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“Next Generation” Science and Engineering Standards Could Improve Learning and Scores, Experts Say

Two recent announcements made clear the need for hands-on science and engineering education that AAAS Senior Scientists and Engineers (SSE) volunteers help provide when they visit classrooms to share their experience with students.

First, a national report card assessing science performance in eighth graders found that students tested in 2011 made only small improvements over those tested in 2009, and that gender and racial performance gaps remain.

Heidi Schweingruber

The second was the release of a draft of updated science education standards for elementary and high school students. The draft Next Generation Science Standards emphasize hands-on learning and understanding processes rather than memorizing information. For the first time, the standards also include teaching engineering skills.


Shirley Malcom
[Photos by Kathleen O’Neil]

These significant developments were the focus of the SSE STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Volunteers annual meeting held at AAAS on 17 May. Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources, moderated a panel discussion on the changes the Next Generation Science Standards for kindergarten through 12th grade students would bring, and how states, schools and teachers would implement them.


“We actually had pretty good standards in the ‘90s at the national level,” said panelist Heidi Schweingruber, deputy director of the National Research Council’s board on science education. “Part of why we didn’t see the vision become reality was failures in implementation” by the states, she said. This time around, those involved with implementing the standards have time to consider how the many different groups involved in science education—from school systems, textbook publishers, and professional societies—can play a role in supporting these changes, Schweingruber said.

After the previous science standards were released in 1996, each state decided how much of the document to adopt and how they would implement their standards. This time, 26 partner states are collaborating with the National Science Teachers Association, the National Research Council, and AAAS in drafting the new standards. The participating states have also agreed to consider adopting the final standards as written, said Stephen Pruitt, vice president of content, research and development at Achieve, an education non-profit that is facilitating the writing of the new standards.

While the new draft science education standards cover some of the same basic content as the old standards, a major change would be in how student learning is assessed, Pruitt said. Most states’ current science standards assess students on memorizing information or concepts, instead of assessing their actual performance of scientific analysis and techniques.

Stephen Pruitt

“The Next Generation Science Standards focus on a deeper understanding and application of content,” Pruitt said. “So the little, bitty details are not the focus—it’s using the science to be able to apply to new and unique situations.”

For an example, Pruitt showed a slide with one state’s current middle school science standards next to a draft Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The first item on the state’s list requires students to “distinguish between atoms and molecules.” The NGSS presents students with a more engaging exercise: “Construct and use models to explain that atoms combine to form new substances of varying complexity in terms of the number of atoms and repeating subunits.”

Anita O’Neill

Pruitt continued with the list of standards for learning about the “Structure and Properties of Matter” from the state. “First off, look at the verbs: ‘distinguish, describe, distinguish, recognize’… not necessarily high-rigor verbs,” he said. “Now look at the verbs in the NGSS: ‘Construct and use models to explain; plan investigations to generate evidence; use simulation of mechanical models to determine; construct an argument that explains.’ That’s a very different way of thinking and brings us to a different cognitive level.”

Anita O’Neill, supervisor of science, technology, and engineering education in Montgomery County, Maryland, said her county has been working on updating its science curriculum, and that it is poised to incorporate the new standards as quickly as possible. “We’ve been trying to tackle a lot of the issues [mentioned here]… in terms of changing practice and policy,” she said.

O’Neill said her team will begin by looking at what’s missing from their current science curriculum and update it to incorporate the new standards’ greater emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving. They’ll also begin updated teacher training, so that “we start teaching the teachers the way we want them to teach our students.”

However, Pruitt said, Montgomery County’s preparedness is not typical. He expects most school systems will take several years to begin to implement their new state standards. But being deliberate and thoughtful should help the states succeed.

Still, implementing new standards “won’t be painless,” he said. He described the resistance his former state of Georgia encountered when it raised its math standards.

“The pushback didn’t come from the business community, it didn’t come from, well, we had some from the teachers, but it came from the communities,” Pruitt said. Parents were concerned that their child was now getting a C in math instead of an A. But in the long run, the system was being more honest with its students, and holding them to a higher standard, “and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Achieve and its partners will be accepting comments on the draft Next Generation Science Standards until 1 June. It plans to issue a second draft this fall.

Scientists and Engineers Help Transform Learning

The AAAS SSE STEM meeting concluded with a second panel, moderated by scientist Don Rea, leader of the AAAS SSE STEM volunteer program, of six teachers and their volunteer partners. They described the projects they worked on and their experiences in the classroom.

Mary Yeates, a teacher at Macgruder High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, works with students in a year-long engineering class under a national program called Project Lead the Way. When Gerry Klebe, an aeronautical engineer, came to her classroom as an SSE volunteer, she didn’t give him any specific directions on how to help.

“I invited him in to see and hear what we were doing, because I knew that as an engineer, he would see what he needed to do. And that’s exactly what happened,” she said. “We really ended up transforming the whole way that we teach this class. We’re teaching the students to be junior engineers. I’m the CEO, and he’s my senior consultant, and we have management meetings.”

Klebe now spends a “whole lot more time” than one hour a week with the class, Yeates said. “He got sucked in.”