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Building Curriculum that Prepares Students for Careers in STEM

Posted by Francis Vigeant on Apr 12, 2016

The critical importance of NGSS comes down to the skills they expect students to master. They emphasize teaching students higher order thinking skills that go beyond simply remembering, understanding and applying. These higher order thinking skills – analyzing, evaluating and creating – are the stuff of innovation, and to contend successfully in a competitive global economy, students will need to have these skills. 



By teaching children to create, evaluate, and analyze, we are developing in students the tools necessary to actually become scientists and engineers. 

They're equipped to be innovators, whether they're innovative sales people or innovative plumbers. They become trainable because they understand how to step into a role and begin problem-solving. They can use these skills to support STEM industry or they can go into something that's completely unrelated to STEM, but either way they're prepared to think for themselves.

Unfortunately, this doesn't always describe today’s student science experience.

The lack of curriculum that requires these skills of students represents a serious deficit in curriculum, left behind by the traditional model of science instruction. In many cases, students lack that mastery readiness that allows them to apply their skills to various situations and truly innovate, which in turn impacts the American workforce and economy and has led to a dearth of students prepared to engage in science, engineering any other field.

That's why we really need these standards.

The inclusion of practices brings creation, evaluation and analysis to life simultaneously in the classroom. That's why Bloom's Taxonomy is rearranged like this; you can't just create, you can't just apply, you can't just remember, and you can't just analyze. You have to do these things simultaneously.

What tends to happen in the classroom, though, is an over-reliance on tools that remove higher order thinking or linger too long on lower-order scaffolding (i.e. worksheets, textbooks, etc.), so that students never get an opportunity to exercise higher order thinking skills, refine them and get to a point where they are proficient at demonstrating them.

From a curriculum development standpoint, it is absolutely necessary we introduce an approach to science that enables students to interact with these higher order thinking skills.

Therefore, NGSS becomes critical, and so aligning classroom resources to those standards becomes critical as well. Let’s take a look at what the processes and resources for doing that are below.

Process and Resources for NGSS Alignment

The curriculum development process is fairly complex. As you’re structuring your curriculum development process and building your team, there are several things you should take into account. First, let’s note that developing curriculum – to be aligned to NGSS especially – is not something that one person can do. It takes at least a small team of people to be able to accomplish what's necessary to create truly meaningful STEM instruction. To understand how this works, let’s take a look at a pyramid that shows the progression of processes and resources for designing NGSS curriculum.


Each level of the pyramid, which we will discuss in more detail in the content below, requires multiple steps. Each level must then inform the levels above and below it in a continuous feedback loop that leads to better curriculum. Leaving any of these levels out of the pyramid results in a less robust curriculum, and one that may not even prepare students for meeting performance expectations.

Experience, Communication and Organization

The base of developing effective curriculum starts with an understanding of human organizational behavior. When we’re talking about curriculum, we’re not talking about the one activity that you might do in your classroom to try and address one aspect of a standard. That's not curriculum development. That's task development, and that comes much later.

When we’re talking about curriculum, we’re referring to something that is scalable within your team so that all your fifth grade teachers, for example, can share the same practices. It is also scalable within your district so that buildings can be on the same page and your whole district is moving forward together. Written and oral communication is also very important. Just because something makes sense to one person doesn't mean that it make sense to everybody. To be able to communicate that in a way that's scalable through writing and speech is crucial, and that necessitates consistent language use in both written and spoken forms.

Lastly, the ability to envision both the student and the teacher experience simultaneously is a critical aspect of the base of the curriculum-formation pyramid. When you think about the importance of human organizational behavior and the teacher experience, it's crucial that curriculum is written in such a way that it doesn't accidentally communicate to a teacher that a traditional model of instruction is appropriate in executing the curriculum.

In other words, all curricula must signal to teachers that they should be using the next generation model if we are to serve our students as well as possible.

NGSS-Specific Curriculum Components

The next piece that we need to think about is specific to NGSS, and involves the processes to develop and use science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts and disciplinary core ideas. It's important that team members really understand at a nuanced level the connections between disciplinary core ideas, content and skills.

It's a little bit misleading when you look at a standard and you see disciplinary core ideas grouped in that orange box below, and it’s tempting to assume, "Oh, these are the only disciplinary core ideas that relate to the standard. This must be a stand-alone core idea." That’s actually not the case at all. Yes, those are the ones that are most directly related, but there are also disciplinary core ideas from different grade levels and performance expectations that relate as well.

