Teachers Learning to Teach the ‘Next Generation of Science Standards’

Feb 21, 2018
Photo by: Pat Johnson Stacey van der Veen, founder and consultant for 'Leadership in Science' begins the engineering segment of the symposium with fun problem solving. Abby Moyse, a second grade teacher from Lakehurst, plays along.

During a recent school day, 40 teachers and administrators from 12 school districts were gathered in the Frog Pond Elementary School media center and told to spend 10 minutes having fun with a paper whirligig.

They were also given three paperclips to add to or subtract from the whirligig. After tossing the flimsy toy in the air and seeing its lackluster performance, they were asked to conclude why the toy wasn’t selling well and then come up with ways to make the toy better. By talking within their small groups, the teachers were to “define the problem, develop and test solutions and then optimize the solution.”

This was a simple experiment in engineering during the last day of the three-day Jersey Shore Consortium Science Institute at the school, in Little Egg Harbor Township.

“I want you to experience how it feels to learn this way,” said Stacey van der Veen, founder and lead consultant for “Leadership in Science” and the facilitator of the Science Institute.

The attending educators were learning how to teach the Next Generation Science Standards, a science curriculum mandated by the state for all K-12 science classes that is revolutionizing how science is taught.

Rather than relying on book or internet information about science, NGSS wants students to think about and question natural or manmade “phenomena,” then do hands-on experiments, write about what happened and, by doing these activities, learn the “big ideas” of science and engineering.

This new paradigm teaches by utilizing the methods real scientists and engineers use based on observation and experimentation that includes trial and error.

The standards have “three dimensions” that are integrated in instruction at all levels. The first is core ideas or knowledge in subject areas. The second is science and engineering practices – students are expected not just to learn content, but also to understand the methods of scientists and engineers. The third is “cross-cutting concepts,” looking for the big ideas or patterns underlying ideas that are common to a number of topics.

By integrating content or knowledge with practice, it is expected science should begin to make sense to students.

The National Research Council developed the NGSS with input from science teachers from 26 states, said van der Veen. Nineteen states including New Jersey have adopted NGSS. So far, there is no standardized test involved.

On this last day of the institute, the teachers focused on teaching engineering concepts.

NGSS is aligning engineering with investigation, said van der Veen. “What is engineering?” she asked of her teachers. “It’s solving a human problem,” she answered.

“What is technology? Any tool that is used to solve the problem – and it doesn’t have to be computers. This pen is technology; this chair is technology.”

The teachers explained how engineering is different from science. Science observes the natural world while technology is taking the ideas from the natural world and making them work to solve human problems.

One of the terms used in NGSS is “systematic iterative.” It means repetition with a purpose to solve a problem, or trial and error. “It means it’s OK to fail as you work towards a solution,” she said.

“Kids really dig technology,” said van der Veen, and she showed a video of a fifth-grade classroom to prove it. In the Boston Museum of Science, students learned about magnets as they designed their own toy Maglev train, which uses high-powered magnets to levitate above the tracks.

The students first played with the magnets until they learned through observation that opposite north and south poles of magnets are attracted to each other, while the same poles repel each other.  By putting wheels of the same pole to a track of the same pole, the paper train would levitate. Then the question was how to move it along the track. The students solved this technology and engineering problem by using the power of the opposite pole that attracted it. The kids were really excited with this experiment as they learned science ideas.

After the video, it was the teachers’ turn to learn from observing a phenomenon, the way a whirligig works.

The teachers had gathered their info and ideas on why the flimsy paper toy wasn’t selling. “Kids are short, and they need to get up high to drop the whirligig to make it work” was one observation. “It’s not colorful. From a marketing standpoint, it needs to be more than just white.”

“It’s very predictable – kids would get bored,” noted another teacher. “It’s too flimsy; it could get torn easily.”

“There’s no game or challenge. It’s over quickly.”

From these observations, van der Veen focused on a single problem to solve. “Can we make it fall more slowly then?” she asked as she handed out three different grades of paper, scissors, glue and crayons to the worktables. “Look for patterns; how it’s made affects how it works.”

“And what is the big idea or the science idea?” she asked. “If you’re not using science ideas, you are not engaging in engineering – you’re tinkering. Use science ideas to do engineering.”

“Gravity is pushing the whirligig down, and if we add the paperclips, it falls faster,” said a teacher.

“The air under the flaps pushing up, holds it up, so the bigger the flaps, the more air molecules are pushing against it, it should fall slower,” said a STEAM teacher from Tuckerton.

“The more mass, gravity pulls harder,” suggested van der Veen. “These are science ideas.”

As the teachers improved the whirligig, van der Veen suggested they think about how to sell this new curriculum.

“This is a slight departure from how we’ve been teaching science, and I want you to be supporting your district teachers as they walk down this road,” she said. “Leaders are expert learners, and we’re all figuring this out together.”

Once a few teachers embrace the NGSS, the students and other teachers will become the advertisers of the hands-on approach. “The parents will say, ‘Johnny loves science class.’”

The Little Egg Harbor School District’s director of curriculum and instruction, John Acampora, was instrumental in getting the NGSS Science Institute symposium at the school and will offer another Science Institute in the fall at the school for those teachers who missed it.

— Pat Johnson


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