There is an old adage in the policy world that rings true in the process of transforming education and standards revision. It’s called “making the hippos dance,” and it refers to grandiose policy recommendations and ideas that are implemented on the ground or at scale. Like the hippo, educational reform is monumental and often ungraceful; to make this creature dance would seem almost impossible. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are a similar behemoth; we have these great, peer-reviewed, research-based pedagogical standards at the ready to transform science teaching and learning for generations, but on top of everything else that a teacher is responsible for in a day, application can seem a colossal task—especially given the NGSS’s emphasis on process-oriented tasks and the integration of crosscutting concepts and engineering practices. According to Horizon Research,1 only 7 percent of teachers surveyed felt they were “well prepared” to teach engineering. I would argue that many teachers currently teach in the spirit of NGSS; through professional development with careful, reflective practices, you’ll have this hippo up on its feet and ready to Harlem Shake.
The NGSS are largely pedagogical standards; that is, their methodology engages students with the content using the practices of authentic scientific study. Thus, the development of curriculum (i.e., what you do every day in the classroom) is largely up to state or district developers and the teachers themselves. The standards have explicit supports, with the educator in mind, to guide activities that build upon students’ prior knowledge and the critical thinking skills needed for future academic success. This is a unique and exciting time in K–12 science—the teaching professionals are leading in the creation of instructional curricula that will be used nationwide.
For example, Earth and environmental science teachers will be presented with this new standard (HS-ESS2-7), where students “Construct an argument based on evidence about the simultaneous co-evolution of Earth’s systems and life on Earth.” The NGSS include clarification statements to illustrate content examples that may be used to contextualize this standard. Assessment boundaries demonstrate that the focus is on student understanding or application, not memorization.
A unique aspect of the NGSS is a three-fold system of student engagement: each standard has corresponding science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts. These provide guidance in terms of the expected vertical alignment, its relationship to other branches of science, and the conceptual significance to the overall nature of science. Unlike previous state-based content standards, where topics were placed indiscriminately into various grade levels, the NGSS are thoughtful in scaffolding knowledge and fostering interdisciplinary studies in all areas of science and literacy.
So, how would you teach this in your classroom? Here is where professional development is critical to the successful implementation of the NGSS. Many schools already require teachers to meet in grade-level or content-based teams called professional learning communities (PLCs). You can use this time to analyze and develop best practices in the context of the NGSS. Inventory your group’s favorite activities and determine why they are so successful for students—use this as your starting point to develop your curriculum. You’ll find NGSS patterns emerging in existing practices like modeling, note-booking, student-developed protocols, KWLs, and inquiry-based learning. With NGSS, we must go further and transform these lessons into dynamic content that is student-centered and embedded with the hallmarks of STEM practices. If a successful lesson incorporated student discussion, how can it be advanced to scientific argumentation? Instead of having students follow a stepwise protocol, could they design their own or research existing protocols to use? How are students’ questions and curiosities driving the instruction in this lesson? Are the 21st-century skills of critical thinking, online research, and experimentation being used in this lesson?
To capture various ideas, create a chart similar to the one below, outlining each component of STEM. Then brainstorm ways to meet that standard through STEM integration.
For this example, students may conduct online research using credible, peer-reviewed sources to provide a diversity of examples that illustrate co-evolving systems on earth. They can pair-share to critique the arguments and identify the evolutionary mechanisms behind these symbiotic relationships. Students can begin to infer which relationships are delicate or more stable, which have endured throughout geologic time, and which have dissolved due to climate change, extinction events, or human-based effects. They may evaluate how current anthropomorphic systems are or are not playing a role in that evolution today. As a formative assessment, challenge students to design models or engineer solutions to promote biotic–abiotic balances. At their core, engineering practices view natural resources as being limited; this creates a great vehicle to integrate and contextualize mathematics study.
Lastly, when you are crafting your lessons with NGSS in mind, consider whether they are enjoyable and engaging. Are students having fun connecting with the content? Are you having fun thinking of new and exciting ways to teach the content you adore? After all, a major purpose of the new science standards is to cultivate student curiosity and foster a generation of radically new creative thinkers and problem solvers. So, enjoy the collegiality and reflection upon your daily practice. Professionally, encourage your coworkers to bring in lessons that you can modify together, and share your challenges and successes in your PLCs. Personally, reconnect with your content in a new and novel way; engage with your students in a dynamic fashion that you may have done only occasionally or never before.
