Everyone is Talking About Doing Science

By Tina Manzer

To date, 17 states* and the District of Columbia have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards. If you sell to schools in those states, you might notice more orders for things like microscopes, temperature probes and rainfall gauges; and fewer orders for science-facts flashcards and workbooks. Not to say that students aren’t learning their facts. Using the standards, they learn them the way scientists do: by analyzing, critiquing, creating and, in general, “doing” science.

In 2014, a year after the standards were released, an efficacy study funded by the National Science Foundation revealed that students taught using project-based inquiry curriculum aligned with the Next Gen Science Standards (NGSS) substantially outperformed students taught using a traditional science curriculum.

“I think the most important reason for developing new standards is that we have actually learned a lot about the way children learn,” notes David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), “and children learn science best by actually doing it.” Project-based learning not only helps make the facts “stick,” it’s also fun. That may be the most significant argument in favor of change. If the standards can get more students genuinely interested in science – passionate even – their future will be brighter, and America will be better equipped to compete globally. Currently, that is not the case.

• An article in Tech Insider points out that there are not enough students graduating in the U.S. with degrees in a STEM field to keep pace with the rest of the world.

• In fact, the U.S. is ranked number 38 in terms of graduating science majors, according to a 2015 science, technology and industry report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The ranking is based on the percentage of science, technology, engineering and math degrees awarded per capita, making it a fair comparison among countries with different populations, notes Tech Insider.

• In the U.S., about 40 percent of college freshmen say they intend to major in a STEM field, but only 16 percent actually get a degree in one, according to Tech Insider.

• In 2014, about a third of high school students who took the ACT test were ready for college-level science, says the NSTA.

Taking action

In 2009, a consortium of 26 states and The National Research Council, NSTA, The American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve initiated development of new science standards. Like Common Core, NGSS was not federally sponsored. Achieve, the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that helped develop Common Core, managed the writing process.

The first step, led by the National Research Council, was “to get the science right.” A panel of scientists, engineers and science educators envisioned what science education should look like in the U.S. Their vision included a map, of sorts, of skills and knowledge benchmarks that should be reached as students progress from kindergarten through high school. “A Framework for K-12 Science Education Practices, Crosscutting Concepts and Core Ideas” was released in 2011.

By the following spring, a draft of the Next Generation Science Standards was ready, and in 2013, the final standards became available.

“They promise to help students understand why it is that we have to know science, and help them use scientific learning to develop critical thinking skills – which may be applied throughout their lives, no matter the topic,” explained Joseph Krajik, professor of science education at Michigan State University, and a member of the standards’ writing team.

Lest you think that there are too many standards floating around, the Common Core State Standards and the NGSS should work well together. “The NGSS framework recognizes the importance of literacy to scientists and engineers, and embeds reading, writing and other communications skills into the practices,” wrote Eric Brunsell on edutopia.com. A science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Brunsell added, “The emphasis on literacy should overlap very nicely with the Common Core English and Language Arts Literacy Standards for Science and Technical Fields.”

Great expectations

The NGSS framework calls for students to engage in eight scientific and engineering practices; the same ones scientists and engineers use on the job like asking questions, defining problems, and analyzing and interpreting data.

In addition, it lists seven “crosscutting concepts” (like “cause and effect” and “structure and function”). They’re designed to help students connect knowledge from all the disciplines and develop a coherent and scientifically based view of the world.

Then the framework defines 13 core ideas in four science disciplines: physical, life, earth and space. “The core ideas stretch across K-12 and are central to understanding each discipline,” writes Brunsell.

Finally, the framework takes it a step further by identifying component ideas for each core idea. The components must be learned in progression, and boundaries identify concepts not developmentally appropriate for specific grades. This extra level, which adds consistency and logic to the framework, is missing in most other standards documents, says Brunsell.

In practice, NGSS reverses the sequence of traditional science instruction. Instead of the teacher presenting facts first, for instance, then basic principles followed by student experiments, the experiments, data collection and analysis start the learning, with students figuring out facts and concepts over several days by “doing” science.

The impact on us

“The Next Generation Science Standards are poised to bring big changes to the print, online and multimedia resources demanded by schools,” wrote Sean Cavanagh, in the summer issue of EDmarket’s essentials. Cavanagh, the senior editor of EdWeek Market Brief, reports that the richer content called for in the standards – along with their emphasis on using local and regional examples to explain scientific phenomena – will likely spur teachers to use more digital tools, like multimedia content, to engage students.

He adds, “Science advocates predict that many science content providers will need to rework their materials – if they haven’t already – to meet the standards’ call for performing other tasks that go far beyond just memorizing facts.”

Hit hardest will be textbook publishers. “The big difference will be the shift away from the textbook model that just says, ‘Here’s the information,’” explains NSTA’s David Evans.

Product development at Charlesbridge, a company in our industry that has been publishing nonfiction books about science for almost 30 years, will probably not change as the result of the new standards. “We’ve known all along that children are natural scientists, curious about their world and how humans – including themselves – impact the world,” says Donna Spurlock, director of marketing. “Books about science and scientists, and inventions and inventors, that engage, entertain and educate young readers have been the backbone of our publishing program for many years. Books answer questions, introduce ideas and validate curiosity and inquiry, and I don’t foresee a great change in the way we acquire and publish new books.

Changes to science teaching may not be limited to just the states that adopt the standards. In fact, there’s “robust demand” among non-adopters, too, says Cavanagh. “More than 50 percent of the sales of one of the NSTA’s most popular standards-focused books, NGSS for all Students, is from states that didn’t adopt the standards,” he wrote. “Seventy-seven percent of the 5th-grade teachers participating in web seminars on teaching the Next Gen standards in elementary school were from non-adoption states.”

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