During my tenure as a science teacher in the late 90s, I was often frustrated by a very structured curriculum that didn’t emulate the way scientists in the lab approached projects, create connections between topics and subjects or offer the students in my classroom freedom to explore questions or ideas that interested them.
Science teaches us to seek understanding through investigation. We ask questions like why and how and embark on a journey to find the answer. Children are naturally drawn to science as their innate curiosity is suited for asking questions and observing the world around them. However, traditionally, science education has been heavily focused around fact memorization, lecture, siloed “subjects” and simplified cookie-cutter lab activities. This doesn’t inspire our students or prepare them for a STEM-dominated economy.
The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were created to shift how we approach science education. Based upon the Framework for K-12 Science Education developed by the National Research Council, the standards focus on students learning science by doing science. 19 states have adopted NGSS as written and an additional 21 states have created science standards based upon the Framework for K-12 Science Education. These standards provide an improved foundation for the curriculum taught in the classroom and identify benchmarks for assessment.
The following are four shifts introduced by NGSS that have a positive impact on science education.
Inquiry-based standards encourage scientific behavior. Science and Engineering Practices are one of the three dimensions upon which the standards are based. Each standard includes processes and skills that students employ to be actively engaged in a hands-on way. This emphasis encourages students to behave like scientists – asking questions, designing models, conducting experiments and analyzing data.
Phenomena are at the center of lessons and are used to help students understand key scientific ideas. Remember the first time you saw a lunar eclipse or observed a spider web up close? Those observations were exciting and sparked your curiosity. NGSS is anchored in those observable events that encourage students to ask questions and gives them flexibility to explore topics they find interesting.
Scientific domains and topics are connected through Cross Cutting Concepts. These are the big ideas that repeat across domains and subjects and become a foundation for students as they approach new subjects. Recognizing these concepts helps students gain a deeper understanding. In first grade, students learn how the external parts of plants function and help them survive. In middle school, the concepts of structure and function introduced when studying plants guide students as they discover how parts of cells contribute to the survival of an organism.
The standard shifts also challenge the way we assess student learning. Three-dimensional standards require three-dimensional assessment techniques that focus on stimulus-based problem solving rather than memorizing facts and completing endless calculations.
States and districts are in the early phases of adoption and are focused on choosing and implementing NGSS based curricula, redesigning classes and programs and providing the right professional development to support teachers through this process. Exciting conversations are occurring at conferences and on social media as adoption moves forward. As a former science teacher, I am optimistic these standards will have a positive impact on science education and as a parent, I am excited to watch my children engage with science curricula based upon these standards.