The Future of Science Education
We aren’t teaching students to memorize facts, we are teaching our students to learn. Despite rapidly advancing technologies, little has changed in the way science is being taught in classrooms over the last 60 years. We are changing that. Scientists don’t tell you what is already known. Scientists ask questions. Scientists look at the world around them, apply knowledge from a variety of subjects, and devise a strategy to better understand the phenomenon. Scientists draw upon these findings to understand causality and correlation. And all the while modern scientists are constantly updating their technical skills by learning to generate models in with the most up to date technology available. This is the core focus of what we are teaching our students.
We develop and design curriculum materials that begin with students asking questions. Through our carefully designed professional development, teachers are taught to guide students creativity and inquisitiveness through the scientific process. Our teachers will help students ask the questions that will help them design and test their own models of everyday phenomena.
“A large percentage of the jobs that we are preparing our students for have not even been invented yet.” Due to rapidly developing technologies, all fields of science are continually evolving. As more powerful microscopes, more capable sensors, and super conductive materials improving quantum computing are being explored, science is able to reach deeper than it ever has in the past. This also means the job market is changing so rapidly there is no way to predict what our k-12 students will need to know fifteen years from now to be at the top of their chosen fields. For example, we have added a new degree program here at Michigan State University, in order to train employees to work in our Facility for Rare Isotope Beams. This extremely advanced technology places our nuclear research facilities among the top in the world, some of what is being studied is so new, it really doesn’t fall within the parameters of our existing nuclear physics research programs. By the time our students have reached the work force, these technologies will have already grown and changed. By teaching our students to ask questions, model the phenomena, and design experiments to test that model we are teaching students what they need to keep their skills and knowledge current. Teaching students to control variables and analyze the data they collect will allow them apply this knowledge to any chosen field of study.
Our research is also addressing the importance of diversity and equity in the sciences. Many groups are still underrepresented in STEM fields. The holistic nature of our research helps us to track student progress by identity, disability, location, socioeconomic status, learning environment, gender, race, ethnicity, and language. Because of this, we are able to address and understand key elements of what barriers students face during this crucial period of identity formation. Through our carefully structured curriculum, we target classrooms in under served communities and provide students with opportunities to develop identities and abilities as scientists.
Evidence supports the importance of “mastery experiences” for developing a strong connection to science. Each of our units allows students a chance to create a tangible artifact of their success. In each unit, students will successfully develop a model as they design an experiment and actually work as a scientist.
Many schools are limited in their funding for text books and support of continued professional learning experiences. By reducing the need for paper textbooks and replacing them with screencast, opensource materials, we will be able to allow our schools to reallocate funding for opportunities for teachers to keep their skill sets and knowledge up to date.
We are teaching our teachers the most up to date frameworks to scaffold student learning. Growth mindset, the belief that you can improve your science ability through practice and effort, is central to this program. Teachers learn to encourage student growth by providing students with the opportunities to genuinely engage in and master subjects that may have once seemed out of reach. Building on previous research from our PIs, teachers are trained to keep students in the optimal phase of engagement. Students learn best and stay focused just on the edge of understanding, where they have to think about what to do next but without getting frustrated.
Our continued and intensive teacher training teaches educators to find additional resources, utilize project based learning, and deeply understand how to scaffold their students as they grow. Teachers can carry this framework and apply it to future classrooms for years to come.
Our unit design begins with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) criteria for the three dimensions of learning. We align each unit and unit assessment to engage students in using scientific and engineering practices and use the cross cutting concepts to develop their core content knowledge. Students learn to ask questions about their environments, look to outside resources to understand them, and design their own experiment to test them. Our curriculum shows students how to control their variables and design valid experiments to test the phenomena presented in their driving question. The students will generate models, collect data, and learn to interpret this data using cross cutting concepts. By using this project based approach, students not only learn to better understand the core concepts of their driving questions, but to also apply the scientific practices to study others.
