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New West Virginia Science Standards: Mining for Uncertainty

Posted by Sara Goodman on May 24, 2016

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The adoption of new West Virginia Science Standards has hit a major snag in the form of the potential conflict of said standards with the state’s already troubled mining industry. The standards, which include human impact on climate change as an element students need to consider, has touched nerves around the state, especially in light of an economy that is presently struggling mightily with environmental issues and financial concerns. 

After serious debate that has lasted months, West Virginia has finally decided to move forward in the process of adopting these standards by inserting nuanced uncertainties alongside references to global temperature increases like "and decrease". Despite these minor changes this adoption constitutes a major win for environmental groups who are delighted to see West Virginia Science Curriculum recognizing the role that human actions play in the greenhouse effect and other climate issues, the adoption will not be without its costs.

For one thing, it has caused significant friction among various factions in an already heated debate over how to balance the environmental and human health downsides of coal mining with the capital this natural resource offers one of the most impoverished states in the Union. In addition to causing legislative hostility, the adoption process also excited protest.

Moreover, the standards will probably differ significantly from curriculum and classroom instruction rending the nuanced changes in wording a closer reflection of political interests than classroom realities. Adopting the standards does not mean districts have to teach them wholesale or even at all, each district will interpret and teach a version of the standards it deems appropriate.

Still, those districts that adhere to Next Generation Science Standards will represent a major move forward in a state that has traditionally been criticized for its unwillingness to face the issue of climate change head-on. And in coming years, their students in West Virginia will not only learn about pressing environmental issues, they’ll also learn crucial skills to help them succeed in higher education and future workplaces.

Part of the reason American students are behind in the areas of math and science are that as a nation, and as individual states, we have made too little effort to help students access these subjects in ways that are personally meaningful. Bringing real-world relevance (like climate change) to the forefront of the science classroom will help students make meaningful connections that not only gives them room to practice their skills, but will cement those concepts for years and decades to come.

What skills, exactly?

Excellent question. The Next Generation Science Standards, and the curriculum and resources aligned with them, put a heavy emphasis on teaching students actual skills they’ll use to engage with science and engineering. Rather than merely following step-by-step directions in a canned “lab experiment,” students are offered the tools to design and follow through on experiments themselves.

These skills – referred to by the standards as “science and engineering practices” – include asking questions and defining problems, interpreting data, constructing explanations and designing solutions, engaging in arguing from evidence and so on. Rather than teaching students specific concepts they must remember to pass a test (though that is certainly an element of the standards too), the new standards require that they be able to access valuable skills that will help them engage with any scientific or engineering question or problem, and therefore drastically increase their chances of success in a wide variety of academic and workplace settings.

For West Virginia, the current battle is over. The standards have been adopted and will, at least in some form, be making appearances in state classrooms over the next few years. Nevertheless, the skirmish leaves questions behind, one of the most obvious of which is how educators go about teaching a subject that may conflict philosophically with statewide business, a powerful forces in company towns.

The answer to that may be as simple as giving students the knowledge to make those decisions themselves, then arming them with the tools needed to do something about it. That calls for great curriculum that adheres to next generation standards.

Are you curious what next generation and new West Virginia aligned science curriculum looks like? You can download a unit and see for yourself. Our curriculum follows EQuIP and PEEC guidelines for NGSS aligned science curriculum and offers educators a cutting-edge way to teach students and help ensure they can meet assessment of NGSS in coming years.

Topics: Next Generation Science Standards, West Virginia, state-level standards

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