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Researchers from the University of Washington’s Institute of Science + Math Education have played a critical role in developing revolutionary new K-12 science standards aimed at engaging more students, more deeply, at younger ages, in meaningful, real-world scientific and engineering investigations.

 institute of science and math education“We know from numerous studies, including our own, that even the youngest learners can participate in sophisticated scientific investigations if you give them support. The new standards provide an opportunity to get them engaged in disciplinary practices like planning investigations and constructing causal explanations as they enter kindergarten -- and even before. That really is a game-changer,” says Professor Philip Bell, director of the institute.

Under the new guidelines, students could begin studying big ideas such as energy and heredity in the early grades and follow them on through high school, building a deeper conceptual understanding of core subject matter grade by grade. Schools should also teach fewer concepts in greater depth, replacing traditional mile-wide, inch-deep instruction that has too often left students with only fragments of unconnected scientific knowledge.

As students progress in their abilities to apply scientific principles, weigh evidence, design science-related products, and construct causal explanations, they can tackle such complex, contemporary issues as genetically-engineered foods and the influence of human activities on global climate change.

It is a research-based way of doing science, rich in the disciplinary practices of science and engineering and focused on personally relevant dimensions of the subject matter. “This expansive view of learning relates to our research showing how students actually engage in and develop deep understandings of concepts,” says Bell, who has expertise on student cognition and learning in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

Bell was one of 18 experts who sat on the National Research Council committee that developed the “Framework for K-12 Science Education.” The framework, released in July 2011, provided the foundational vision that guided a 41-member writing team in creating the new Next Generation Science Standards  (NGSS) with feedback from thousands of teachers, scientists, and other stakeholders.

The new science standards — developed through a state-driven process — were released in early April after three years of development, public input, and expert review. Now it is up to states to decide whether or not they will adopt NGSS, and whether they will adopt the standards whole-cloth or with state-specific alterations. The Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), in concert with dozens of other states, intends to adopt the new standards.

The new standards establish high-level learning goals for students that prepare them for college, career, and citizenship. In upcoming years, new curricula, assessments, and teacher development programs aligned with the new vision will help support implementation of NGSS. But changes are already afoot.

“You have a good number of school districts staring closely at the standards and anticipating and preparing for this change. You also have state-level organizations that are doing common planning activities and figuring out parallel arcs for implementing NGSS. And you have people in higher education working with future teachers who are rethinking their work to be more deeply aligned with the NGSS vision,” says Andrew Shouse, associate director of the UW institute.

Shouse has already convened two sessions of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching to examine opportunities for collaboration between state agencies and researchers as the science education community considers NGSS adoption. Both Bell and Shouse are board members in Building Capacity in State Science Education effort, a project that is working to create state leadership teams to guide individual states through the planning and implementation phases of NGSS.

“One thing we’re trying to accomplish in NGSS is to build teaching and learning on a robust body of evidence, as opposed to merely politically derived standards,” says Shouse.

The new standards draw on years of work by learning scientists and science education scholars around the world. The group includes researchers from the Institute for Science + Math Education who have explored ways to support students, in particular those from diverse backgrounds, in meaningful STEM learning and the exploration of possible career pathways. Institute strategies include tackling social justice issues in the formal classroom and introducing students to the joys of contemporary science in informal settings outside the classroom, including museums, aquariums, and labs with meaningful investigations that pique young people’s interest in science.

Current institute projects include developing STEM-rich curricula with professional mentorship and supports for students with disabilities and English Language Learners; working with partners to develop “My Place in Puget Sound” curricula empowering culturally and linguistically diverse students to take community action based on scientific knowledge; and an  after-school oceanography program that apprentices Seattle youth of color, particularly girls, in investigations of locally relevant issues concerning terrestrial, riverine, and marine chemistry.

UW researchers who study science education—Megan Bang, Carrie Tzou, Mark Windschitl, Jessica Thompson, Philip Bell, and Andrew Shouse—led public sessions on the new learning goals. Click here to view UW Summit on K-12 Science Education Video. The Institute for Science and Math Education is convened the panel to explain new features of the Framework for K-12 Science Education and Next Generation Science Standards and ways to support implementation, including:

  • Understanding how to engage learners in STEM investigations. Standards have historically represented practice and content as separate entities, and coursework still tends to be in separate silos, not integrated. That is not the way real science and engineering work, and it’s not the way STEM education should work, says Bell. “We need students to learn about and apply disciplinary core ideas by engaging in the disciplinary practices of science and engineering while making connections to cross-cutting concepts, or broad themes.” 

Making STEM education accessible to all students, including minorities and others historically underrepresented in the field. That push for equity can begin as early as pre-school, say the researchers. “Many children experience science early on at home, and even the most abstract ideas may be personally relevant to them. But there are many others who don’t have much exposure to the formal concepts of science in the home – but they know other things that are relevant to science. And if we know what these children come into the classroom with, we can build on that,” says Shouse, co-author of “Ready, Set, SCIENCE: Putting Research to work in K-8 Science Classrooms.”

  • Strengthening engineering instruction across the K-12 spectrum. “This is what we consider a ‘heavy lift’ for the system,’” says Bell. “It means science teachers, pre-service teachers, curriculum developers, and professional development experts will have to learn how best to engage students in engineering investigations, opening up new spaces for youth to find their way into the subject.”  
  • Paying attention to science learning across formal and informal environments. The new standards recognize that STEM learning occurs across a variety of settings inside and outside of the classroom, with students learning science in real-world settings through their hobbies, visits to museums, and family practices. “If science is related to students’ lives and community, it is much more personally relevant and meaningful to them” says Bell.

The new standards come at a critical time for American education. U.S. students continue to lag behind peers in many other developed nations in math and science assessments, and people are concerned. In a national poll released last year, 97 percent of respondents said they believed that improving the quality of science education was important to the country’s ability to compete globally. They gave the quality of science education a grade of “C” or below.

To get an “A,” 21st-century educators will have to know how to engage every student in real science that is consequential to them, using real practices that connect to student and community interests outside the classroom, UW research shows. The “game-changing” new standards point the way. And it’s never too soon to start.

“What we know is that if you don’t develop an interest in STEM-related topics by middle school, you are much less likely to get a degree in STEM. If we don’t help students develop that interest, we are not going to reach our equity goals of making STEM achievement a shared outcome for all students,” says Bell. “Everyone who resides in this country should have the opportunity to become scientifically literate and be able to make an informed decision about whether or not to pursue a STEM-related future.”


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