May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

A Perfect and Completely Accurate Prediction About the Future of Science Education

Posted: Thursday, December 1st, 2011

by Peter A’Hearn

(updated December 14, 2011)

What will science education look in 5, 10, 20 years? I think we are in for a period of reinvention and experimentation. Technology is creating big changes in some schools and classrooms where the pioneers and the early adopters are finding out what is possible. But soon, technology is going to start to change the way we learn science in every classroom, at every school.

Two things got me thinking about this. One was a reading assignment for a technology training. This was the New Media Consortium 2011 Horizon report on technology in education.  Read it at: www.cosn.org/horizon. In discussing the key challenges to developing the full potential of technology in education there is this, “A key challenge is the fundamental structure of the K-12 education establishment — aka “the system.” As long as maintaining the basic elements of the existing system remains the focus of efforts to support education, there will be resistance to any profound change in practice.”

The other was a meeting I was at where the Next Generation Science Standards were discussed.  The Common Core Standards in Math and English will start to be tested in 2014 using the SMARTER Balanced test that will replace the current CST. The Next Generation Science Standards will not be far behind and they will represent a major change from the current standards.  They emphasize that science “practices” (what we have been calling Investigation and Experimentation in California) be integrated with the teaching of content instead of being placed at the back of the standards with no explanation. At the meeting someone asked, “Are we going to be tested on new standards before we have the curriculum to teach to those new standards?” At that moment I realized that in the current budget environment, it will be difficult to find the money to adopt new textbooks, but there will be a pressing need for teachers to have new curriculum materials that give guidance to teaching the new standards. Now we all know that the end of the paper textbook is coming eventually, but this seems to push thus change into high gear.

What will textbooks be replaced with? Many districts have already figured out that giving each student a tablet reader is cheaper than buying five textbooks.  But if the new curriculum is just textbooks on readers, then it will be a failure of imagination and vision.  And as the horizon report says,” Students can take advantage of learning material online, through games and programs they may have on systems at home, and through their extensive — and constantly available — social networks.”

So my completely accurate prediction is that science education will change in significant ways. Other than that, here are some wild predictions, questions, and concerns. I am interested in hearing your questions, predictions, and concerns.

Wild Predictions:

  • The best curricula will link students to real data sources and allow for students in different schools in different parts of the country and the world to work together to gather data and analyze results.
  • Some curricula will constantly adapt as new technologies become available. In a 7 year adoption, the basic framework will stay the same, but the methods of delivery, interaction, and assessment will change over the life of the adoption as technology introduces new possibilities.
  • The structure of the school day and the classroom will fundamentally change. Much more of happens will happen independently and in small group structures. This will be the most difficult change, will take the longest time to happen, and will face the most resistance.

Questions:

  • Can open source textbooks, where many people edit and contribute have the conceptual coherency and “tightness”, that the best curricula have?
  • With too many contributors and too many possibilities and sources of information, will they inevitably become too bloated to really give teachers guidance?

Concerns:

  • I think there is great value in face to face discussion and problem solving.
  • I worry that we will move too much collaboration and discussion into virtual environments. For example, there will be likely be a discussion thread of people responding to this article. I will over-think my replies and the process will drain my energy. I would much rather get together and brainstorm over a few beers.

The real world is located in the real world. Science is the study of nature- not of simulations of nature. It is tempting to replace the cost and management of real labs with computer simulations. I think this is a huge mistake. A simulation is a model and all models simplify the real thing. Looking through a real microscope is both much more difficult and also much more exciting than looking through a digital one. Students need to know that real science is messy, frustrating, unpredictable, and very rewarding.

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is region 4 director for CSTA.

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

2 Responses

  1. Peter is exactly correct on several points. One comment will not hold everything I could say here. I’ll begin with textbooks, a serious issue that I have spoken on repeatedly.

    TEXTBOOKS

    Textbooks are passive. Period. Textbooks online are no different. Our students don’t relate well to passive materials because they’re becoming very used to much more interaction with their various digital devices.

    Therefore, online textbooks will not work — at all. Their replacement, which ought to have a clever name, will be interactive (really, not just pretend as in simulations), adaptive, self-paced, and inexpensive. Adding animations, videos, slide shows, simulations, and any other “multi-media” just won’t cut it. Without real interactivity, it all fails to realize the promise of new technology, especially online technology. I should hastily add that those multimedia materials are just fine as long as they aren’t too long, are focused on the current topic, and don’t interfere with interactive learning. They’re just supplements in the new world, however.

    Every student should have an online account in which all online learning is tracked. Excellent teacher overview software will let teachers know if any student has encountered difficulties as soon as it happens. Teachers will also know if any student moves ahead much more rapidly than the others. Also, students’ online accounts allow for group (or social) learning by providing interaction among groups. They’re used to that sort of interaction and will do it anyway.

    SCIENCE “LABS”

    I’ll include just one more topic in this comment, the science “lab.” Because “lab” is such a loaded term and doesn’t have a very precise meaning for many, I’d prefer to call it a science investigation experience. But, lab is shorter. The National Research Council has defined the word for us (in 2005): “Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science.”

