We've already spoken a bit about how to introduce the processes of science and engineering, but let's take a closer look here. The initial units that students engage in set up the process so that students understand its basic steps, after which we use those processes over and over to really cement them. Then we bring engineering in pretty quickly, helping them see that it is an integral part of the scientific process. Their introduction to the more-familiar scientific process first, however, gives them the foundation to map over to the engineering process soon after.
Introducing the processes should follow a specific routine to give students the instructional support they need to succeed throughout.
Students should be introduced to each concept they study in a structured way so they get used to the process of reading about a subject, speaking about it in the Socratic dialogue model, planning an investigation as a team, carrying out the science or engineering plan, and forming a conclusion through the CER model that they can then share with the class and get feedback on.
Establishing background knowledge is a crucial part of the science and engineering processes, giving students the information they need to engage productively in Socratic dialogue and design their experiments.
Throughout both processes, students are engaging, developing, and using the disciplinary core ideas, observing the phenomena, identifying them, and actually engaging in the practices themselves. That's where the thoughtful articulation and scaffolding come in. Hence, good curriculum materials are necessary. Without them, a lot of people will take ideas that should be hands-on and try to turn them into something that's a lot less experiential… say, an app, or even worse, going back to that textbook reading model.
Breaking down how each science or engineering practice relates to each lesson is a beneficial practice that enables the teacher to ensure each is being used somewhere in each unit.
We bring up the subject of apps because, while they can be useful, we have yet to see one that allows students to fully engage in the process as scientists or engineers. It's important not to engage an app at the expense of engaging in real experimenting and design. It's very important that students are able to engage in the practices themselves, however, in a hands-on fashion that prioritizes real problem solving and observation of phenomena.
Effective STEM education is composed of four components: curriculum, professional development, STEM learning and materials.
Here at KnowAtom, we specialize in the creation of such curriculum. You can find and download curriculum for different grade levels here on our website. We are often able to help districts that get stuck in trying to create good curriculum, and we can help point you in the right direction or find next generation-aligned resources to get your district up and running quickly and put everyone within it on the same page. This allows the district to focus not on who found what resource where, but instead on effective instruction and meeting student needs pedagogically, as well as thinking as a team to strategically meet student needs.
That's what our resources do: They translate the next generation science standards into a form of instruction that really works. Essentially, they turn standards into curriculum. It supports that teacher with the background, the lessons, the units, the assessments, the answer key, and the chronological scope and sequence, so that high-quality student learning can take place and so that there is evidence of that learning.
This is an example of how information is scaffolded for students from grade to grade. The tradition of siloed instruction really has no home with NGSS, which by design treats science as a basic, integrated discipline. It builds from grade to grade in a logical, integrated way.
The above image depicts effective scaffolding across the lower grades. Take 1st grade, for instance, which is composed of nine units, each a monthly theme. The same is true of 2nd grade, and so on, all integrated across disciplines to bring purpose to science and engineering. The curriculum helps students discover connections, which continues through 8th grade.
Supported by Data
While the proficiency average for Massachusetts hovers around 50 percent, this school went from 14 points below average to 35 points above average over 2.5 years.
The data bears out this approach. Take the example above from an elementary school in Massachusetts. This is an urban school, 72 percent low-income, 65 percent free lunch, 75 percent high-needs, 35 percent English Language Learner. Over the course of two and a half years, they added 51 points to their advanced and proficient scoring students. The state average is only 50 percent, so that represents quite a feat.
This example is 89 advanced and proficient, impressive for an inner-city school.
In Massachusetts, we have two out of the three or three out of the top five highest-performing elementary schools, hovering around 92 percent proficient or so. The above is an example of a school that's pretty close: 89 percent advanced and proficient. Note that these are not suburban schools, but deep inner city schools, with 1,200 or so students tested in 8th grade. In this example, over the course of roughly 2.5 years, they added 24 points to their advanced and proficient scores, while their warning levels fell by some 50%.
These numbers, believe it or not, are fairly representative of school populations that offer students access to rigorous STEM education. Helping students understand and use the scientific and engineering processes, build a compelling conclusion using the claim-evidence-reasoning model, and generally immerse themselves in environments where they're actually acting as scientists and engineers has massively positive results. It not only sets students up to succeed in later grades, which are scaffolded to build continuously on student knowledge, but for higher education and career as well.
This is a crucial step to take to improve American performance in the global workplace, which increasingly rewards creativity, evaluation, analysis and innovative thinking in general. If we are to teach students who will be able to contribute meaningfully to science and engineering in their lives, it starts in the classroom with STEM education that actually works.