The Future for Science Education

October 21, 2013

Helping Michigan educators understand the Next Generation Science Standards


Lately, the Common Core State Standards have been the subject of great attention as a potential guide for U.S. schools to ensure all students learn the mathematics and language arts skills needed to be successful.

Away from the spotlight, however, there is a growing movement arguing that new standards are equally critical in another subject area: science.

If the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are adopted in Michigan, and other states across the country, nearly every teacher and every child will be preparing for a fundamentally different approach to learning about science—and therefore about the world around them.

Science education experts at Michigan State University, including many who helped develop the standards, say the time is now for schools to focus on teaching core scientific concepts and, just as importantly, to connect those ideas to phenomena students see in their everyday lives.

The NGSS were built on that premise, and based on research knowledge about how students best learn science. The kinds of changes that will be needed to implement the standards—as with Common Core—are immense but within our reach and capacity, many education leaders say.

MSU is already playing a lead role in Michigan to begin tackling the issues, from changing teacher preparation and creating new assessments to providing professional development for working teachers. In fact, the university held an introductory conference focused on NGSS that drew more than 800 educators to the Kellogg Center in May 2013.

The standards do not prescribe specific curricula or lesson plans, Professor Joseph Krajcik told attendees. Rather, NGSS outlines expectations for what all students should understand and be able to demonstrate at the end of instruction.

“Every one of our children needs to have this depth of understanding to be able to live successful and fulfilled lives in this world. That’s what NGSS is all about,” said Krajcik, director of the CREATE for STEM Institute at MSU, which coordinated the conference in partnership with the university’s Office of K-12 Outreach and the Michigan Department of Education.

Krajcik was lead writer for the physical science segment of NGSS and on the leadership team for NGSS.

“The core ideas in science are thinking tools,” he said. “When kids have those ideas inside their head, they can actually use them to solve problems, to make decisions and, even more importantly, to learn more.”

Michigan has not yet adopted the standards but it is one of the 26 states that led the process funded by the Carnegie Corporation under the management of Achieve, Inc., an independent, bipartisan and nonprofit education reform organization. The standards are based on the Framework for K-12 Science Education that was developed by a team of scholars working with the National Research Council.

The first common science education standards were developed in the 1990s as a guide to the states and educators, but no single set of science standards has yet been broadly adopted by multiple states.

“Historically, we have not gotten past simply learning facts,” said Stephen Pruitt, a senior vice president at Achieve, Inc. who oversaw the development of NGSS. “What’s cool about science is those facts change. If we do a good job helping kids understand the dynamics behind science, then they can adapt when facts change.”

What’s next?

The changes outlined by NGSS are so fundamental that it will take time to make adequate changes to the preparation and professional development of teachers. In fact, teacher education expert and University Distinguished Professor Suzanne Wilson wrote in a recent Science magazine article that the teacher training landscape is woefully inadequate to handle NGSS.

“Science has been marginalized by the No Child Left Behind Act, so less science has been taught in schools, not more,” said Wilson, also a member of the National Academies’ Board on Science Education. “And now these standards are coming out that not only call for a renewed focus on science teaching, but the kind of science that many teachers haven’t taught and many teachers haven’t experienced.”

For its part, faculty and staff in the CREATE for STEM Institute at MSU plan to continue collaborating with the state Department of Education, the Michigan Science Teachers Association, the Michigan Mathematics and Science Centers Network and teacher education faculty at MSU to develop resources for secondary science teachers as well as elementary teachers, such as workshops, instructional materials and online forums.

CREATE for STEM is a joint initiative of the College of Education and the College of Natural Science. Science education research at MSU ranges from studying the best teaching practices within disciplines to the best sequences for teaching concepts across time, or learning progressions—a key component in NGSS.

“MSU has really been a hotbed for science education research,” said Pruitt. “There is a tremendous amount of brainpower here.”