January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Making the Case for Change

Posted: Monday, November 4th, 2013

by Jill Grace

Earlier this month I came across an article by the editorial board of the New York Times.  It summarized some recent findings from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Survey of Adult Skills (OECD).  The study measured adult proficiency in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in information-rich environments. Arguably, these skills are at the heart of a world becoming more and more technologically advanced. This study, as you may have guessed, is yet another one showing we (Americans) are missing the mark.  What is especially poignant about this particular study, however, is that it provides data showing it is not just school-aged children falling behind their international counterparts, but working-aged adults as well.  Now, we can spend hours debating the quality of the study and its methods but at the end of the day it’s yet another study suggesting Americans currently have poor skills and, worse yet, that we aren’t improving. 

As a person who is passionate about science education, this study and the many others like it worry me.  I’m not focused on “beating out the competition,” but why aren’t our recent grads showing gains?  Shouldn’t we all be growing and improving? How can it be that we are standing still?

As these thoughts simmer in my head, I’m flooded by what seems like contradictory evidence to studies like this and despite what studies like the OECD might suggest, there are teachers in California trying to close that achievement gap. There was great energy at CSTA’s 2013 annual California Science Education Conference! While there, I saw passionate educators eager to share best practices and soak up all that they could to help their students access science and improve skills.  It was such a great collaborative atmosphere. As might be expected, we were immersed in sessions helping professionals understand the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), STEM, and how science can support Common Core. In just a few short years, these initiatives will have come to fruition.  At the conference in Palm Springs and over the past several months, I have met middle school teachers who are trying to make sense of these changes, including the proposal to organize middle school science in an integrated fashion by the California Department of Education as recommended by the Science Expert Panel.

What I find especially interesting is that all of this actually goes together.  The results of these international studies, the massive educational movement in the United States, and efforts by science education leaders in California all suggest a need and attempt to blend skills and content in a way that helps students make connections across fields.  These reforms provide opportunities for students, (who will eventually enter the workforce), to create knowledge in context and in ways that can be applied to other areas, yielding richness in understanding. It turns out, some of the biggest findings in how people learn show that if students can combine ideas in a way that provides context, they learn them more deeply and become better thinkers in the process.

The real world actually works in this way, too.  An example I heard during a session at the conference illustrates this point: sport fisherman understand that if they catch a fish from a deep location, that fish will be experiencing pressure-related physiological trauma when the fish gets to the surface.  This is relevant because often times these fisherman catch small fish they’d rather release so the fishermen really need to understand the physics behind Boyle’s law. This understanding helps them know how quickly and at which depth to release their fish so the fish have a better chance at surviving (see my side note at the bottom of this article).  When we can get our students, tomorrow’s workforce (or even fish enthusiasts), to a place where they can investigate a topic in a way that forces them to look at connections between ideas and analyze information critically, they understand it better (and even save some rockfish in the process).

As it turns out, these are very desirable workplace skills and the very skills the OECD study was measuring.  The necessity for these skills was echoed by several conference speakers including Dr. Chris Lowe, biology professor and head of the shark lab at California State University, Long Beach, and hero to juvenile rockfish.  He was quite explicit that in order to do the groundbreaking research his lab does on sharks and game fish, people need a breadth of skills. “Today’s marine biologists can’t just be marine biologists.  They have to be engineers, physicists, chemists, and computer scientists, too.”  The researchers working with him must be adept at understanding how abiotic factors influence the fish and how to organize and make sense of the overwhelming amount of information new technologies (such as acoustic and satellite telemetries, GPS, GIS, and high resolution bathymetry) can provide about their behavior.  In a nutshell, the students who work in Dr. Lowe’s lab must make connections and be able to operate in and across all these different “disciplines”.  I have to admit that the work Dr. Lowe does is not unique in this respect.  I don’t know of any scientist who does their work in an isolated subject bubble, and yet, that is how the majority of us teach in the United States today, including instructors at the college level.

This leads me to ponder whether biology, geology, physics, chemistry, math, engineering, etc. are, in fact, different “disciplines,” if all of them must connect to help us make sense of the big questions in our world.  This idea of the interconnectedness of science disciplines was also evident in another session I attended at the conference on the middle school progressions of the NGSS. Participants were asked to choose either photosynthesis or geologic time and brainstorm the topics students need to know in order to understand the bigger idea.  It’s no surprise that participants’ posters about these distinct topics contained a blend of information from similar “disciplines” helping us (and students) make sense of one big idea.

GracePhoto1

There are other hints that moving away from discipline-specific studies may be advantageous to students. Outside of talking to employers or university researchers who are begging for students with this kind of experience, a 2010 evaluation by Achieve (the folks behind the writing of NGSS) was able to dig up some supporting data. Ten of the top scoring countries on international benchmark assessments require students to participate in integrated science instruction through lower secondary (grade 8) and seven of those countries do so through grade 10. Five of the countries Achieve mentioned in that report, Canada, England, Finland, Japan, and Korea, also surpass us on the OECD survey.

We are at a crossroads as science educators. One road is familiar to us as teachers – it’s basically the same formula for teaching (minus some tweaking every few years) that has been around for a while now. It’s what we know, are passionate about, and what we have confidence we can deliver to our students. Then there is the other road that is new to many of us, one with which we are less familiar.  Although it may seem unsettling to us, science education has long been on a road of becoming less “discipline” specific. For example, what we call biology today used to be called, “botany”, “zoology”, and “anatomy”.  This trend exists because it provides opportunities for students to link old knowledge with new to solidify understanding.  Going down the road towards integration will help reform how we support science education in California, and there are already promising signs on that forefront.

The ultimate question, however, isn’t what is best for teachers, it’s: What is best for students?  I’m not saying that NGSS, STEM, and Common Core are perfect solutions. No doubt there will be struggles, but there are significant reasons why this tide of change is upon us now.  If we all give this a good shot, and it actually works, imagine how amazing it would be for our students.  According to our conference keynote speaker, Dr. Stephen Pruitt, (who channeled his inner Harry Potter), we are at a point where we must face the choice between what is right and what is easy.

Side note:  Dr. Chris Lowe, who was mentioned in this article, indicated in his session about having a hard time helping sport fisherman understand the link between the physics and biological principles behind barotrauma.  He is looking for serious high school students interested in biology and physics and who have skills in desktop publishing, app design, or computer/device movie making that might want to partner with him on a project to help educate sport fisherman.  He can be contacted at Chris.Lowe@csulb.edu.

Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is the President-elect for CSTA.

One Response

  1. NGSS was largely modeled after England’s standards – the content standards are virtually the same and they share strong similarities in the topics of cross-cutting concepts and the science and engineering practices.

    Two big and important differences.

    1. England’s standards are written in plain/straightforward language and all of middle school science is covered in about 3-4 pages of text vs. the prescriptive and ridiculously complicated CA standards.

    2. Change adopted in 2014: In England, middle school science standards are NOT by grade level! Students are required to know the topics by the end of middle school – how and when they are taught is NOT prescribed!

    So shall we do what England no longer does or shall we move our science education forward as well?

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