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Why America’s Kids Need New Standards for Science Education

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Image courtesy of Penn State and pennstatelive, via Flickr

Earlier today, a group of scientists, educators and policymakers released the newest draft of the Next Generation Science Standards, which lay out ambitious expectations for what elementary, middle and high school students should learn at each grade level. These guidelines affect virtually every child enrolled in public school, and advocates say they will revolutionize STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education in this country. Though the standards are voluntary, many policy watchers expect a majority of states to sign on, as they did with the Common Core State Standards in Math and Language Arts in 2010. I asked Michael Wysession, an author of the new standards and a seismologist at Washington University in St. Louis, to explain why the science standards released today are so important.

Guest post by Michael Wysession, Associate Professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and a member of the Leadership Team for the writing of the Next Generation Science Standards. He has also served as the Earth and Space Science Design Team Leader for the National Research Council’s “A Framework for K-12 Science Education,” which informed the new standards.

It was 7:45 a.m. on December 21, 2012, and I was in the studio for St. Louis TV Channel 2 News. “Why are so many people convinced that the world is going to end today?” the anchorwoman asked, referring to the supposed ancient Mayan doomsday prophesy. I thought of talking about how precarious human civilization was – as Will Durant said, “Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.” I thought about the five major extinctions of life over the past half-billion years, the most recent being the end of the Cretaceous, when a rogue object from space DID hit the Earth, on the Yucatan peninsula, which, incidentally, was the home of the same Mayans whose calendar was ending today.

Then I thought about the eruption of Toba volcano 74,000 years ago, which may have nearly wiped out the human species.  And I thought about the long string of volcanic eruptions, rapid climate swings, tsunamis, droughts, floods, and other geoscience catastrophes that have routinely devastated the human population and prevented any one civilization from lasting very long. Then I thought about the nearly unbelievable changes that we humans were making to our planet, most certainly replacing the 10,000-year-old Holocene Epoch with the new Anthropocene Epoch. And I wondered how we would know at what point these human impacts would be severe enough to justify replacing the 65-million-year-old Cenozoic Era with a new era, the Anthropozoic Era, the sixth major extinction of life, brought about by the current dominant agent of geologic change on our planet (which is us).

But the smiling commentator who was interviewing me did not want to hear about geologic catastrophes, and I wondered how many viewers would have had the background to understand my answers. Americans get almost no high school education in the areas of Earth and space science. At that moment, the best thing I could talk about was how badly America needed the Next Generation Science Standards, , which are due to be released this spring and whose second public draft was released today. Americans have been duped by too many scams concerning our planet for too long. We need better science education.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are a comprehensive set of K-12 student “performance expectations” for the areas of Earth and space science, life science, and physical science. They integrate concepts of engineering and technology and develop ties to the math and English “Common Core” standards. The NGSS are based on the recommendations of a report by the National Research Council (NRC, the educational arm of the National Academies of Science) called “A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas.” The basis for the NGSS is that all of the performance expectations involve a weaving together of three dimensions – the practices of science, the crosscutting concepts of science, and the core ideas of science. This structure was established and defined in the NRC Framework, and the NGSS are the resulting fleshed-out standards.

Simply put, the NGSS will revolutionize science education for most of the country, at least for the states that choose to adopt them. Though they contain the latest and most up-to-date findings of science, their strength lies in incorporating the latest and most up-to-date advances in pedagogy and educational research. The NGSS move away from presenting science as a list of facts to be memorized and present science as a set of practices to be done. In fact, every grade-appropriate performance expectation, each sentence, ties together a particular science content with a science practice; you cannot pull the content out into a list of factoids.

The aim of NGSS is to identify what students can do, not what they know. After all, if you want to know how many planets there are, you can always look that up on the web. If you want to understand why they are important and how they function as part of a system, the solar system, then there are a set of practices you should do, which the NGSS identify as (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 and Computational Thinking, (6) Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, (7) Engaging in Argument from Evidence, and (8) Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information.

It is well known that most Americans get nearly all their science education after they leave high school. This is less an indictment of the public school educational system than it is an indication of the great fascination that most Americans have with science and the many excellent “informal” educational opportunities available to them. Museums, national and state parks, educational television programs, and digital/print media (such as Scientific American) provide many great opportunities for people to explore the natural world. However, there is still a need for a solid K-12 science education. Schools and textbooks used to be where people got most of their science information. Now that we are flooded with information, we need our formal education more than ever, not to convey more information, but to make sense of it all.

Think of your K-12 science education as constructing a giant bookshelf on which you will organize and make sense of the steady stream of scientific information you will come in contact with during your lifetime. Without that structure, you end up with endless piles of facts, stacked high, that either clutter up your world or eventually get thrown out. (For example, if you Google the word “volcano” you get back almost 100 million websites. How do you make sense of all this?) A good formal science education allows you to organize those facts into sensible concepts that you can build upon if they interest you. And the key is that understanding science enough to construct that conceptual organizational “bookcase” requires you to actively do science, and the labs and data and hands-on opportunities provided in school are the best way to do this. This is what the Next Generation Science Standards are encouraging.