A Michigan teacher sent us a reflective essay assignment from a student who had engaged in our curriculum. The adolescent who wrote this is a special needs student who had taken physics twice before engaging in our curriculum:
“My experience of [name omitted]’s physics class was not the easiest. There were times i thought i wouldn’t get close to the grade i am at today(B). I took physics before at a past school and the way they taught it made no sense to me. i failed that class as well. from just that information you can see i have learned physics in a much easier way. the work that this class brought was tough, but once i sat down and only focussed on getting the work done, it became more simple. the physical parts of the assignments made it easier to understand what’s happening and how to get the answer needed. the work that [name omitted] had us do was mostly in groups,which made it a lot easier because we could put all of our brains into one problem and get the correct answer more quickly. the amount of effort [name omitted] showed to keep the equations available to us groups when needed, to actually going to each group and making sure they understood the lesson and knew how to get the answers needed. [name omitted]’s class was hard for me, but with the help of groups, and her coming around and helping us understand each part of a project and the questions being asked,it made the class go a lot more smoother, and also allowed me to understand everything a lot more easily. the work that was assigned wasn’t hard if i only focussed on trying to figure out the answer to the problem. physics was indeed stressful,trying to understand things at a more deeper thought was a challenge. with the help of [name omitted] and the groups, it showed me how to understand it easier. with all the assignments that i have worked on for this physics class, it taught me that everything has a deeper connection to something. like how travelling down a hill, with a 300,000 lbs truck can have a more greater effect on a wall than a car travelling the same speed but only weighing 10,000 lbs. everything has a deeper meaning and everything that happens one time, may not happen the same way the 2nd time around. my feelings towards physics before [name omitted] class was that i hated it, now after [name omitted]’s class i feel more experienced with this subject but also i feel like i understood it a lot more easier in her class. [name omitted] was a big help when it comes to having her kids understand what’s she’s asking in each problem. i thank [name omitted] for showing the effort and drive to get every kid in her class to understand each question and understand how to answer each one as well. i also thank her for allowing us to do group work,because this really helped me as well when not understanding something and she’s busy helping another group, i could turn and ask one of my group members and find out very quickly the answer i was looking for. “
– PIRE-CESE Student
During our hands-on professional learning workshops for teachers, we make the time for past CESE teachers to lead a discussion panel, sharing their experiences in the classroom last year, and answer questions for teachers who are new to the program. One teacher, whom we will refer to as Alice, discusses her experiences using the CESE curriculum and project based learning (PBL) in her classes where some students have special needs. Because little research has been done in the last few years discussing science education for students with special needs, and none including the Next Generation Science Standards, Alice’s classroom experiences provide new insight into how integrated classrooms engage with the New Generation Science Standards.
A recent article by Rasmitadila, Humaira, and Rachmadtullah (2019), discusses the use of the experiential learning model (ELM) in a science classroom, shows students who engaged in ELM showed improvement in their problem solving skills and communication. They note that science can be a difficult topic, especially for slow learning students because many science classes still base most of their lessons on textbooks and that moving toward activity-based learning can improve student outcomes. The PIRE curriculum includes hands-on, project based learning activities which can transcend barriers some students face in language as well as tracking for reading. By crafting engaging science environments, students are able to experience and engage with these phenomena in real time: seeing up close with their own eyes and experiencing through completing the experiments procedures on their own.
A teacher in San Diego reports her experiences using project-based learning in the classroom:
“This is how NGSS should be taught. I taught the periodic table with the schools curriculum, which was called “NGSS” and I thought the students… I thought I had prepared them and they had learned all there was to learn about the periodic table and the trends. Then I taught the Periodic Table lesson through the PIRE-CESE grant. This student was the first student to walk into the classroom, He looked at the driving question on the board and saw the words “periodic table” written on the board. He said “Oh No! I Know NOTHING about the periodic table,” even though we had already covered it in class. At the end of the lesson, he actually stood up and he said “Wait…” he went into the discussion about the the periodic table and actually gave a summary of the entire lesson in just a couple sentences. He said “Oh my gosh! this is so easy! I get it!” and really went into details that showed he understood. He has ADHD and he can be a little loud sometimes. I like to let him speak freely and use that energy, The whole class clapped for him when he was done explaining.“
“I like to do the school lesson first, then do the CESE lessons. People don’t realize how much information the students pick-up with these lessons that they don’t get from just teaching the straight content. It’s in the discovery that they do by themselves. This student was really putting these concepts together by himself.”
This Los Angeles teacher mentioned using project based learning practices to connect with students who normally would not participate in classroom discussions. Special Education students who traditionally abstained from classroom discussions were encouraged to join as they watched their peers become more involved in the lessons. Shared intellectual curiosity created a bond across abilities where all students shared in the experience of “figuring it out” where some students were not advantaged over others.
During the discussion panel, the teacher claimed the positive experiences of her students with special needs influenced a number of other students with special needs to request her class as well. Students witnessed and heard second hand the positive classroom experiences and requested Alice as their science teacher for the upcoming year. She noted that even students with a poor attendance record wanted to be involved in science class.
A teacher from Detroit, Michigan recently sent some very heartwarming feedback about her experience with our curriculum. She is currently working on her masters degree in computer science, and wanted to reinforce “the right way to learn science is by practicing science and doing science.”
“I wanted to say how much I love teaching this curriculum. I used to be an electrical engineer for Chrysler. When I took the buyout and started teaching, I tried to stick to physics because I could teach it in a way that made sense to me and I was familiar with the subject. I am pretty ambivalent about teaching chemistry because it is still physical science and I also teach robotics so I am satisfied. But with this curriculum I love that its more about teaching them how to figure stuff out and how to see stuff because I have always thought as long as you have those skills you can be a good scientist. The assessments are the most authentic assessments I’ve come across. Thank you for all the hard work you did in putting all of this together for teachers.“