An Insider Look at the Next Generation Science Classroom

Now that the Next Generation Science Standards have been unveiled, I’m sure many of you in our Tch community are trying to determine what the standards mean for you. Just what does the science classroom of the future look like? Let me give you an insider’s glimpse into next generation science teaching and learning.

My background is in science education – before joining Tch, my research focused on science learning across settings, as well as the design and implementation of early childhood science curricula. So, it’s no surprise that I am particularly excited about the release of the (NGSS) for K-12 science and engineering education. Learning goals that focus on the how and why of science, not simply the what, are exactly what we need to be thinking about in order to prepare students to participate in science for the purposes of college, career, and citizenship.

Not all students will decide to pursue careers in science, but all citizens should have the essential skills that allow them to read, interpret, and evaluate information to make informed decisions about issues related to their health, the environment, etc. This reflects a critical shift in our thinking about science education since the last standards were developed almost 15 years ago, and one that I strongly support. In fact, I participated in one of the earlier rounds of feedback during the development of these standards.

Because the standards were just released, it’s expected that it will take time before we see schools fully adopting these standards and curricula being revised to meet these learning outcomes. But I can provide you with a glimpse into two curricular design projects that connect with the goals outlined in NGSS. Both of these curricula reflect the priorities for science education that have been identified in the NRC Framework for K-12 Science Education – the consensus report that served as the basis for the development of NGSS – and therefore are closely aligned with the NGSS learning goals.

Constructing Models in Pre-Kindergarten

Through a multi-year collaboration between the LIFE Center at the University of Washington and a pre-kindergarten teaching team in Seattle, a core group of four teachers and I developed a science curriculum for young children that built upon their existing knowledge and interests about the natural world and engaged them in contemporary scientific practices.

students using a science model

A pre-kindergarten student using a model to understand interdependent relationships in an ecosystem.

In one unit, students constructed a model of an ecosystem. The model, created using removable cards to depict various between living and non-living components, allowed students to make sense of the interdependent relationships in an ecosystem (e.g., What happens when you remove the plants?). Connecting this lesson with the new standards, we see students learning about what animals and plants need to survive (a disciplinary core idea), identifying patterns of cause and effect when things are removed from the ecosystem (a cross-cutting concept), and developing and using a model to show these patterns of cause and effect  (a scientific practice).

Student-Led Investigations in High School Biology

In another project, researchers at the University of Washington Institute for Science and Mathematics Education have designed high school science units that engage students in contemporary scientific work and connect them with experts in the fields in which they are working.

student activity in Science lab

High school biology students carrying out an investigation to identify species through DNA barcoding.

In one unit, students work on an investigation they designed to identify species through DNA barcoding. Through their investigation, they must engage in multiple scientific practices – asking scientific questions, planning and carrying out an investigation, and constructing arguments from evidence – intertwined with disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts.

The key thing to remember about the Next Gen Science Standards is that they articulate learning goals, but they are not a curriculum for instruction. It also important to keep in mind that the practices, disciplinary core ideas, and cross-cutting concepts are interrelated strands that work together, as illustrated in the examples above.

Students across all grade levels will learn core scientific ideas and cross-cutting concepts through engagement in disciplinary practices of science and engineering. This approach to science education enables us to move beyond the kind of teaching that focuses solely on students’ memorization of content and allows us to engage students in scientific practices and build their conceptual understanding.

The anticipation of these standards has already sparked a renewed conversation across the nation about quality science education, and I look forward to Teaching Channel’s participation in these conversations with all of you over the upcoming months.

To learn more, here are some free resources about the new vision for K-12 science education:

1. Watch a 3-minute video about why NGSS matters.

2. Download the Next Generation Science Standards for K-12 science education.

3. See the NRC Framework vision for K-12 science education from the National Academy of Sciences.

4. Review NSTA’s online learning resources related to the new vision and standards.

Tiffany Lee is the Director of Education for Teaching Channel. Tiffany has over 15 years of experience working with children to understand learning in a variety of formal and informal settings, including classrooms, afterschool programs, and family homes. She received her Ph.D. in Learning Sciences from the University of Washington College of Education.

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