The NGSS provide exciting new opportunities for all the sciences, but most greatly in the areas of Earth and space science. The NGSS standards would require roughly a year of high school Earth and space science. What was the last grade you were in where you received any geoscience education? If you are like most Americans it was in middle school. You might think that there is a sound reason why geology is usually taught in middle school, with little math involved, and not in high school. There isn’t. Though we live in a thoroughly modern scientific world, our science education structure is now 120 years old.

Yes, back in 1893 a group of university professors called the “Committee of Ten,” led by Harvard University president George Eliot, made a set of recommendations to try to standardize the education of incoming university students. Some of the recommendations were excellent, such as promoting hands-on laboratory experimentation and outdoor investigations, but one unfortunate recommendation was that the three years of high school science be of biology, chemistry, and physics, and that “physical geography” be taught in middle school. (Not even any mention of geology.) To be fair, geology wasn’t much at that time; it was mostly a science of categorizing minerals, rocks, fossils, and the relative time sequence of the geologic record. Geologists had no idea why mountains formed or volcanoes erupted. The first seismic recording of an earthquake was made just 4 years earlier. Radioactivity was still a decade away. Milankovitch didn’t figure out that Ice Ages were caused by changes in Earth’s orbit until World War I. The discovery of the mid-ocean ridges wasn’t until after World War II. The pieces of the theory of plate tectonics weren’t assembled until the late 1960’s.

However, some time between 1893 and now, the fields of Earth and space science became a set of quantitative, complex, process-based, systems-oriented, and remarkably relevant scientific practices. Unfortunately, our educational system is still in the mode of teaching “physical geography” in middle school, so this change went largely unnoticed by most Americans, for whom middle school geology meant scratching some minerals and memorizing the geologic time scale. The result of this has been devastating. We became a country with no coherent energy policy because so few people understand the complex issues surrounding both renewable and non-renewable energy sources. We have no national policies toward the limited resources of minerals, soil, and groundwater, as most people don’t even realize these resources are limited. Humans have become the greatest agent of geologic change on the planet, altering the land surface an order of magnitude faster than any other geologic process, but most people have no idea of the impacts of their collective actions. Imagine a toddler who instantly grew to the size of a city and started ravaging the countryside. That’s us.  We have suddenly found ourselves with immense powers, but are still a long way away from having the maturity to know what to do with it or how to control it. Stopgap legislation like the Clean Air Acts and Clean Water Acts, though vitally important, don’t begin to address the enormous impacts our activities are having on Earth’s systems.

The writing of the Next Generation Science Standards is being supervised by Achieve, Inc., which is a bipartisan not-for-profit organization created by a group of governors and corporate leaders in order to carry out K-12 education reform at the state level. However, it is not accurate to say that Achieve is writing the standards. A diverse writing team of almost 50 scientists and educators has been working closely with representatives from 26 participating states as well as many other “critical stakeholder” organizations. The draft of NGSS being released today is only the second public draft, but with all of the reviews by the participating states and critical stakeholders I have lost track of what iteration this is. 6? 7? 8? The point is that it has been very carefully written to be accurate and relevant and useful to states.

It is also important to note that NGSS is entirely apolitical. For the most part, everyone agrees that science, technology, and education are all good things. Everyone wants a better-trained workforce in the areas of engineering and technology. If you look at a map of the 26 states involved with writing the standards, there is lots of both red and blue. For some states, maintaining states’ rights in the area of K-12 education is very important, so it is critical to note that not a penny of federal funding went into constructing either the NRC Framework or the NGSS. Both projects were funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Privately funded and written by states, the NGSS may be national standards, but they are not federal standards.

Let me give you one example of how the NGSS play out in Earth and space science. At the high school level, there are five Earth and space science topics, each one with about a half-dozen performance expectations: Space Systems, History of Earth, Earth’s Systems, Weather and Climate, and Human Sustainability. These build upon similar topics at the middle school level. You can read them all at the Achieve web site (http://www.nextgenscience.org/next-generation-science-standards). At the middle school level, the topic of Weather and Climate is focused on weather. At the high school level it is focused on climate change, which can be seen as a capstone high school science experience for all students.

Climate change is not only a critically important topic, it is also one of the most complex topics in all of science, involving cycles within cycles that are a function of radiation physics, atmospheric chemistry, ocean circulation, Milankovitch cycles of solar system orbits, variations in solar output, volcanic eruptions, biosphere dynamics, human activities, and the many complex feedbacks among them. Students need to carry out mathematical analyses of actual data and perform laboratory experiments on Earth materials in order to begin to understand this topic. Students will develop complex systems-based models, construct explanations for cause-and-effect processes, and use engineering concepts to design potential solutions. Not only is this topic unteachable at a middle school level, it needs to be taught following high school physics, chemistry, and biology. However, the result will hopefully be a public that not only ceases to deny the existence of climate change but embraces the topic because of both its relevance and its fascinating intricacies. I think that we can do it. Other countries already have. We also don’t really have a choice. We are still a world leader in science, but no longer a leader in public science education. These two statements are not compatible in the long run.

