Educators briefed on next generation of science

At Missouri School Boards Association summit

Decades ago as a young elementary teacher, Carrie Launius learned that science — with its hands-on methodology and ease of exploration — was nearly a fail-safe way to encourage recalcitrant learners to try harder.

But science wasn’t valued back then.

“You’re teaching too much science, but it’s okay, because the students like it,” her principal told her.

Today, science — along with math, engineering and technology — is considered a linchpin to American economic success. It’s weighted equally with math and language arts on state accountability measurements. However, it’s not tested the same. Unlike the other subjects which are tested annually, Missouri students only take standardized science tests in the fifth and eighth grades and at the end of high school biology, she said.

Speaking to a group gathered for a leadership summit of the Missouri School Boards Association, Launius — who serves as president-elect of Science Teachers of Missouri and as the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the Normandy School District — presented information about the Next Generation Science Standards, released in the spring of 2013.

Developed by a consortium of 26 states through a collaborative process by teachers, higher education faculty, scientists, engineers, business leaders and policy experts, the standards are intended to provide America’s students an internationally benchmarked science education.

She noted the standards Missouri teachers currently teach date back to 1990.

“Think about how much your life … how much technology … has changed since then,” she said.

She noted the new standards aren’t aimed solely at preparing students for careers as scientists, but also are intended to ensure all students leave school scientifically literate — although the first idea is a goal.

“We do not have enough Americans graduating from the science programs to replace the baby boomers,” she said.

The new standards also shake up the core disciplines.

“In 1890, we started teaching biology, chemistry and physics. It hasn’t changed,” she said. “Traditionally we haven’t even taught earth science past the eighth grade.”

As envisioned, the new core disciplines would be biology, physics, earth science and a category called “engineering, technology and the application of science.”

Earth science — which covers topics as diverse as plate tectonics, astronomy and water resources — has grown increasingly important, she said, because people need to better understand the impact of climate change. She noted that chemistry is not changing at the same rate, although leaps in technology has pushed physics forward.

School Board President Dennis Nickelson led Jefferson City High School’s science department for years. In his personal opinion, he’s not ready to de-emphasize chemistry yet, but he does favor re-ordering the science courses.

In Jefferson City, typically ninth-graders take Physics First, a class that focuses on the basics of the science. Biology is a precursor to chemistry. Advanced students delve into AP physics, AP biology, or anatomy and physiology.

Nickelson favors moving chemistry up in the sequence.

“Biology has changed so much … it’s much more chemistry-based,” he said, noting that biology teachers often spend the first quarter of the school year teaching chemistry concepts.

Earth science was taught at the ninth-grade level in Jefferson City for years until it was replaced by Physics First about four years ago.

“Earth science is an interdisciplinary topic,” he noted.

He lamented, as the courses are currently arranged, there isn’t time to teach it. But he noted when a California earthquake caused damage in 1993, science teachers realized their students knew very little about plate tectonics.

“It was a shame,” he said.

The new standards emphasize the need for students to engage in argument using evidence, to critique one another’s ideas and to analyze and interpret data.

“This is what I believe, and this is why!” she explained.

The standards de-emphasize the scientific method.

“Gone. Wiped out,” she said tersely. “Because we don’t learn linearly like that.”

Instead, the new standards propose a more complex system of learning that recognizes humans’ tendency to want to collect more data and do more tests as they struggle to understand a concept.

“It’s different from teaching three pages from a textbook with a vocabulary check list,” she said.

Instead students — even second-graders — might take a couple of weeks to plan and conduct an investigation, analyze the collected data, make some observations and then construct an argument bolstered by evidence.

“It might take a couple of weeks,” she said.

And the new standards emphasize “cross-cutting concepts” — like patterns — can be found in every scientific field. “Where do you see patterns?” she asked listeners rhetorically. “They’re everywhere … the Fibonacci sequence, fractals…”

While the new standards don’t dodge evolution, she said, they approach the controversial theory in a new way. “The best way to talk about it is change over time,” he said. “We have documented that things change over time.”

She noted the new standards — if they are embraced — have the capacity to revolutionize the way science is taught. She noted standards are not the same thing as curriculum or lesson plans, which still must be crafted by teachers at the local level.

Although the Columbia Public Schools have adopted these “next-generation” standards, few other schools in Missouri have. The Jefferson City Board of Education has not examined them yet.

Board member Steve Bruce did not rule them out.

“Any time you can make curriculum apply to the real world, it enhances their learning,” he said.

But he cautioned they would be another demand on classroom teachers, if implemented.

“We have to make sure we provide them with the appropriate resources and support,” he said.

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