Science education in the United States is not up to snuff.
Most high school students can scratch the scientific surface – follow instructions, conduct experiments – but few succeed at analysis and explanation, two critical components of real-world inquiry, studies reveal.
The Next Generation Science Standards aim to change all that. Released last week, the standards follow in the footsteps of the Common Core State Standards for math and reading by setting a uniform benchmark and encouraging depth over breadth in science curriculums.
"The way I imagine that it might play out is that there will be more hands-on time for students," says David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, an organization comprised of roughly 60,000 science education professionals. "There will be deeper investigations into the smaller number of ideas, and perhaps even a better opportunity for students to formulate some of the experiments themselves."
NSTA is one of four organizations involved in developing the standards. Others include the National Research Council, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences and the D.C.-based nonprofit Achieve, which was also involved in the development of the Common Core standards. The organizations enlisted a team of teachers and education leaders from 26 states to help write and revise the new science standards.
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While the standards are final, there are large gaps that need to be filled before the standards take root in high school classrooms. Here's what we know, and what will be decided in the coming months, and even years.
More experimentation: It's not uncommon for high school students to dissect a small mammal or test chemical reactions, but those activities typically come with step-by-step instructions, requiring little thought from students. The new standards encourage high school students to ask questions, then design ways to solve their queries.
"It's very, very different from current practice where even most hands-on experimental work, especially in high school, is often almost driven as a demonstration, rather than an investigation," Evans says. "A lab is pretty prescribed. This is what you do, this is how you do it, this is what you should expect to see. Just record the numbers and see if it works."
Prompting students to formulate questions and allowing them room to work through those problems promotes a deeper understanding of the content and the scientific processes in play, he says.
Adoption and implementation: While representatives from 26 states had a hand in writing the standards, it has yet to be seen how many will adopt them.
State boards of education must agree to adopt the Next Gen approach. Incorporation of evolution and climate change, called for by the standards, could be sticking points in some states, experts say.
Once states adopt the standards, they must develop curriculums and assessments, which will be a multi-year process, Evans says. With new content comes a greater need for teacher training.
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"At the secondary level, there's going to be a real need for professional development to help teachers figure out how to implement those strategies," he says. "How do you encourage students to pose the questions and develop the experiments and collect the data, with room to make mistakes and go back and redo it?"
Funding: Experiments can be fun and engaging, but they can also be expensive.
"It's certainly going to be an issue," Evans says. "Absent a specific curriculum it's hard to say what things will cost, of course, but I'm optimistic."
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Sparking that optimism is a national focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), he says, and the White House, corporate America and the science community at large are all sounding the alarms to train students for STEM careers.
"We've always been able to find the resources that we need to do the things we think are most important," he says. "I believe that through some combination of local efforts and corporate efforts and national efforts all together, that we're going to find the resources to make it work."