It's important to understand those relationships in a nuanced way so that the curriculum is pulling in standards from multiple areas and teaching students about the systems nature of these subjects. Rather than teaching concepts independently of one another and presenting an isolated idea of what science and engineering are, this new approach allows teachers to offer a more holistic big picture, which students need to develop to be able to demonstrate their understanding in diverse contexts.

Vertical and Horizontal Articulation of Units

After you grow this core competency within your team, you start to really get into the curriculum development. Again, it’s critical to view those performance expectations as developing over time and networking together rather than existing in isolation. Once teachers can create those experiences and contexts that tie together multiple disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts and skills, students have a real shot at meeting the NGSS performance expectations.

This requires a vision for how all that content and the crosscutting concepts come together both vertically and horizontally. In other words, how is your school or your district going to build from one grade level to the next using these concepts? The idea of spiraling – teaching something in first grade and then again in third grade, but not having it be a part of every year – isn’t very effective. The reason is that it's a systemic gap in your school.

If students transition in and out of the district and they weren't there the year you taught something, then they didn't get any exposure to it. That means when they do get tested for it, they may not be prepared in a school or district that only addresses science some years. Sadly, that is the model for most states, which don’t test science every year. They tend to test in either 4th or 5th grade, 8th grade and then at least once in high school, if not every year.

What does this mean?

Students don't see that content for a couple of years, yet they're held accountable for it on the test. If they enter after it's been taught, they end up being tested on material they have no knowledge of. It's a gap. That’s why having that intentional nurturing process from one grade level to the next is very important, and having focused mastery objectives in each grade level is important.

That's how we approach it. Once the content and concepts are vertically articulated from grade level to grade level, now you have the ability to horizontally articulate it as well. This makes it possible to understand how you're going to progress from September through June, scaffolding vocabulary and concepts on top of one another and forming units.

Materials, Content, Experience & Lessons

It's only at this point that the lessons, content and experiences really come together. Now that you understand how the content, skills and crosscutting concepts need to be articulated from September to June and year to year, you can start putting it all together to form curriculum as students will encounter it in the classroom.

Think of curriculum as that overarching scope sequence, materials, content lessons, experience and so on, all built very intentionally. This is how you meet the objectives of nurturing students September through June, and from pre-K through 12th grade. In order for the curriculum to be truly effective, especially under NGSS, all of these foundational elements must come together.

As this transition to the NGSS is happening, they have to come together rather rapidly, so that students are ready for the next generation of assessments. But if each aspect of the curriculum is not tested against others, you have a chance for disconnect. That’s where the feedback loop comes in.

The Continuous Curriculum Feedback Loop

Note that it's important that a continuous feedback loop exists when it comes to constructing curriculum. Once you've created something, you must make sure it continues to work. This is one of the things that we've seen here over our last 10 years as we’ve developed our science and engineering curriculum. Because we are constantly learning about human organizational behavior and scaling from hundreds of students to thousands of students and tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, we have gotten the opportunity to see how people misinterpret material, develop unhelpful habits and misconstrue ideas.

Of course, it’s not always people who are at fault. Other limitations include:

  • Time on learning
  • Lessons and materials
  • The experience itself (perhaps not culturally appropriate, for instance)
  • The units themselves

Because these standards are so important and so three-dimensional, though, developing curriculum to meet them isn’t just a “set it and forget it” thing; we have to keep them dynamic so that they’re always meeting the needs of students and curriculum is always aligning with the NGSS.

A key point to realize is that curriculum's job is to bring the standards to life in an experience. That's the key difference between curriculum and standards.

Standards are a tool for understanding whether or not students are reaching some definition of proficiency. Curriculum's job, on the other hand, is to get students to a point of proficiency, build their skill set and engage them in developing and using content. This helps them build content knowledge so that ultimately they are college and career ready and can dictate the terms of their own future.

We're not trying to prepare students for automated careers. Rather, we want to prepare them to be the ones who can think about ways of automating, and at the same time, fill roles that cannot be automated because they are too technical, too nuanced and too innovative. That’s what creative, evaluative and analytical higher order thinking skills are for.

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