The Next Generation Science Standards help facilitate the purpose and passion needed for a valuable learning environment. STEM is a cycle, and at each step of that cycle—and during each iteration—the standards help ensure that students see and understand that purpose.
STEM is a cycle, moving seamlessly from science—in which we gain knowledge that enables development of new technology—to engineering, in which we develop technology that solves human problems and make the study of science more effective. In between are technology, math, and knowledge.
By being scientists, they can ask and answer questions through experimentation and develop new knowledge. That enables engineers to use that knowledge to identify and solve problems, developing technology through prototyping. Math is a bridge between the two, providing a common language—a quantitative and objective way to approach science and engineering rather than a qualitative or subjective one. Technology facilitates both scientific experiments and engineering design, and knowledge informs the entire process as well.
Students must be able to make use of the STEM cycle in order to design experiments to answer questions and technologies to solve problems.
That's key to being able to replicate our experiments, whether as students or as professional scientists working for companies. One of the key pieces with which teachers struggle in terms of redesigning science tasks to align with NGSS—the goal of which is to motivate and invest students in their learning—is shifting away from teacher-centered instruction and allowing student independence. We want students to use their skills, to develop and use their knowledge, to try and solve a problem or question that nobody has shown them how to solve. If that is to happen, teachers cannot maintain lock-step control of behavior and thinking.
In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth discusses the distraction of talent. That's the idea that naturally exceptional students outperform those with less talent. Her research and shared experiences show quite the opposite results of this idea. Duckworth saw that lower-level high school math students were actually outperforming expectations. She tells the story of a student named David, who was a quiet and hardworking boy in her lower-level math class. He was not the most vocal or outwardly engaging student, but over time she noticed that David's work improved to the point that she felt that he didn't belong in her class anymore: He was turning in perfect work. She took him to the guidance counselor and helped him get into an upper level class and helped him switch.
Later, David came back and told her that when he got to that upper level class, he was behind. He was so far behind after the switch that he got a D on his first test. It's important to note at this point that Duckworth is a researcher. She left a high-powered job in management consulting to teach seventh-grade math in a New York City public school. As a researcher, instead of commiserating with David or trying to solve the problem, she simply asked how he dealt with the problem. He responded:
"I did feel bad ... but I didn't dwell on it. I knew it was done. I knew I had to focus on what to do next. So I went to my teacher and asked for help. I basically tried to figure out ... what I did wrong [and] what I needed to do differently."
That right there is grit. Trying to figure out what went wrong and what to do differently is a perfect example. It is this attitude we must teach to students through science and engineering if we want to enable their success in higher education and later life.
Staying focused on the goal while figuring out how to answer a question through experimentation or solve a problem through prototyping is what scientists and engineers do, and what our students must be able to do as well.
In other words, we need to teach students to remain focused on the goal and figure out how they can reach that goal, because again, that's grit. So students must first identify the goal, then solve the problem (in the case of engineering) or pursue the answer through experimentation (in the case of science).
Do they know how they're going to get to that solution or answer? No, and neither does the teacher. They have to put their skills and knowledge to use to do so. Along the way, of course, they are going to do things wrong. That means there will be opportunities to learn from what they did wrong, figure out what they need to do differently, and then move forward. That's how they are going to achieve their goal.
These two pedagogical models stand in stark contrast to one another. It's the difference between a student-centered model on the left and a teacher-centered model on the right.
The images above demonstrate a major difference between Next Generation Science Standards and traditional standards. While the scenario on the right shows a teacher demonstrating a concept while students watch, the left shows students directing themselves in the roles of scientists and engineers. The teacher on the right is modeling ideas, which students will later mimic. That's very different from what you see on the left, which is challenging students to develop skills, to use content, and to work out the process for themselves.
So what is the connection to grit? How does this help ensure students maintain direction and determination? Well, the scenario you see on the left is much harder for students. It hasn't been laid out for them in a paint-by-number fashion, requiring determination and direction to reach their goal. On the right, students lose the personal connection that motivates them to keep going. They're simply parroting ideas rather than designing their own experiments and learning from them.
From a next generation science standpoint, this is a very important difference. This leads us to the definition of effective STEM instruction as given to us by the National Research Council in 2011:
Effective STEM instruction capitalizes on students' early interest and experiences, identifies and builds on what they know, and provides them with experiences to engage them in the practices of science and sustain their interest.
STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—requires grit. Its ability to instill determination and direction in students is integral to the success of STEM education. Let's break this down.
"Effective science instruction capitalized on student's early interest in experiences" means it starts early, as early as kindergarten. "Identifies and builds on what they know" refers to the fact that effective STEM education is scaffolded, building upon itself from June to September and from year to year. "Provides them with experiences to engage them in the practices of science and sustain their interest” aligns with what we've already discussed: to be successful, STEM education must create arenas in which students can experiment and prototype, developing the skills to follow their own direction.
This intentionally nurturing process must be built on a foundation of grit, giving students room to pursue their goals to the end, to learn from mistakes, and to keep trying. To do this, we must provide them with the opportunity to use the science and engineering practices, as laid out by the Next Generation Science Standards.