New Standards Teach Science By Doing Science

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Editor's Note: Below is a revised article about two education professors who have endorsed dramatic changes in the nation’s K-12 science education standards. The final Next Generation Science Standards will be unveiled in March.

In an essay in Science magazine, Ravit Golan Duncan, an associate professor of science education at Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education and Ann Rivet, an associate professor of science education at Teachers College, Columbia University, called on scientists to get behind proposed new standards and to advocate for their adoption by the states.

Science standards describe scientific concepts that students need to know by the end of each year, or by the end of middle school or high school. The standards also describe the methods through which science should be learned.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which would replace standards that have been in place since 1996, are based on “learning progressions,” a concept of teaching and learning science that has gained traction among education researchers in the past decade. Basing the new science standards on learning progressions, the professors argued, would completely change the way science and engineering are taught and learned, from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“Educators often criticize American K-12 science education as being a mile wide and an inch deep,” said Duncan. “Students learn about different topics in science – the water cycle one year, cell mitosis the next – but they’re often not connected to one another or to anything students can experience for themselves,” Duncan said.

But with standards based on learning progressions, students would learn the “big ideas” in science – atomic and molecular theory, for example – with increasingly sophisticated levels of understanding as they move through the program. At each level students would learn to use scientific practices to create new knowledge that they can use as “stepping stones” to the next level. The proposed guidelines also incorporate much more hands-on investigation, so kids can begin to see themselves as scientists. The best way to study science, Duncan and Rivet said, is to do more science.

The new guidelines under development by more than two dozen states – New Jersey and New York among them – are much needed, Duncan said, citing a common middle school experiment in which students test two brands of paper towel to see which one holds more coins while wet.

“So, you find out which brand is stronger,” Duncan said. “So what?” The experiment doesn’t develop scientific knowledge about the properties of materials that can explain why one type of paper towel might be better.

An NGSS alternative would ask students to think first about why a towel might be stronger or weaker. What was it about the materials that allowed it to hold water and not break apart? By investigating the differences between the two brands, students could examine how even though two things might look the same, they have different properties that make them act in different ways, like when they get wet.

These are precursor ideas to more advanced chemistry, and students can use this knowledge later on to address other problems. The first experiment is “hands-on,” Rivet said, but the second one is what she called “mind-on.”

“Students are taught about the scientific method, but they don’t get as much opportunity as they should to practice the scientific process.” The NGSS standards “use experiments as a means to an end, not as an end in and of itself,” she said.

“There is a lot of creative thinking that precedes and follows the experiment. Scientists develop models, test them through experiments, and then revise these models based on their findings. It is the models that are at the center; they exemplify the thinking.”

Students don’t need to memorize a lot of facts to get there.

“Do you remember the steps of mitosis?” Duncan said. “You probably heard them in the seventh grade, and unless you’re a biologist, you probably don’t remember them now. But you don’t really need to memorize the gory details in the seventh grade; you need to know what mitosis does, that mitosis is the process by which a cell replicates and then divides the chromosomes in its nucleus into two identical parts.”

Although all aspects of learning progressions have not been fully researched, there is substantial evidence that the concept is valid, Rivet said, and she urged scientists to support the change in standards.

“It is important for the scientific community to be partners in the dialogue," she said. "Scientists need to be aware of the long view taken by this approach and the conceptual role of simplified stepping-stone ideas in the learning process.”