Close to Home: New standards focus on how science actually works

California is one of the 26 states that led the effort to develop the Next Generation Science Standards. Schools and districts across the state are now moving toward implementation of these new standards in the K-12 classroom.

While much has been written about the impact of the new Common Core Standards for mathematics, not as much discussion has occurred about these science standards. In fact, at the present time, there are no commercially available textbooks that are aligned with the science standards.

To help fill this need, my group at Sonoma State University is developing a new two-year integrated high school science curriculum (called “Learning by Making”) in partnership with six rural schools in Mendocino County and the Mendocino County Office of Education. This five-year effort has been funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation program.

Through Learning by Making, we aim to increase the college readiness of the students in our partner high schools. Longer term, we wish to change how high school science is taught, as well as to increase interest and competency in doing science and continuing on in a science-based career.

The California Science Content Standards currently in use include the scientific process and encourage inquiry, and most of the emphasis is on the knowledge of a large variety of concepts (“Students know…”). In practice, this has often led to student memorization without true understanding. Another problem with this approach is that connection between different scientific areas is minimal, as standards for each subject are listed separately. In addition, laboratory exercises are often presented in a cookbook fashion, where the goal is to achieve the right answer by verifying known facts.

However, students often forget these facts as soon as they walk out of the classroom and following a prescribed list of instructions in a laboratory bears little resemblance to true scientific investigation. As practiced by professionals, science is an iterative process of hypothesizing, testing, evaluating results and presenting one’s results for public scrutiny.

The Next Generation Science Standards are a well-structured attempt to introduce students - at all grade levels - to the thrill of actually practicing science by engaging them in more hands-on and minds-on learning. These standards consist of three integrated areas: scientific and engineering design practices, cross-cutting concepts and disciplinary core ideas. There is little emphasis on memorizing a collection of facts, although basic ideas for four broad areas are provided in the disciplinary core ideas. Also new are the cross-cutting concepts: ideas that are important across all sub-disciplines of science and eliminate the disconnect that has existed between different science disciplines and math. Cross-cutting concepts include patterns, cause and effect, scale proportion and quantity, systems and system models, energy and matter, structure and function, and stability and change.

As Next Generation Science Standards-aligned curricula such as Learning by Making are developed, there will be a clear need for high quality science teacher education and training. At Sonoma State, we are committed to an integrated approach. Our curriculum development team works together with the teachers and their students to motivate and excite them.

The inexpensive and easy-to-use hardware platform that we have developed encourages creativity and experimentation. Students will pose their own questions and choose from a wide variety of sensors to carry out their own experiments. They will be learning how to think computationally and critically about their results. Additionally, they will be learning the mathematics needed to analyze the data and the communications skills needed to present their results. By applying Next Generation Science Standards-based design practices to the entire range of core ideas and cross-cutting concepts, we aim to prepare students to understand and contribute to the increasingly complex world in which they live.

Lynn Cominsky is a professor, chairwoman of the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Sonoma State University and director of the SSU Education and Public Outreach program.

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