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Get Ready for NextGen Science

New national standards promise to revolutionize the content area.
Students conduct experiments at Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools, which is implementing Next Generation Science Standards for middle and high schools, and inaugurating a PD academy for science teachers.

Recognizing that American K12 students have fallen behind foreign students in their grasp of scientific principles, educators have devised a new set of teaching guidelines that will radically change the way science is taught in classrooms across the United States—including recommendations that climate change and evolution be taught as core elements of scientific knowledge.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), released in April, are the first sweeping recommendations for science instruction since 1996, and were designed to reflect the increasing need for scientific acumen in a complex, technological world. Almost three years in the making, the NGSS will supplant the National Education Science Standards created 17 years ago.

The new standards were written by 41 educators from 26 states, and are the product of a joint effort by the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Achieve, a Washington, D.C.-based educational group, organized the project, which is state-generated, not federally funded.

Educators say NGSS represents a seismic shift in the way science is taught and learned in the classroom. Instead of the traditional teaching methods—in which students are exhorted to remember facts and formulas—the emphasis is on demonstrating the scientific process.

The NGSS standards place a premium on teaching and learning science “as it is practiced and experienced in the real world,” from developing ways to preserve fragile ecosystems to predicting the speeds, friction, and centrifugal forces necessary to keep a racing car on a track.

Need to respond

Tests show that American students have fallen behind in their understanding of scientific principles, necessitating the new scientific guidelines, says David Evans, executive director of NSTA. In the most recent tests administered internationally to eighth graders (the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS) and high school students (the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA), American students ranked 9th and 17th, respectively.

“It’s clear that there’s a very pressing need to change the way we teach science and what students are learning,” Evans says.

And the schedules for state adoption will depend on the instructional materials and professional development programs created. NGSS would likely be implemented by the 2015-2016 school year, its supporters say.

Changing “science as usual” NGSS’ shift in the way science is learned and taught in the classroom is, in part, the focus on student performance expectations, such as predicting the outcome of chemical reactions, rather than students’ mastery of the facts and formulas traditionally taught in science courses and assessed via multiple-choice tests.

“The main difference is the emphasis on the processes of science rather than accumulating facts,” Evans explains.

For example, Kim Bess, the energy education coordinator for the San Diego County Office of Education in California, one of the 26 states looking to adopt NGSS, says that instead of lecturing about connecting carbon dioxide to climate change, a teacher could now provide students with facts. Some data might include 400,000-year-old ice core data (which contains the amount of carbon dioxide present on earth over that time), the last 200 years of average temperatures on earth, and the most recent 50 years’ worth for the U.S. average temperatures.

“Students would have to analyze and interpret that data to support their conclusions about climate change,” says Bess.

It will fall to their teachers, she adds, to find the resources, devise the investigative questions students will pursue, and evaluate how well students prove what they know.

There may be concerns by state boards of education about the inclusion of climate change in the standards, given objections of those who doubt the existence or the severity of it. In an interview with Fox News after the final standards were released, a representative from the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, weighed in.

Neal McCluskey, associate director of the institute’s Center For Educational Freedom said, “There’s nothing wrong with talking about climate change in science classrooms, but this opens up the huge possibility that interpretations of climate change or analysis that a lot of people disagree with will still be taught.

“The degree to which human beings are impacting the climate and how bad that impact may be is controversial,” McCluskey insisted.

Engineering—A new lesson

The new standards also call for integrating engineering principles into classroom activities. For example, by showing how water is purified or by showing how human limbs and joints—perhaps modeled from wood and screws—work together to exert force. “Under NGSS, engineering will become more the rule than the exception,” says Ted Willard, NSTA’s director of NGSS.

The hands-on expectations also mean giving students more laboratory time, says Rodger Bybee, co-chair of the NGSS life science team. “Students have been busy reading about science rather than using lab equipment,” he says. “Science teachers will have to dust [that equipment] off and put it to use.”

In short, students will be expected to think and act like scientists and engineers, grasping increasingly complex concepts that have practical benefits in everyday life. This approach is practiced in STEM programs, but is not widespread. NGSS, by contrast, would be implemented statewide wherever it’s adopted.

If a state adopts NGSS, it will be up to its state department of education, in conjunction with its districts, to come up with the learning materials, activities, and assessments that would fulfill those expectations, Bybee and others say.

Interactive programs from educational publishers should help, says Bess, although she adds that most have had to wait for the final version of NGSS, now released, before starting to develop those programs. It’s unlikely that many publishers would have invested a lot in programming before knowing the standards, she observes.

At least one company, Mimio, did not wait. In March, Mimio launched an interactive set of lessons called MimioScience and based them on the next-to-last draft of NGSS released earlier this year. The product targets students in grades 3 through 8 with 75 NGSS-related units created for use with interactive whiteboards.

Professional development

Evans says that most of NSTA’s 55,000 members seem “very, very enthusiastic” about the new standards. In a recent poll, he says about 80 percent stated that NGSS “would have a huge impact on the way they teach, although there are concerns on their part about adequate professional development.”

And there’s the rub. For all the promise of NGSS, the road to training teachers to fulfill its standards will be bumpy—particularly the task of getting science teachers to drop a longstanding mindset of teaching facts and formulas and to focus on student performance expectations.

Some early adopters planned professional development programs anticipating the new standards. This summer, the Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools is inaugurating a two- to four-day professional development academy for science teachers, who will be paid to attend. Training will be divided into courses such as chemistry and physics, says chief academic officer Scott Fritz. Teachers will be asked: ‘How do we make science real? How do we create labs that have real-world applications?”

“I think we’re ahead of most, but we’re not there yet,” Fritz said, adding that fully implementing NGSS for the district’s nearly 650 middle and high school science teachers might mean adding days to the summer workshops. “We’ll need more professional development time throughout the year, and we’re willing to go to whatever level necessary to get prepared. We’ll have our challenges on that front, but we’re in the right place to meet them.”

In the Mitchell (S.D.) School District 17-2, Julie Olson, the science chair at Mitchell High School who helped write the life science standards in NGSS, is working with six other teachers in her department. Using the expertise she developed as an NGSS writer, Olson is helping them develop the questions and problems that students will solve as part of the NGSS performance expectations. A question she might put to teachers is, “How would you incorporate a debate based on student data for questions such as ‘Is cloning a good idea or a bad idea?’”

And a problem that students might have to solve is, ‘Can hunting help maintain biodiversity?’”

PD at the state level

The South Dakota Board of Education is also taking an active role in preparing science educators for the new standards, says DOE science specialist Sam Shaw, who oversees PD for science teachers. This year’s state budget includes $250,000 for Shaw’s office, and he hopes that when South Dakota is done spending millions for teacher training in the Common Core State Standards in English language and mathematics, more funding will flow toward training science educators along the NGSS model.

Last summer, Shaw brought a pilot group of 20 middle and high school science teachers to Pierre, S.D., for a week-long professional development program. The teachers, who were paid for their time, created and took home NGSS-inspired lessons.

Even one middle school teacher adopted an earth science lesson that was presented to students this past school year, Shaw adds. It included information on plate tectonics and data sets on actual earthquakes. The students analyzed the data, created graphs of earthquake patterns, and made inferences about how those might predict future earthquakes.

Shaw says that for NGSS to work across the state, teachers will need more opportunities for professional development in the summer and throughout the school year, and he’s hoping for increased funding in future budgets to make that training happen.

“It has to be ongoing,” Shaw says. “We’re not going to shove the bird out of the nest.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer to District Administration.