I hope you find your hippo dancing. I’ve heard that when one learns, it can spread widely among the herd.
1Banilower, E. R., Smith, P. S., Weiss, I. R., Malzahn, K. A., Campbell, K. M., & Weis, A. M. (2013). Report of the 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education. Chapel Hill, NC: Horizon Research, Inc.
This blog is part of NOVA’s Earth System Science Initiative. To find related resources, please visit NOVA Education’s Earth System Science Collection.
In 1967, a decade after the launch of Sputnik 1, then U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson said of satellite technology, “We’ve spent [billions] on the space program. And if nothing else had come out of it except the knowledge that we gained from space photography, it would be worth ten times what the whole program has cost.”* This was, of course, two years before NASA put a man on the moon and set the new standard for U.S. scientific achievement, but still, Johnson’s statement is striking. Apart from any manned missions or other exploratory endeavors, advances in satellite photography of our own planet made the entire space program financially viable.
When President Johnson made this statement he was, of course, talking about the benefits to military intelligence inherent in satellite technology, but there are other advances in space photography and videography that are, while arguably less noteworthy, no less important. Today, NASA uses a variety of Earth-observing satellite systems. These satellites are not used for military surveillance, but instead are deployed to act as scientific measurement tools to help give us a better understanding of the global environment.
© 2013 WGBH Educational Foundation
The study of the interaction between the Earth’s systems, otherwise known as Earth system science (ESS), is one of the most complex and fascinating disciplines ever conceived. Technological advancements in satellites provide us with more intricately detailed information than ever about how the cycles of air, land, water, and life interact to define the context within which we live our lives on this planet, and they highlight more than ever the fragility of our ecology.
NOVA’s new special “Earth From Space” captures with striking elegance the dynamic quality of Earth’s many systems. By combining information collected from satellites with state-of-the-art computer models, NOVA’s production team has rendered graphics that are not only scientifically accurate, but also dazzlingly beautiful. The end result is a show that is as aesthetically appealing as it is scientifically informative.
The knowledge gained from our satellites is assorted, precise, vast, and supports the advancement of science that provides us with an important lens through which to understand the most fundamental thing we have: our home. In order to survive and prosper in the future, humans need to know as much as we can about our planet and the way it functions. In order to help, NOVA has produced an Education Collection focused on Earth system science and designed to help educators investigate the various manifestations of ESS with their students.
Sadly, the sobering truth is that in the next decade, the number of Earth observing satellites in NASA’s fleet will go from 20 to fewer than 10. To put it simply, ESS hangs in the balance due to our uncertain economic future. “Earth From Space” makes a compelling case for the support of our satellite systems. These aren’t simply orbiting pieces of space junk. Rather, they give us the perspective necessary to understand our lives in a truly global context.
That, ultimately, is the gift of programs like “Earth From Space.” They serve as a resource to help humanity gain perspective that we so often lack in the day-to-day goings on of existence. NOVA is streaming the program online. If you have a chance, check it out. Earth system science never looked so good.
* DeNooyer, R. (Writer), & Wolfinger, K. (Producer) (2007). Sputnik declassified [Television series episode]. In Apsell, P. S. (Executive Producer), NOVA. Boston, MA: WGBH Educational Foundation.
Suppose that you could create a K–12 science and engineering curriculum from scratch. How would you go about doing it? Over the past four years, that’s essentially what we have done: first by writing the National Research Council’s report, A Framework for K–12 Science Education Standards: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas; and now by constructing the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). My own responsibilities have primarily been in the area of Earth and space science, so let me rephrase my initial question. If you could create a K–12 Earth and space science (ESS) curriculum from scratch, how would you go about doing it? If you’re an Earth science teacher, I’m guessing that you would probably do what we did. First…
Reduce the amount of content. I don’t mean the amount of time to be spent on ESS, but rather the amount of information. You want content that is shorter but deeper, so you don’t have to rush through lesson plans to cover all the information on a state test. The NGSS do this with a reduced number of performance expectations. Information used to be hard to come by. My school years were spent bicycling across town to the library to write my reports. Kids now have a universe of information at their fingertips, and there’s no need for them to memorize factoids. In fact, there is too much information available. What we really need is a….
