According to the National Research Council’s 2011 definition of effective STEM instruction (a definition that helped lay the foundation of what would become the Next Generation Science Standards), "Effective STEM instruction capitalizes on students’ early interests and experiences, identifies and builds on what they know, and provides them with experiences to engage them in the practices of science and sustain their interest."
The word choice in this statement is all very deliberate. To deconstruct it:
Effective STEM instruction capitalizes on a student’s early interests and experiences, meaning it is a nurturing process that’s never one and done; it’s linked systemically with curriculum, and not simply September through June, but all throughout a student’s academic experience.
It builds, which is to say the guideline recognizes that a multipurpose science "kit" (or other broad resource) does a disservice to students. A 1st grader is vastly different from a 2nd grader, who is vastly different from a 3rd grader. As they hit developmental milestones, their experiences change, creating an opportunity. But if the curriculum isn’t designed that way, it’s not a benefit; it’s an Achilles heel.
Identifying and building on what students know requires articulating curriculum as a team, so it’s not every person for himself or herself. By approaching STEM systemically, educators have the chance to not only identify what students know, but build on that as educators support their peers below and above. Consistency is key here— as students go through school, if the definition of what is science, and what is engineering changes in dramatic ways, it creates confusion and impacts engagement and success.
Engaging students in the practices of science means just that: making those skills real and actionable in the classroom, not presenting students with memorization or fill-in-the-blanks. It’s about using skills to access content in a way that is active, attractive, and sustains interest so the curriculum keeps momentum one grade to the next.
The crux is a shift in the model of teaching: From teacher- centered where lessons are pre-configured and where students are asked to present lessons back just as they went in, to a model in which students are challenged to develop and use their skills and practice them in a novel context that engages them in problem solving and answering questions. It’s achieved through resources that shift student readiness in the classroom to mastery ready.
Moving from Awareness to Mastery
Resources can be categorized into four levels regarding their ability to create "readiness:"
Students who are awareness ready are able to raise their hand and answer the questions, Who is a scientist? and, Who is an engineer? Resources that promote awareness-readiness are the types you often get from museums and public awareness programs. They are generally aimed at making students familiar with the basics of what a scientist or engineer is, or ways a company or organization applies STEM knowledge to solve problems.
The shift from awareness to knowledge readiness takes place with textbooks. Textbooks accomplish the goal of getting students ready to tell you all about what scientists have discovered and what technology or problems engineers have developed. This, however, is simply knowledge. Students aren’t actually engaging in science or engineering, and the reality is, textbooks don’t have much of a place in the new standards.
Performance readiness comes from things like common science kits, which are geared toward putting a specific situation in front of students and having them learn. For example, if you want to find out how hard a rock is, you do a scratch test. And if you’re asked, "How hard is a rock?" you know how to do a scratch test. This is real experience, but it’s very context-specific.
To move from performance readiness to mastery readiness, students must develop transferable skills — skills that focus on problem solving or answering questions in any context, which is different from performance readiness.
For example, how often in life will someone be asked how hard a rock is? Unless they’re a geologist, seldom, if ever. Instead, a more appropriate context might involve thinking about a contractor building a kitchen:
Builders have a lot of different materials they can choose from—some organic, some synthetic, some rock and mineral. If the contractor wants to decide which countertop is the most durable, could the student help?
This type of problem solving demands that a student really consider the question and use their STEM practice skills to explore the properties of each material. There are many dimensions to such a scenario such as: how do we define durability? Does the material scratch? Fracture? What happens when it gets hot or cold?
Students should then be able to develop their own model to gather data and support their answer to the question—something that is evidence based.
For instance, if the question is about durability and scratching, a student may suggest taking a sample from each of the materials and go about scratching it with items or materials that are often placed on countertops. The goal is to collect data that can be used to answer the question, and in this case, the building materials, determining which are more durable.
Superior STEM resources address mastery readiness—as do the Next Generation Science Standards. So, when you go about choosing and developing resources, you must think past identification and information and toward context and bringing content to life. The ultimate goal is giving students the ability to perform all expectations in class and take ownership and full responsibility, not simply absorb information and repeat it or perform a specific task in a linear, narrow way.
The problem is, many STEM resources on the market have recently rebranded themselves as Next Generation Science Standards resources. Be wary: many are not, and are not geared at the full release of responsibility to develop those skills.
So, what now? Know what your science curriculum needs to create: those contexts, grade-specific mastery, introduction to further levels, reinforcement of previous levels, and it must enable the student to engage in the practices to access the content.