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Next gen science enters new dimension

Assessments of 3D learning give teachers better insight into student understanding
David Evans, executive director of NSTA, leads a discussion with educators about the new science standards and what it will mean for districts.
David Evans, executive director of NSTA, leads a discussion with educators about the new science standards and what it will mean for districts.

A new approach to assessing students’ three-dimensional learning should soon give teachers a clearer picture of the reasoning their students are using to grasp key science concepts. This more intensive level of assessment will be a critical tool for schools implementing the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that are designed to boost STEM scores.

3D learning means the student demonstrates proficiency in three areas: The science and engineering practices, the crosscutting concepts such as patterns or cause-and-effect associated with a particular performance expectation but also having connections to other fields of science and the disciplinary core ideas.

“Assessing three-dimensional learning poses a significant challenge; however, asking the student to perform tasks made up of several related questions and observing how the student uses the scientific practices in the context of the concepts of science will provide information to the teacher on how to design or revise instruction,” says Peter McLaren, science and technology specialist for the Rhode Island Department of Education. Rhode Island was the first state to adopt NGSS.

For example, as a student explains the design of a model developed to clarify a scientific concept, the teacher can assess the student’s understanding of the use of the practice and the context in which it connects with the concepts of the core idea. By probing further, the teacher can also find evidence of whether the student understands the concepts that connect to a more coherent view of the scientific world.

“Whether or not you are located in an adopting state, we are all facing a dramatic change in the way we expect people to teach science.”

At the 2014 National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) conference, being held April 3-6 in Boston, educators will hear from a recently released National Research Council report on using NGSS performance requirements to develop science assessments.

McLaren says he plans to help administrators at the conference understand the framework behind the NGSS, how it was developed and why. “Administrators will be prepared to make better decisions about implementation, professional development and curriculum alignment once they understand the research and reasoning behind the framework,” he says.

NGSS is only one of the major topics that will be discussed in Boston. Also covered will be professional development for teachers at all levels and the new training and instructional resources and materials that are available for supervisors and administrators.

“Whether or not you are located in an adopting state, we are all facing a dramatic change in the way we expect people to teach science,” says David Evans, NSTA executive director. “For example, technology is driving changes, and some districts now use only e-books. Another change is the emphasis on Common Core, which could take classroom time away from teaching science—unless we work to bridge connections between them.”

For the first time, NSTA has shifted the professional development sessions of the conference to Saturday, so administrators can send more of their teachers.

Teachers, technology and time

Evans says the conference sessions will cover other important topics in science instruction, including:

  • Teaching elementary science with confidence. Elementary teachers will learn classroom management strategies and how to incorporate NGSS science and engineering practices in instruction. 
  • Technology: With interest growing in the “flipped” classroom, the conference will reveal new technology tools and examine how they impact the role of the teacher. 
  • Linking science to literacy. Conference speakers will show how the two subjects can be combined. In a blended lesson, for example, the investigation of elementary-level science concepts should enhance reading, writing and communication skills. 
  • Engineering and science. Since NGSS calls for interwoven teaching of science and engineering from elementary through high school, sessions will prepare teachers to introduce engineering concepts using the latest tools.

Where to find help

Many district leaders are searching for textbooks and software that they can access to help with NGSS implementation. “Every month, I participate on a conference call with science specialists from the states that are implementing NGSS,” says McLaren. “We address challenges in teacher training, share resources and report on the progress we’ve made implementing NGSS in our schools and our districts.”

Implementation is not a state-specific process, McLaren adds. “If it plays in Topeka, it will play in Dover or Annapolis. The information we’ve accumulated is recorded and can be shared with other school districts,” he says. “As more states come on board, it’s important for them to know about this invaluable resource.”

NSTA is also trying to make it easier for educators to find quality instructional aids that will be effective in teaching the new standards. “We have invited a group made up of 55 teachers and supervisors to review materials, and we expect to post the information on our website this spring,” Evans says. DA

Useful science programs

  1. “The Basics of Data Literacy: Helping Your Students (and You!) Make Sense of Data,” by Michael Bowen and Anthony Bartley, is a useful book for teachers who have limited backgrounds in statistics. It introduces types of variables and data, shows how to structure and interpret data tables and explains survey basics from a student perspective. Hands-on activities also are provided for middle and high school investigations.
  2. Gizmos, from Explore Learning, contains interactive online simulations for math and science for grades three through 12. It’s ideal for small group work, individual exploration and whole-class instruction using an LCD projector or interactive whiteboard.
  3. In “Models and Approaches to STEM Professional Development,” Brenda Wojnowski and Celestine Pea write about developing highly effective teachers who improve student achievement in STEM education. The new book shares research-based models underlying systemic reform efforts.
  4. “Science for the Next Generation: Preparing for the New Standards” explains how the latest research on how children learn can enhance classroom practices. It also provides seven sample activities that demonstrate how to use the NGSS in lessons on physical, life, and Earth and space sciences.
  5. Science and Technology Concepts Kindergarten Program is a software app that offers new units for exploring plants and animals, forces and motion, and weather. Building on the resources of the Smithsonian Institution, it uses images and videos to bring students’ investigations of science concepts and skills to life.
  6. STEMSCOPES is a comprehensive online STEM curriculum program that provides classrooms with hands-on inquiry and problem-based learning activities, such as interactive games and virtual science labs. “Translating the NGSS for Classroom Instruction,” a book by Rodger Bybee, provides guidance for teachers, school administrators and district and state science coordinators. It has examples of the NGSS translated to classroom instruction and offers assistance in aligning current instruction to the standards.

Harriet Meyers is a freelance writer based in Maryland.