Understanding the Next Generation Science Standards means realizing that the NGSS is not just about changing how we teach. In fact, the primary goal is to change teaching, altering practices and processes to give students a more active role in learning – creating an environment in which they are not merely observing and absorbing new concepts, but engaging and interacting with them.
Before NGSS, you may have used textbooks or taken a content approach centered on understanding and applying. What the new standards ask is that we go further in creating, evaluating and analyzing, so that students are not only consuming the content but are actually participating and interacting with it, working to develop it within the classroom.
The new classroom experience asks students to engage as scientist and engineer, take ownership of their learning, and work with the content as they engage in STEM practices. The idea that students not only need to develop STEM skills, but that they also need to engage them as they create, evaluate, and analyze within the STEM classroom is a significant shift from former state standards. And the best ways to engage practices are within the content itself.
The 8 STEM Practices
Under NGSS, as a result of STEM instruction, a student must be able to:
- Ask questions (for science) and define problems (for engineering)
- Develop and use models, but not just something given to them. They must actually participate in that development.
- Plan and carry out investigations, which goes deeper than just being given a procedure. They must be able to plan the investigation and plan the procedure themselves.
- Analyze and interpret data, applying math to hunt for the key data points that support a claim about their hypothesis or prototype solution.
- Use math and computational thinking. Think of this as considering scale when designing a prototype, being able to figure out resources required, conducting multiple trials, and determining sources of error and orders of magnitude.
- Construct an explanation (for science) and design a solution (for engineering).
- Engage in argument stemming from evidence.
- Obtain, evaluate, and communicate information.
Using these practices, students are effectively engaging as scientists and engineers in their classrooms. The effect is a classroom in which the teacher is no longer the sage distributing facts – with 30-plus students in class, it’s impossible to regulate the flow of knowledge to each individual student all the time.
Engaging students in the practices of science and engineering allows educators to instead become facilitators of a STEM learning environment where students are engaging in Socratic dialogue and interacting with content, but are also expected to engage those practices and being challenged to solve problems and answer questions. The result: A much more authentic science or engineering lab experience than would often be considered under standards prior to NGSS.
Changing the environment in which students are taught changes what they learn. Giving students the power to develop skills and knowledge by exploring, experimenting and prototyping– a performance-based approach to learning that promises to not just train young minds, but to open them.