For 5 days, students in 7th grade science have been designing, building, and testing paper roller coasters to develop and apply their knowledge of potential and kinetic energy. This project has been incredibly engaging for all of the 7th graders.
As the building days stretched beyond what we had originally allotted, I reverted to my pre-NGSS days, worrying about how much content bang we were getting for the time we were investing. I was wondering if we could really afford to spend any more time on teaching two small pieces of content. How could we justify spending all of this time for just those two ideas: kinetic energy and potential energy.
However, as I reflected on the project with the NGSS in mind, I realized that we were doing much more than just applying our knowledge of kinetic and potential energy. We were, in fact, getting a lot of bang for our buck. Students were working not only with content, but also with science and engineering practices and the engineering design cycle. In the box on the left, you can see some of the science and engineering practices included in this project.
Beyond that, students experienced the integration of science and engineering. They used science to solve an engineering problem. In designing the roller coaster, they had to work within certain constraints (size, materials, time, etc.) and with given criteria for success (size, required components, etc.). They used the engineering design process throughout the project.
Once I realized all of the NGSS components that were contained in the project, I felt much more comfortable about the time we spent on it. With NGSS, process is as important for students to learn/experience as traditional "content" is.
Practices Used in this Activity
While my last post highlighted the challenges of bringing three-dimensional learning in my classroom, this post highlights another challenge--time. Most science teachers already know that hands-on science takes more time than other more "traditional" instructional strategies. NGSS-aligned instruction adds another level to the time requirements of hands-on instruction.
The marble rolling lab that I referenced in my last post could have been conducted in one class period had I provided the procedure to the students. However, my desire to have the students plan and carry out the investigation meant that this lab would require two or three days to complete.
The authors of both The Framework and the NGSS knew this when they set their vision for science education. Instead of giving teachers a large list of content to cover, they provided a shorter list of "content," allowing time for the development of process skills and for increasing depth of student understanding.
In order to accomplish this, we're going to have to take a hard look at what we are teaching. Does it align with the standards? We will have to discard some things that "we've always taught" in order to leave enough time for teaching what's actually in the standards.
So don't worry if it takes a little longer this year; just make sure what you are spending time on is actually in the standards for your grade level.
I struggled all weekend trying to decide how best to facilitate the learning in my classroom today. My students were working on an investigation connecting mass, initial height, and kinetic energy. The students would roll marbles down a ramp into an object. The distance the object moved could represent the amount of kinetic energy. Comparing the distances that the object moved would allow students to realize that kinetic energy increases with starting height and with mass.
Last year (i.e. pre-NGSS) this would have been easy. I would have taught about the connection between mass and kinetic energy. Then I would have given the students a step-by-step procedure to follow to confirm what I had taught. Just in case student data didn't confirm what I'd taught, I would finally explain to students what they should have observed in the lab.
That instructional sequence doesn't fit the vision of NGSS. So I struggled to develop a more meaningful way for students to investigate. What I finally landed on was a time for students to explore with the materials and then a time to develop an experimental procedure as a class. (In an ideal world, students would have developed the procedure on their own, but in the first year of NGSS implementation, students need more scaffolding.)
Since I teach classes on a 46 minute schedule, designing the procedure was the extent of our work today. Tomorrow, the students will be ready to carry out the procedure and analyze the results. If the data doesn't confirm what science already says, we'll be ready to look for possible issues in our procedure.
This method is messier; it takes more time; and it requires my releasing control a little more. In return, I get students who are owning the science. They aren't just mindlessly following a procedure; they are developing the procedure and then analyzing the results.
As we continue to move forward in the implementation of the NGSS and the translation of the standards into curriculum, it's important to review the "why" of this endeavor. The Framework, published in 2011, lays out a vision for science education, but it is tempting now to drop the Framework and to focus solely on the standards and the material that is currently being published to help with the implementation of the standards. As Simon Sinek reminds us in his TED Talk, everything works better when we first understand and embrace the "why." The NGSS are no different. So let's take a minute (and a deep breath) and look back at the why of the NGSS which was first laid out in the Framework.
First, it's time. Science (like time) waits for no man. Most science standards that were used prior to NGSS adoption were drafted in the 1990's. Science and technology have developed rapidly in the past 20 years. Much of what impacts us daily (e.g. digital wave technology) isn't included in the older standards. Check out this infographic for other science and technology advances that have occurred since 1995.
Second, current issues in science (think climate change and reduced funding for scientific research) have demonstrated that we need to improve science literacy in the United States. For example, 97% of scientists who study climate science affirm that the climate is warming yet a large portion of the electorate and elected officials don't believe that climate change is happening, or they question the presence of human impact on climate change. Regardless of our views on controversial issues, we need to ensure that we are producing graduates literate in science so they can make informed personal and political decisions about scientific issues.
Beyond a scientifically literate population, we need scientists and engineers. Not only will new standards help prepare students for college science and engineering courses, they will also ensure that all of our students are introduced to science and engineering so they can make their own decisions regarding pursuing either after high school.
In many instances, the "old standards," reduced science to a large list of facts to be memorized. This approach to science doesn't match the approach used by scientists. The NGSS approximate the work of scientists by integrating knowledge and practice throughout the science curriculum. This approach will not only increase learning, it will also inspire a new generation of scientists because they'll see science as more than memorized facts discovered by some long-dead scientist.
Are new standards the magic bullet to fix all that's wrong with science education today? No. Are they easy to implement correctly? No. Are they worth it? Yes--our students deserve nothing less than a science education that puts them on the path to careers in science and engineering (if they choose) and the path to becoming critical consumers of science in their adult lives regardless of their chosen careers. Won't you join me in the hard work of ensuring every child has this opportunity?
Having been trained in Project Wild, Project Wild Aquatic, and Project Learning Tree before I graduated from college, I have always been a fan of environmental education. (I think I've used Project Wild's "Oh Deer!" activity in almost every class I've taught.)
Recently in my classroom, we did a simulation to show the effect of camouflage on the evolution of bugs (a variation of birds and worms from Project Learning Tree). In the past when I've facilitated these kinds of experiences, I've always ended up a little frustrated. These simulations work best when students operate without any personal preference or stubbornness. However, I teach middle school--students always interject personal preference and some stubbornness. In this particular activity, students acted as birds, collecting bugs (small pieces of colored paper) from various environments (colored paper backgrounds). Some students made it their mission to collect the bugs that were supposed to be camouflaged (i.e. they only collected the red bugs from the red background instead of picking the more apparent white bugs). At the end of the simulation, I would have been frustrated if I had not recently made a discovery: these kinds of simulations are MODELS--true models in the NGSS sense of the word. As imperfect models, these kinds of simulations are great opportunities to look for strengths and limitations. Identifying limitations of models first appears in the 3-5 grade band while evaluating the limitations of models appears in the middle school grade band. With limitations identified, students can take the analysis one step further and recommend changes to the model to correct some of the limitations. In my class, instead of my being frustrated and saying, "Here is what you should have seen. . ." we had a discussion about how the simulation represents "real life" and a discussion of limitations. What I initially feared was a failure, turned into a different kind of success.
This year, as you lead your students through simulations, don't forget that they are models that your students can evaluate.