January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Making NGSS Informal (Is There Really Such a Thing as Formal Science?)

Posted: Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

by Peter A’Hearn

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I had a conversation with Cristina Trecha of the San Diego Science Project about NGSS and informal science, and about the work she has been doing to help science centers make the shifts to NGSS.

Peter: So I see from your Twitter feed that you have been doing lots of work with the informal science community on NGSS.

Cristina: I actually started in teacher professional development in 2007 at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. Now that I’m at UC San Diego, I also provide professional development for informal education staff and continue to bring teachers to explore the San Diego Natural History Museum and the Ruben H. Fleet Science Center. The work I’ve been doing with the Natural History Museum staff has been around science talk moves and the strands of science proficiency. We frame all of this work on how to engage the learner and work from their ideas. You may know the NGSS lists four strands of science proficiency for classrooms:

  • Knowing, using, and interpreting scientific explanations of the natural world (disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts)
  • Generating and evaluating scientific evidence and explanations (practices)
  • Participating productively in scientific practices and discourse (practices)
  • Understanding the nature and development of scientific knowledge (practices and crosscutting concepts)

The National Research Council has added two more for informals:

  • Experience excitement, interest, and motivation to learn about phenomena in the natural and physical world.
  • Think about themselves as science learners and develop an identity as someone who knows about, uses, and sometimes contributes to science.

P: Wow, those really line up nicely with the NGSS practices and the push to make science education about understanding natural phenomena. What are some of the challenges that the informals are facing with NGSS?

C: To be really honest, science centers and museums responded to our old standards by trying to be more like a classroom, they started offering workshops that were very much like formal classroom settings and designing programs that were very driven by state science standards.

P: I definitely saw informals sending out checklists of all the standards that were covered in a field trip, and there were maybe 10 standards on a checklist. My feeling is that you shouldn’t do anything on a field trip that you could do in a classroom.

C: They were responding to what they were being asked to do. There is almost this whole “No Child Left Behind” era in informal science where they focused on direct instruction and delivering content with a lot of vocabulary to cover. Times are changing and now our message is: “in this new era of standards we need you back, we need you to do what you do best.” In my work in the San Diego Science Project, we partner with informals in a unique way focused on teacher learning. I made a “top five” list of how science centers engage teachers as learners and how they can change their identity with teachers in order to become learning spaces for teachers.

It’s time for informals to just get rid of old, direct instruction workshop curriculum and invite teachers to bring students to engage in making sense of interesting scientific phenomena and tinker like an engineer to help us solve some problems. I sat down with the staff at the Fleet Science Center last week and asked them why they worked at a science center and what they wanted kids to get out of it. None of them talked about memorizing vocabulary or knowing all of the science facts they claim to cover. They wanted excitement and engagement. I think NGSS gives a huge opportunity for organizations to take what they are doing it and make more exciting and relevant.

P: How are informals responding to the NGSS?

C: There are many different types of informals and they are responding in equally varied ways. Some want to start sending out a brochure listing the performance expectations, which will again just train teachers to look for that instead of look for unique experiences they can only get outside of the classroom.

After a recent workshop with informal educators the educators were asking , “You mean we could just send the kids out with infrared thermometers and take temperatures and explore where its warmer and cooler, then engage in a discussion to make sense of our data and that could be the workshop? Then let them explore the exhibits?” And the answer is yes, the performance expectations of the NGSS are not examples of lessons or something you can accomplish in a single lesson. Informals should breathe easier knowing that they don’t need to explain how the Earth goes around the Sun and the seasons and everything about weather in a 90-minute workshop. Instead the workshop could be 60 minutes and the open exploration time on the exhibit floor could be extended.

P: What is something specific you are working on with informal staff?

C: I am excited to be working with Beth Redmond-Jones of the San Diego Natural History Museum on her new program for all museum staff: “15 minutes can change a visit.” The idea is to pick one object, or maybe two, to contrast and focus on visitors’ ideas and engage in a dialogue with them where they are bringing prior experience and curiosity to bear on the interaction. Specifically we worked with Visual Thinking Strategies and the Talk Moves checklist from Sarah Michaels and Cathy O’Connor. These discourse moves can help us focus our engagement with the public on a shared experience, instead of direct delivery of facts and information from the staff on the exhibit floor. So instead of bringing out a bug and talking about their whole life cycle and ecology, this program is encouraging staff to perhaps instead bring out two different types of insects and ask visitors what they think about the differences and similarities between the organisms. Part of this includes something we see in NGSS and Common Core strategies, which is pressing for the learners reasoning instead of asking questions with a single answer. We are working away from “what is the name of this animal?” towards “we think these two animals are related, let’s explore our evidence and see what you think.”

I am also working on transforming museum teacher trainings to get away from direct instruction related to how kids can go on field trips, towards teacher learning about the scientific process and developing a familiarity of the core ideas in science. Earlier this month all of the regional directors of the California Science Project were in San Diego and went to the Natural History Museum to work through our growing understanding of the Crosscutting Concepts of the NGSS by using them to link different exhibits in dialogue with each other. I also took middle school teachers on a similar exploration of the exhibits at the Fleet. Overall I think this work can contribute to a larger educational community using the language of the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices and the Crosscutting Concepts. Once we start doing that in more public spaces and in more science publications the language of science will begin to seem less difficult or foreign to teachers and the general public as we all learn together.

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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.

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