study went viral in education media online as many teachers excitedly shared the good news that there is, indeed, a better way to reach students in STEM (Can Project-Based Learning Close Gaps in Science Education?).
What’s “The Big Challenge” and What’s NGSS Got To Do With It?
To demonstrate how students work using project-based, NGSS-aligned curriculum, It’s About Time®‘s (IAT) production team put together two, short videos featuring PBIS teacher, Sharon Hushek, and her students at Ben Franklin Elementary School. In the first video, Hushek explains how students are introduced to “The Big Challenge” that they will be investigating (the way scientists do in real life). Take a look:
The next, two-minute video delves deeper into how Hushek’s class investigates factors that affect soil erosion.
In this sample activity, students are expected to answer the following questions:
— What is the relationship between particle size and erosion?
— What is the relationship between slope of the land and erosion?
How does this relate to the new NGSS standards? For starters, the video displays the hands-on nature of the new curriculum. Students are asked to investigate a scientific idea and then challenged to measure, quantify, and describe factors influencing the phenomenon. They are encouraged to think critically and deduce reasonable explanations themselves.
Let’s look at how this lesson aligns with the new NGSS. The curriculum is divided into three dimensions:
1. Disciplinary core ideas – These are the tools students use to make sense of the world. They can be applied to describe the behavior of multiple phenomena. In the sample lesson above, the disciplinary core idea is: how do macroscopic particles interact with one another under different conditions?
2. Science and engineering practices – This is related to real world science and engineering. How do scientists approach erosion? What questions do they ask and what tools would they use to investigate? In the video above, students are asked to show how particle size impacts travel velocity and displacement.
3. Crosscutting concepts – Broadly speaking, crosscutting concepts are ideas that apply across scientific disciplines. There are 7 in total. They are:
— cause and effect
— structure and function
— stability; and
— change energy and matter patterns
In the sample lesson above, crosscutting concepts include stability and change (how does a landscape change with weather patterns?), cause and effect (what’s causing soil to move?), and systems (how does the composition of the soil, rain, and slope affect what’s happening as whole?).
How is this different from science taught in most classrooms today? Most teachers use the scientific method as the teaching model. Here’s what students are taught about it:
1st – Make an observation
2nd – Ask questions
3rd – Formulate a hypothesis
4th – Conduct an experiment
5th – Analyze data and draw conclusions
After being presented with the method, students are often tested to identify the dependent and independent variables, analyze graphs and charts, or recite the steps verbatim.
Everything exciting about science — the investigation, the hands-on problem solving, the real- world application — is removed. What’s left is boring. It’s neither theoretically compelling, nor practically applicable. From what I’ve seen working as a private science tutor in New York City, when science is learned in this way, students are turned away from the subject completely.
Unlike the scientific method, the NGSS aim to excite students about science. Instead of presenting ideas abstractly, the new model adds context by emphasizing real-world application.
K-12 Science Education Continuity
Another landmark feature of NGSS is their emphasis on the continuity of education. NGSS clearly outlines goals from year-to-year. For example, in A Framework for K-12 Education, the manual from which the new NGSS standards were created, a second grade student studying physical sciences is expected to know:
“Different kinds of matter exist (e.g., wood, metal, water), and many of them can be either solid or liquid, depending on temperature. Matter can be described and classified by its observable properties (e.g., visual, aural, textural), by its uses, and by whether it occurs naturally or is manufactured. Different properties are suited to different purposes. A great variety of objects can be built up from a small set of pieces (e.g., blocks, construction sets). Objects or samples of a substance can be weighed, and their size can be described and measured. (Boundary: volume is introduced only for liquid measure.)”
And a fifth grade student is expected to know similar concepts but at a deeper level:
“Matter of any type can be subdivided into particles that are too small to see, but even then the matter still exists and can be detected by other means (e.g., by weighing or by its effects on other objects). For example, a model showing that gases are made from matter particles that are too small to see and are moving freely around in space can explain many observations, including the inflation and shape of a balloon; the effects of air on larger particles or objects (e.g., leaves in wind, dust suspended in air); and the appearance of visible scale water droplets in condensation, fog, and, by extension, also in clouds or the contrails of a jet. The amount (weight) of matter is conserved when it changes form, even in transitions in which it seems to vanish (e.g., sugar in solution, evaporation in a closed container). Measurements of a variety of properties (e.g., hardness, reflectivity) can be used to identify particular materials. (Boundary: At this grade level, mass and weight are not distinguished, and no attempt is made to define the unseen particles or explain the atomic-scale mechanism of evaporation and condensation.)”
One of the most intriguing aspects is the continuity from kindergarten through 12th grade. Each year, the complexity of the ideas increases.
Joe Krajcik (Director of Create for STEM Institute, and one of the lead writers for the NGSS) says that “if [the students are] really going to develop understanding at a deep level, you have to develop it across time… At each step it’s getting a little bit richer, a little bit richer.”
Instead of learning discreet new ideas, students are taught one core set of principles which is explored progressively deeper. Importantly, this applies as much from lesson to lesson as it does from year to year.
For example, in the sample IAT lesson, students are challenged to work together to solve a problem. In lesson (1.1), they design a boat from aluminum foil to hold 6 keys and float for 20 seconds. In lesson (1.2), they discuss their boat design and iterate, collaborating with their fellow students to improve their boats performance. In lesson (1.3), they read about the science of boat design and to use what they learn to further improve their design. In final lesson (1.4), they present their findings to the class and questions and discussion are encouraged.
Overall, these lessons center around the theme: How do scientists work together to solve problems?
More than an arbitrary progression, they mimic real work. Students design, discuss, iterate, and then present their findings in a similar way that scientists conduct experiments, discuss their findings with their research group, improve their experiments, and then present their findings in a journal, or to their peers.
Reinforcing NGSS with Students At Home
“Studies show that family involvement is one of the biggest predictors of success in school. That’s why parental involvement is so important. Seek opportunities to explore science at home and in the community with your child. Encourage them to keep asking questions, just like scientists. Let them know you don’t have all the answers, and together try to find them.”
In the sample boat building exercise, parents can discuss disciplinary core ideas like forces, gravity, buoyancy, and density (If unsure about these concepts, even a simple google or youtube search can lead to a fruitful discussion). They can engage their kids about science and engineering practices such as how scientists collaborate, iterate, and discuss the progression of the project. And they can talk about crosscutting concepts like stability and change, cause and effect, and systems.
The integration of the three dimensions should help both educators and parents more effectively collaborate. The increased attention to real world application and the focus on deeper knowledge is a welcome change from the scattered and often diffuse practices which persist now. Learning science should be fun and engaging for students and parents. The health of the science education system depends on how well teachers, parents, administrators, and students work together.
Parents can do family science activities like participating in citizen science adventures and incorporating fun activities during family vacations like geocaching. Try a few holiday science activities why students are off from school over the next couple of weeks (Holiday Science Projects).
IAT often shares great activities for students to try at home (like STEM Wars: The F=m(a) Awakens). And sites like Science Buddies offers investigative, NGSS-aligned science activities for students of all ages.
Additionally, the NSTA offers parents a guide to understanding and implementing NGSS with students at home (NGSS Parent Guide Q&A) as well as a great Resource Center with tools, books and tons of information.
When it comes to support for parents in understanding and implementing NGSS, there’s no shortage of resources and tools! Offering students real-world, inquiry-based science learning that they’ll enjoy can be done at school and at home!
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