    The domination of “hands-on” labs in science curricula will go the same way as printed textbooks. That’s my confident prediction. Oh, they won’t vanish entirely. Most will be subsumed into extended projects where the hands-on aspect makes real sense. For those of you who recall “America’s Lab Report,” you’ll remember that the most headline-grabbing part was the labeling of the typical high school science lab experience as “poor.”

    Many excellent reasons sit behind that conclusion. Many teachers seek to fill up lab time with anything that will do. it must be safe, inexpensive, and quick — typically 30 minutes of real “experiment” time. Some fuss over whether their students will learn proper technique for whatever, lighting a bunsen burner, manipulating a microscope, using a pipet, dissecting a frog, or some other activity that will serve no future purpose for essentially all students. Others believe strongly that labs reinforce the latest lecture or textbook chapter, even though “reinforce” means knowing the result before entering the lab and therefore obviating any interest students may have had in the lab experience.

    The essence of lab experience: Inquire, explore, discover.

    As a part of that experience, students make predictions, take data from the real world, look at those data in different ways, compare data with predictions, explain any discrepancies, and interact with others doing similar work. They use a variety of the tools of scientific thinking. As a result, they become more and more expert at scientific thinking. They also begin to understand the true nature of science and what it’s like to deal with ambiguous and complex data.

    You can do all of that online! I hear the groans, hisses, and curses right now, but don’t try to hold back progress. If the “lab” experiences meet the above definitions, then students will be engaged and learning rather than turned off and memorizing. And you can do it online. I have proven it possible in at least one way. I don’t claim that this is the only way, but it’s the only one I’ve encountered to date.

    Use a video and image recording devices to film real experiments, lots of them. Put those real experiment videos online. Create a means for students to interact with those videos to collect data interactively — their own personal data determined by their own care and judgment. What you have is an authentic science investigation experience online using real experiments and interactive data collection.

    This approach costs less than typical hands-on labs. It’s safer. It’s more efficient because students can perform a dozen experiments in the time it would have taken to do just one in class. This is the future. But, the future is in the future. What about now?

    Such online “labs” can be used as preparation for hands-on labs. They can be used to extend a hands-on lab in which online one or two experiments could be completed. They can be used as homework. The can be used for remediation and test preparation.

    Until the UCOP changes its “a-g” requirements, that’s where we are today. In the future, hands-on experiences will be limited to projects and special situations. Hands-on uses time, space, and money inefficiently for the most part. It should be used only where it shines and really makes a difference. Until recently, it was the only option. Simulations do not meet the NRC definition of a lab. They may assist in learning but do not provide a true science investigation experience. They help with content but not with process.

    Once textbooks are mostly gone (remaining only for reference purposes) and hands-on labs are mostly gone (except for projects and other special situations), the world of learning science will be changed forever.

    The above relates only to K-12 learning and mostly to middle and high schools. Colleges are another story but with similar themes. Early elementary school should have pre-science activities, and grades 3-5 should start doing science. Elementary school science should be primarily hands-on with only a smattering of online.

    Put the phrase “prerecorded real experiments” into your search engine to learn more about the world to come.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful feedback Harry. What you say about textbooks I completely agree with. On the question of science labs- I had included some predictions and concerns in my original editorial which was trimmed accidentally; here was what I said about labs:

    “The real world is located in the real world. Science is the study of nature- not of simulations of nature. It is tempting to replace the cost and management of real labs with computer simulations. I think this is a huge mistake. A simulation is a model and all models simplify the real thing. Looking through a real microscope is both much more difficult and also much more exciting than looking through a digital one. Students need to know that real science is messy, frustrating, unpredictable, and very rewarding.”

    In response to Harry- I think there will be great pressure to replace labs with simulations and online labs, and I think they are very useful for certain settings like alternative education, but I think that science educators will need to fight to keep a real lab experience part of basic science education.

    Here were some other things I had intended to include in the original editorial:

    Wild Predictions- The best curricula will link students to real data sources and allow for students in different schools in different parts of the country and the world to work together to gather data and analyze results.

    Some curricula will constantly adapt as new technologies become available. In a 7 year adoption, the basic framework will stay the same, but the methods of delivery, interaction, and assessment will change over the life of the adoption as technology introduces new possibilities.

    The structure of the school day and the classroom will fundamentally change. Much more of happens will happen independently and in small group structures. This will be the most difficult change, will take the longest time to happen, and will face the most resistance.

    Questions- Can open source textbooks, where many people edit and contribute have the conceptual coherency and “tightness” that the best curricula have. With too many contributors and too many possibilities and sources of information will they inevitably become too bloated to really give teachers guidance?

    Concerns- I think there is great value in face to face discussion and problem solving. I worry that we will move too much collaboration and discussion into virtual environments.For example, there will be likely be a discussion thread of people responding to this article. I will overthink my replies and the process will drain my energy. I would much rather get together and brainstorm over a few beers.

    The real world is located in the real world. Science is the study of nature- not of simulations of nature. It is tempting to replace the cost and management of real labs with computer simulations. I think this is a huge mistake. A simulation is a model and all models simplify the real thing. Looking through a real microscope is both much more difficult and also much more exciting than looking through a digital one. Students need to know that real science is messy, frustrating, unpredictable, and very rewarding.

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