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The Future of Science Education in K-12 Classrooms: Applying the Next Generation Science Standards

By Marcus Hennessy, CEA

Little more than a decade ago, students could take pride in America’s cutting-edge leadership in scientific and technical education. That pride has mostly evaporated, however, in the face of some sobering global trends:

  • Foreign competitors filed over half of U.S. technology patent applications in 2010;
  • American high-tech exports are on the decline while Europe holds steady and China surges ahead. At the same time, the U.S. has a ballooning high-tech trade deficit;
  • The U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math on the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA);
  • The U.S. is 12th in high school graduation rates among the 36 OECD countries for which data is available;
  • Over one-third of American eighth-graders scored below basic on the 2009 NAEP Science assessment;
  • 78 percent of high school graduates did not meet readiness benchmarks for entry-level college courses in science and math.

A Call to Action

These alarming facts have triggered a movement to develop the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) currently being finalized by The National Research Council (NRC), the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and coordinated by the Washington-based non-profit, Achieve, in conjunction with 26 “lead state partners.” (Achieve was created in 1996 by U.S. governors and business leaders seeking to improve educational standards across the country, and played a significant role in developing Common Core State Standards in English, Language Arts, and Mathematics over the past decade.)

New Science Education Standards

As part of this major overhaul of science education standards in America’s K-12 schools, Achieve conducted a 2010 study of science education in ten top-tier countries to determine international benchmarks and steer the development of the NRC Framework for NGSS. Among the study’s findings:

  • All ten countries have integrated science standards.
  • Crosscutting content common to all of the sciences receives considerable attention.
  • Unifying ideas provide focus and coherence to scientific content.
  • Encouraging students to plan and carry out investigations nurtures scientific habits of mind and classroom engagement.
  • Physical science standards (chemistry and physics content) receive the most emphasis.
  • A focus on human biology and relationships highlights the personal and social significance of life science.
  • Organization and format have a significant effect on the clarity and accessibility of standards.

Step One: The Initial Draft

Utilizing the results of the Achieve survey, and based on findings and input from 18 principal contributors including Nobel laureates, cognitive scientists and science education researchers, the NRC released a draft of the Framework for K-12 Science Education in July, 2011. Design teams focused on four disciplinary areas:

  • Physical Science
  • Life Science
  • Earth/Space Science
  • Engineering.

The National Science Teacher’s Association (NSTA) offers an introduction seminar to the first draft of the NGSS. Presenters Gerry Wheeler, interim Executive Director of NSTA, and Stephen Pruitt, Vice President for Content, Research, and Development at Achieve, Inc talk about some of the changes science education standards will be facing.

Step Two: Feedback and Finalization

Seeking input from stakeholders and advisory committees at the national level, from education leaders in the 26 partnering states, and from the general public, a second draft of the Framework was released early in May, 2012, and will be available for comment until June 1.

A final draft will be released for policy review and implementation in late 2012 or early 2013.

Framework Basics

As currently structured, the Framework presents a teaching model divided into three “Dimensions”:

  • Practices
  • Crosscutting Concepts
  • Disciplinary Core Ideas.

The Framework also identifies eight science and engineering practices that correspond to professional methods:

  1. Asking questions and defining problems;
  2. Developing and using models;
  3. Planning and carrying out investigations;
  4. Analyzing and interpreting data;
  5. Using mathematics, information and computer technology, and computational thinking;
  6. Constructing explanations and designing solutions;
  7. Engaging in argument from evidence;
  8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.

You can obtain the full NGSS Framework draft and more detailed information about the project by visiting the NGSS website.

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