So, we made it through December 21, 2012, and the world didn’t come to an end. If people had had decent education in Earth and space science, this would not have even been a story. There is no need for us to worry about Mayan prophecies or a rogue planet called Nibiru that might be on a track to hit us. Now, occasionally some large asteroids do hit us; ask the dinosaurs. But it doesn’t happen often, and if people knew that NASA tracks the locations of tens of thousands of objects in space and has the technology to know of any major collision decades in advance, they wouldn’t worry about it.

There is something we should worry about, however: our own ignorance. The Earth science-related challenges facing humanity are enormous. The voting citizenry needs to understand the complexity of these issues so they won’t be duped by over-simplified slogans. Consumers need to understand the implications of their purchases. And everyone needs to know that Earth systems are more delicate than they might think and that the geologic record shows that conditions at Earth’s surface can change in a hurry and often have. Hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy will be replaced by larger ones. As a NOAA scientist recently remarked, when pointing to the fact that the sea level adjacent to New York City is now 13 inches higher than it was a century ago, if you raise a basketball court by 13 inches you will get a lot more slam dunks. As President Abe Lincoln said, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present….As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.” The adoption by most states of the Next Generation Science Standards is an important step in that direction.

More to explore:

The U.S. Should Adopt Higher Standards for Science Education, Scientific American editorial

Teaching Kids How Raindrops Form, Scientific American blog network

 

About the Author: Anna Kuchment is a Contributing Editor at Scientific American and a staff science writer at The Dallas Morning News. She was previously a reporter, writer and editor with Newsweek magazine. She is also author of “The Forgotten Cure,” about bacteriophage viruses and their potential as weapons against antibiotic resistance. Follow on Twitter @akuchment.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. julia smith 3:05 pm 01/8/2013

    Decades of science education “specialists” designing all sort of strategies and publishing zillions of articles in academic journals, and the end result is worse than zero. Science education if anything is worse now than 40 years ago. I know the subject well. Science education academia has fallen into the posmodern zeitgeist, has dropped all rigour -together with Piaget and the serious thinkers of the past- and now all its publications are just ideology and/or empty discourse, with zero scientific or technical theory behind. Appalling.

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  2. 2. priddseren 4:58 pm 01/8/2013

    Amazing, this guy is complaining about what, the fact people have learned in school the very basic method of science, form a theory, do actual experiments and report conclusions. Of course, the most basic method of science is incompatible with Global Warmist theory. Warmists need computer models, statistics, Arguments on evidence and consensus(meaning they agree on their own theories existence as proven and detractors can go take a hike).

    So I can only conclude here is this author is tired of explaining over and over on how his belief is a theory and that theory is proven fact and then being asked by the so called peasants of the world, show me the proof and all you have is computer models and guessing. So the goal then is to indoctrinate kids into forgetting science and instead learn how to accept the theories as fact, when ever scientists desire it to be so.

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  3. 3. Biology in Motion 5:39 pm 01/8/2013

    priddseren: Last time I checked, modeling and statistics were critical aspects of experimentation and hypothesis testing. You can disagree with the conclusions all you want, no problem there, but it’s rather silly to say that climatologists are full of crap because they use models and stats. Also, you’re missing the point of the article.

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  4. 4. Sciencefirstandforemost 11:45 am 01/9/2013

    What a silly premise to a fluff article: “Why are so many people convinced that the world is going to end today?”

    What baloney. I never met a anyone who took this serious. This is journalism?

    Science thrives on independent thinkers. The last thing the USA needs is everyone walking lock step spouting the same mantras. We don’t need cultists like Christian Fundies or Global warming groupies pushing their agenda in classrooms.

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  5. 5. Sciencefirstandforemost 11:54 am 01/9/2013

    One of the ironies of this piece is that as a geologist I just keeping shaking my head at the ‘religion’ this guy is preaching. He’s presenting so -called ‘fact’ after ‘fact..’ some of which are open to debate among geologists. He’s taken ‘educated possibilites’ and spouts them like absolutes.

    This is his approach to science education?

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  6. 6. rjeff 4:58 pm 01/9/2013

    This is a well-written essay and a well-reasoned effort. If tomorrow’s students can get the idea that science is an ongoing investigation that they can add to constructively, and not a body of revelation to be accepted uncritically, they will certainly become better human beings than today’s lack of integrated standards produces.

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  7. 7. akerber 4:43 pm 02/7/2013

    Well, she is right in the respect that science education is lacking. The scientific method is not being well taught in schools at all. Unfortunately, instead of teaching the scientific method she appears to want to indoctrinate the children in the accepted environmental superstitions rather then teaching them to think for themselves. If she wants them to study climate change, a valid study would be to examine CO2 levels across history, compare them to temperatures, and then attempt to understand why temperature appears to drive CO2 levels.

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  8. 8. adebimpey 11:44 am 06/10/2014

    Great blog! http://www.fuoye.edu.ng

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