Developing Science Standards for 21st Century Students

Jan 26, 2016

The Space Race inspired a generation of students interested in science. Today, the issues facing aspiring scientists are no less momentous. For one, there's NASA's efforts to put people on Mars. But, closer to home, science issues touch each of us, every day – from climate change, to genetically modified organisms, and cutting edge medical treatments. And, of course, most of us have access to the world's collective knowledge via tiny, powerful computers we carry around in our pockets. Educational standards need to reflect this new reality and prepare students for their science-filled lives.

Case in point, the weather. Or should I say climate? 2015 was the hottest year on record, by a record margin. Now, the east coast has been slammed with a record-breaking winter storm. Are these just freak events, or part of a larger climate change story? Climatologist Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says it's important to differentiate between weather and climate, and to understand that climate science is complicated.

"I don't think we do the subject any favors by trying to hide that complexity," says Schmidt, noting that part of what makes the topic so difficult is the connection to other, divergent subjects, such as other environmental issues, and energy policy. "In fact, I think we need to embrace that complexity."

Schmidt says he thinks the American public is ready for that. When people are surveyed about climate science, he says, the majority recognize that they don't fully understand climate change and say they need to learn more about it. And he sees that a positive thing. The challenge is making sure that, when people go in search of information, they are able to discern reliable sources from misinformation, and assemble a big picture from all the puzzle pieces.

Those same skills - critical thinking, data analysis, and reasoning - are front and center in new science education standards, called Next Generation Science Standards. Education experts say it's not enough for students to regurgitate memorized facts; they need to be able to explain the concepts behind such facts and combine them to construct new ideas. But Brian Reiser, a Professor of Learning Sciences at Northwestern University, rejects the idea that educators have to make an either-or choice between facts and concepts.

"One of the things we are trying to do is move beyond false dichotomies like learning facts versus learning deep understanding," says Reiser, who helped develop the new standards, as well as guidelines for assessments to go along with them. "What we know is  the facts need to be built on a strong foundation, and you build this foundation of explanatory ideas, not by just learning them, but by learning them in the context of trying to make sense or solve problems in the world around us."

To date, seventeen states and Washington, D.C., have adopted the new standards. Reiser says that's just fine. For one thing, it's going to take time to train teachers and develop the classroom materials and tests needed to implement the standards. In that regard, a phased roll-out is actually better than immediate, universal adoption. Plus, some states who aren't adopting Next Generation Science Standards are adapting them, building on the same framework, while adding new developments in scientific research or putting a local angle on certain topics.

Massachusetts is in that category, and state officials are finalizing the Commonwealth's new science standards this week. Michael DiSpezio, a science education expert who develops educational videos, textbooks, and classroom materials for school systems around the world, says Massachusetts has tended to be ahead of the national curve when it comes to educational standards. This round of science standards is one more example of that.

Standards are only one part of the education equation, though. More important, according to both Reiser and DiSpezio, is how science is taught. Research increasingly shows that student-led inquiry and team- or independent project-based learning is most effective. But DiSpezio argues that what actually happens in the classroom may be influenced more by the tests students have to pass than by the latest research on learning styles. And he doesn't blame teachers for that.

"Teachers have an incredible responsibility, and things are changing," DiSpezio says. "You need to teach to the standards, you needs to have your students performing this way, you need this, this, this. And there's not enough time in the day. It's incredible what teachers are faced with."

Parents also face a challenge when trying to help their children with material that can seem completely foreign. DiSpezio says both teachers and parents need more training and more support in order to make science education successful. Still, Reiser remains optimistic that we, as a nation, are moving in the right direction when it comes to science education.