Greater emphasis on system processes. While memorizing the names of planets, minerals, or clouds is not important (this is what Google is for), it is important to understand the roles the planets, minerals, and clouds play in different Earth and space systems. Instruction should focus on building a mental infrastructure that will give the students a place to organize all the scientific information they’ll encounter during their lifetimes. That way, they can treat the facts as just the means to an end, like tools. You don’t need to carry all your tools around with you all the time; you just pick them up when you need them and put them away when you’re done. The Earth and space science performance expectations of the NGSS do this by focusing on the processes that operate with the space system, solar system, and interconnected Earth systems of the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, and anthrosphere. This approach focuses not on the scientific information, but rather how to apply it. This leads to a…
Greater emphasis on practice. Educational research has clearly demonstrated that if you want students to learn about, value, and be excited about science, the best way is to have them do science. This is why every performance expectation of the NGSS starts with a practice. The NGSS are not about what the students know, but what they can do. But this goes far beyond the traditional “inquiry-based” learning. In the same way that there is no single scientific method, there is also no single practice of science. Scientists analyze data, construct models, carry out investigations, ask questions, construct explanations, obtain and communicate information, and so on, and they do these things in different ways at different times and in different orders. Students will not only enjoy science more, but will understand it better if they do the same.
Greater integration. Science education needs to be viewed as a whole rather than as a set of discrete topics and must serve as a connected part of a student’s entire education. This is especially important for Earth and space science, which is a highly integrated and synoptic field with many applications directly tied to human endeavors. The NGSS strive to be better integrated at multiple levels.
- Significant effort was taken to ensure a greater uniformity of style and approach across the three areas of life science, physical science, and Earth and space science, recognizing that the boundaries between these areas are totally artificial and arbitrary and that there’s a great deal of overlap. Emphasis on the Crosscutting Concepts and Nature of Science help make this integration happen.
- The NGSS incorporate the concepts of engineering and technology because the boundary between science and engineering is also artificial.
- The NGSS are integrated with the Common Core of math and English language arts, with direct connections called out from each NGSS performance expectation.
- The NGSS progresses smoothly from kindergarten to grade 12, not just in the scientific content, but in all other parts as well. In each of the Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, Nature of Science, and Engineering Concepts, a grade-band progress is developed and employed within the performance expectations.
More Earth and space science in high school. The NGSS finally recognize Earth and space science as the rigorous, relevant, complex, quantitative science that it has become. The NGSS require a year of ESS in both middle and high school. In fact, there are roughly as many performance expectations for Earth and space science in high school as there are for physics and chemistry combined. What’s more, a set of Course Maps demonstrates that because of the complexity and interconnectedness of most of the ESS content, the bulk of it needs to be taught after physical and life science in both middle and high school. There has long been talk of the need for a high school capstone science course in Earth and space science. Implemented in the optimal manner, the NGSS would do this by having Earth and space taught in high school after physics, chemistry, and biology.
More relevant content. Look at the front page of a national newspaper over the course of a year and you’ll see that Earth and space science dominates the headlines far more than any other scientific field: hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, climate change, exploding meteors, droughts, floods, coal resources, gas prices, mineral resources, water supplies, oil spills, hydrofracking, solar storms, environmental impacts… the list goes on and on. Earth and space science directly impacts the lives of humans in countless ways. The very course of civilization has been intimately shaped by climate change, natural catastrophes, and the availability of natural resources. As the philosopher Will Durant said, “Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.” The fact that no civilization in human history has lasted very long poses a severe reminder to us that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. This situation is even more critical now that humans, with booming populations and industrialization, have become the largest single agent of geologic change on Earth’s surface, altering the land, air, and water faster than any geoscience process. It’s not only timely that the NGSS will provide students with a much deeper understanding of Earth and space science. Our very survival may depend upon it.
This blog is part of NOVA’s Earth System Science Initiative. To find related resources, please visit NOVA Education’s Earth System Science Collection.