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.
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.
Even though it was 1:30 in the morning, about 1,000 people gathered in Times Square, August 6th , to stare up at a 53-foot LED screen. Having lived in New York City for many years, I know there are always lots of people in Times Square. And getting them to stop and watch—or even to notice anything—would be a big deal. But here they were, adults and children, their mouths agape and eyes fixed in suspense, looking up at that giant screen. What was it that so captivated them and many others around the globe? Some wild publicity stunt? The trailer for a new blockbuster movie? No. They had gathered to peer into NASA’s Mission Control Center as the rover Curiosity landed on Mars. Reminiscent of the Apollo 11 moon landing, watched by 500 million people worldwide some 43 years ago, these people were here to witness human exploration in real time. Many of these enthralled viewers were kids, given a late-night reprieve to watch history being made on a neighboring body in our solar system. While the grainy black-and-white TV sets may have been replaced by high-definition LED screens, iPads, or even smartphones, the looks on peoples’ faces and their excitement as the car-sized robotic explorer touched down on Mars have not changed over the decades. The scene made me think: How will the story of the Curiosity rover influence this audience and all the others watching worldwide?
I have talked with many NASA scientists and engineers over the past decade, and I have learned that watching events—like the Curiosity landing—played a critical role in inspiring them to pursue their career path. They were engaged by these powerful stories and found ways to get involved and contribute.
Children examining a model of MER at JPL. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Tony Greicius
It’s clear that events like these play an important role in inspiring our youth, which makes it all the more crucial that the story of the event is told well. During the Apollo missions, people observed the Moon through telescopes. Now, we have new technologies that let us learn more about these important events, and also allow us to tell an even more compelling story. Besides the availability of online telescopes controlled via the Internet, the Curiosity rover has its own Twitter account and an interactive 3D rover simulation that allows you to track it online. We can “see” Curiosity land through a computer simulation that looks, for all intents, like a video game of Mars. This is no game, though. Data is being accumulated at record pace. The exciting part is that we can access data like never before, it’s real, and there is a lot of it!
So what do these new methods of storytelling and changing technologies have to do with teaching? Everything. Each lesson unfolds as a story—you determine your message (the concept you wish to teach). Each inquiry or lab is a mission to find a solution or test a hypothesis. And we know from educational research that our students learn socially and would prefer to work in teams, just like those large teams that we see in every NASA Mission Control scene.
Of course, we can’t land a rover in our classrooms every day, but we can tell great stories, give our students a sense of mission, and the pathways to extend their engagement and support their interests. The developments in scientific fields are having an impact on how we can and should be teaching STEM subjects. A quick look at the newly released framework for the upcoming Next Generation Science Standards (to be released in 2013) is a good place to get a sense of what these changes can be.
NOVA Education is also working to innovate our own STEM Resources so that educators can better support these new modes of teaching. Our print resources have shifted to media and digital formats, searchable by topic and aligned with standards on the NOVA Education website. Social media allows us to grow our community and connect directly with you through our Facebook page and Twitter feeds.
The tools might change from decade to decade, yet the core story remains one of science and exploration. This is what NOVA is all about. Next year, we turn 40. Maybe NOVA inspired you along the way, as it did me. I watched it as a child, taught with it for many years in my classroom, and now work with a great team on the mission to become NOVA’s new Education Department. We hope you will join and participate in our community and along the way, find resources and PD that help you in every mission you face in your classroom.