How are the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) different from what has come before? One important change is the new list of Science and Engineering Practices, which specify what students should be able to do as part of a strong science education.
The practices are:
- Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
- Developing and using models
- Planning and carrying out investigations
- Analyzing and interpreting data
- Using mathematics and computational thinking
- Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
- Engaging in argument from evidence
- Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
So what do these new practices mean for science education? Here’s a short list of five things I expect students will do more frequently thanks to the NGSS.
1- Construct Models
There appears to be a lot of confusion around practice 2, “Developing and using models.” This may be because of that old maxim that we teach the way we were taught, and few of us were taught anything about models in our science classes. To make things worse, the term “model” can mean anything from Heidi Klum to a toy airplane. But in this context, we mean conceptual models.
When we teach the structure of the atom, we often discuss different atomic models and the evidence scientists used to create their models (for example, the “plum-pudding model” or the “Bohr model”). Think about taking the process the scientists used to create these models, and having students construct models in a similar way as they dive into a concept. The structure of the atom, the particle theory of matter, the theory of plate tectonics, the formation and history of the solar system, how energy and matter flow in an ecosystem, how traits are inherited from parents… all these concepts are essentially conceptual models, based on evidence that can be observed in the natural world. Understanding these concepts requires that students follow the process of developing mental models from evidence, and then applying the models to make predictions which can be tested. The process of model building should be a central focus as students grapple with a core idea in greater and greater depth.
2- Plan Investigations
Practice 3 is “Planning and carrying out investigations” so why plan in particular? Because while students do frequently carry out investigations in science classes, they much less frequently have a hand in the planning of those investigations. But this planning is a crucial part of being able to apply science in the real world. In fact, I would argue that retaining the specifics of a particular area of science is less important for most people than understanding how to apply the idea of a controlled investigation to their everyday life and work. It’s a basic analytic skill that everyone should have.
There is a shift in U.S. education towards being able to read and comprehend information from nonfiction texts, including scientific texts. The Next Generation Science Standards ask students to obtain and evaluate information as part of practice 8, and at the heart of this is reading. There’s a perception that having students read is opposed to strong science instruction, which should be primarily hands-on investigations. But literary nonfiction, including science and nature writing, is a highly effective way to learn new ideas. In fact, conducting investigations has to go hand in hand with acquiring information, and reading is the primary way to quickly and efficiently get this information.
In fairness, this one isn’t solely about the NGSS- the Common Core State Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects are a major driver of this shift. The two sets of standards are aligned and work hand-in-hand with one another.
Practice 7 is “Engaging in argument from evidence” and practice 8 asks students to communicate information. One form of communication and argument is oral, but the real heart of scientific communication is the written form (think journal articles, popular science writing, blogs, and even presentations). Think about modifying the standard lab report to require students to construct a real scientific argument based on their results, and short in-class writing prompts that require students to use evidence they’ve collected to support conclusions.
5- Design Solutions
Engineering, which formerly had a minor place in science standards, is firmly embedded in the Next Generation Science Standards. At the core of engineering is the practice of designing a solution to a problem. Students should now have regular opportunities to go through the engineering design process as part of their science classes. In essence, they should be taking scientific information and applying it in the context of solving a real-world problem.
Do you agree with this list? What other changes do you expect to see thanks to the NGSS?