Aim to Get Students Involved With Science

Tuesday, October 01, 2013
Hartford High School science teacher Meghan Wilson has students working on a couple of projects with real-life applications.

Her chemistry class is collaborating with scientists at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory to make batteries powered by common bacteria found in soil, a technique pioneered at Harvard University in 2009. And biology students are collecting dragonfly nymphs in Dothan Brook and Bloody Brook as part of an ongoing mercury monitoring project funded by the National Parks Foundation.

“For a couple of years I’ve been wanting to do this,” said Wilson. Getting out in the field helps students connect with science, she said. “Hands-on work works a lot better for a lot of the students that I see. ... They want to get their hands dirty.”

While many Vermont schools were already heading in the direction of getting students involved in scientific work, the state’s new science standards require it. Adopted June 25 by the state Board of Education, the Next Generation Science Standards are the first major update to public school science requirements since 2004. Science teachers are largely hailing the new standards, which have been in development since 2010 under the guidance of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Teachers Association, as an improvement that will better connect science learning to the application of science beyond the classroom.

One of the chief goals of the new standards is to bring more students into the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. “The U.S. has a leaky K-12 STEM talent pipeline, with too few students entering STEM majors and careers at every level,” reads a piece of the executive summary for the Next Generation standards. “While standards alone are no silver bullet, they do provide the necessary foundation for local decisions about curriculum, assessments and instruction.”

The standards are built on three planks:

∎ Scientific and engineering practices: “Students cannot comprehend scientific practices, nor fully appreciate the nature of scientific knowledge itself, without directly experiencing those practices for themselves,” a summary of the standards reads.

∎ Crosscutting concepts, which have applications across branches of scientific inquiry.

∎ Disciplinary core ideas, the set of fundamental ideas on which scientific inquiry is based. “An important role of science education is not to teach ‘all the facts’ but rather to prepare students with sufficient core knowledge so that they can later acquire additional information on their own,” the summary reads.

Also from the summary: “The real innovation in the NGSS is the requirement that student s are required to operate at the intersection of practice, content and connection.” That final element includes connection to math and English language arts instruction.

While the Next Generation Science Standards have been developed concurrently with the Common Core State Standards and share some elements, they are independent efforts to create new public school standards.

Vermont was one of the 26 states that had a hand in developing the new science standards and is moving ahead to implement them, mainly by providing training opportunities for teachers.

“We’re expecting this year’s schools and teachers to develop an awareness of the standards,” said Gail Hall, the middle- and high-school science assessment coordinator at the Vermont Agency of Education. Hall said science teachers are being asked to consider how to incorporate the new standards into what they’re already doing.

In New Hampshire

In New Hampshire, state education officials are soliciting opinions from science teachers around the state about how to proceed. “The preliminary data from the science teachers that we’ve been talking to has been very positive,” said Stan Freeda, the state’s educational technology director. If the state Board of Education approves the standards, it could opt to forward them to the state Legislature for approval, Freeda said.

Many New Hampshire districts have moved ahead with an inquiry-based approach to science even before the new standards came out in April, he said.

To Upper Valley teachers, many of whom are just beginning to implement the standards, the discovery- or inquiry-based approach to science learning is a welcome and somewhat difficult change from how science has been taught. For the most part, science teachers have traditionally instructed students about existing science knowledge, then structured labs and lessons around that knowledge.

Under that method, “a lot of class is like a science history class,” Wilson said.


The new standards are meant to engage students in their own learning and leave schools free to design curriculum based on the standards.

In Wilson’s biology and chemistry classes at Hartford High, that means students are being asked to develop the structures for the scientific concepts they’re learning. “I’m putting a lot of emphasis on getting students to come up with science models on their own,” she said.

That means students craft the concrete methods through which they learn well-worn concepts as well as new knowledge, such as the mercury monitoring or the soil battery research the students conduct in conjunction with working scientists.

The aim of putting the students in control of their own learning is to give the knowledge they acquire a greater degree of stickiness.

“You have to think about what you’re teaching your students on a three-point scale,” said Jennifer Stainton, chairwoman of the science department at Woodstock Union High School. The three points are what the students will remember after 10 days, 10 months and 10 years. “When you think about understanding something, you’re aiming for that 10-year mark,” Stainton said.

That might mean that rather than try to have students memorize the periodic table of the elements and be tested on it, a science class might concentrate on understanding how it’s set up, Stainton said. Teachers stand next to students, learning along with them, rather than instructing them from the front of the class.

“We are beside them, working toward helping them get an understanding of the material,” Stainton said.

This type of instruction changes how a classroom works, and there is a learning curve for teachers to climb.

“It’s going to be hard for me to let go of some of the control of the classroom,” said Wilson. Now in her third year teaching chemistry at Hartford, Wilson’s classes are going more smoothly. Biology, which she started teaching again this year, is a bit rockier, she said.

‘It’s in how you deliver it’

Becky Miller, head of the science department at Randolph Union High School, said that one of the main goals of her department is to examine the new standards this year.

“I don’t see anything hugely different in content,” she said. “It’s in how you deliver it.”

There will be more collaborations among disciplines and science education will be looked at more holistically, she said. A lesson on simple machines might be delivered alongside or within a unit on the Industrial Revolution, for example.

“It’s going to be a shift for some of us teachers who have been around for a while,” said Miller, who has been at RUHS for 28 years.

Teachers also will need to consider how to differentiate science learning so it reaches all children, regardless of their needs. “That’s a piece that teachers can be working on right now,” Hall said.

There is time for schools to adjust. There is currently no budget to develop an assessment test based on the Next Generation standards. The New England Common Assessment Program science tests will be in use until 2016. The Twin States and Rhode Island, partners in NECAP, all saw substantial declines in fourth-grade science scores on the most recent round of science testing, which was largely attributable to difficulty with the portion of the test that assessed inquiry-based learning.

“I think on the state’s part it feels pressing,” said Stainton. In her school, she said, teachers feel they have a window of time in which to tinker with the standards and how they translate into effective instruction.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.

Hands-On Science