Now that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are upon us, there has been a lot of talk about the three dimensions of the new standards. One of the most significant shifts under NGSS comes in the integration of the eight science and engineering practices with the disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts.
The 8 Practices
The eight science and engineering practices are:
- Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
- Developing and using models
- Planning and carrying out investigations
- Analyzing and interpreting data
- Using math and computational thinking
- Constructing an explanation (for science) and designing a solution (for engineering)
- Engaging in an argument stemming from evidence
- Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
A lot of places list the practices, but less is discussed about how exactly to integrate these practices in your classroom, and why doing so is so transformative.
Integrating the Practices in the Classroom
First, let’s talk about what integrating science and engineering practices in the classroom actually looks like. Traditionally, the practices were often taught independently of any specific content. So students might be taught how to develop a procedure in the context of creating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They would learn how to use steps to describe the making of the sandwich so that others could follow the procedure.
This approach is quite limited in its value for students, however. Much more important is teaching students to develop and use the practices in the context of what they are learning in the classroom.
What does that mean? To teach weathering and erosion, it’s not enough to ask students to memorize the definitions of those words, or give them an experiment that they follow to see weathering and erosion in action. With the three-dimensional learning called for by NGSS, students will need to use the practices to access the content. In other words, students should be planning an investigation that they then carry out to provide evidence of the effects of weathering or the rate of erosion by water, ice, wind, or vegetation (4-ESS2-1). It’s no longer enough for students to be given a procedure that they simply follow. In fact, that is an ELA standard, not a STEM one.
This new approach will dramatically change what the STEM classroom looks like. It means that students are not going to be doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time. Some might be testing different hypotheses and developing using different procedures. Some student procedures may not yield results. Students may come up with different explanations or solutions to problems.
The Result: True Learning
And that’s the whole point. That’s how meaningful, lasting learning happens. Students have to think about the outcome they’re trying to achieve, look at the materials they have available, and then come up with a process that will get them closer to that outcome. In science, it means generating data to answer questions. In engineering, it means designing solutions that solve problems. When the outcome isn’t what’s expected, or when different student groups have varying results, it presents an ideal moment to take a step back and analyze those differences. What’s different? Why did those differences occur? What can we learn from this process?
This is fundamentally different from how most science classrooms have been structured, but it will transform the STEM experience in ways that go far beyond science, technology, engineering, and math.
Why is this approach so transformative? Fundamentally, it’s because students have to use their higher order thinking skills of creating, evaluating, and analyzing. When you help students develop the practices, you are actually developing critical thinking skills that they can apply in any situation. This is why STEM education is so important for all students. It provides students with a scientific way of thinking, one that involves questioning, gathering data, analyzing, and communicating—skills that are transferable to any discipline, career, or life event.
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