Prepare for NGSS: Immerse Yourself in Authentic Science Research

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A frequent question I often hear is how are we going to implement the Next Generation Science Standards? One specific area of concern is how to address Dimension 1: Practices.

Practices, according to NGSS, describe behaviors that scientists engage in as they investigate and build models and theories about the natural world, and the key set of engineering practices used to design and build models and systems.

It seems that many educators, especially those at the elementary and middle school levels, were trained throughout our collegiate careers to teach science, rather than practice the art of science. There seems to be quite a bit of trepidation as we venture down this new path. How, then, can we prepare ourselves to face this new challenge? How do we go about locating resources that will allow us to immerse ourselves in authentic science research and/or engineering design?

Where to start?

Involve Professionals

My advice: reach out to local industry and ask for assistance. Through my work with the Dayton Regional STEM Center as well as Boeing, I know that there are many professionals that desperately want to be involved in the K-12 classroom. Once you’re connected, ask questions. Ask these passionate people to help you build a unit of instruction. Pick their brain and learn authentic science and engineering practices from them. Ask to job shadow. The new standards call for the students to be part of an educational community. You should be part of one too!

Understand that many places that conduct research are required to offer educational outreach in order to fulfill part of their grant obligations. In 2007, AVETEC, a local-to-Ohio applied research facility, partnered with the National Aerospace Leadership Initiative to train educators and involve classrooms across the United States in one of the early launches that took place at Space Port America. Upon hearing of this opportunity through my professional network, I made sure to reach out to the leadership at AVETEC to let them know that my eighth grade class was interested in the project. Fortunately, our “Space Popcorn” project, where my students wanted to see if the fluctuations in temperature, pressure, and moisture would affect the percentage of kernels that popped when put into the microwave after space flight, was selected for inclusion.

In addition to rigorous guidelines for the student experiment, part of our commitment to AVETEC was that I had to agree to participate in a set of preparatory workshops at the University of Connecticut. There, I worked with representatives from higher education, industry professionals, as well as a retired astronaut to ensure that our experiment would generate quality data for student investigation. We were then able to follow our samples as they progressed through all phases of the experiment. I was even able to travel with one of my students and her father to Space Port America to watch the launch!

Another avenue to explore is the military. I understand that it may sound weird, but many bases offer educational outreach. I found out about an offer to tag along on a practice refueling mission and signed up immediately. The opportunity to see how a mission is planned and executed was phenomenal. Speaking to the pilots about  all the variables involved while flying a refueling mission was a revelation. Additionally, talking to the boom operator about how the boom and other aircraft are designed to allow for aerial refueling opened my eyes to many of the complexities involved with the engineering design process.

Experiential Learning in the Summer

When you sign up for summer professional development, seek out experiences rather than just courses. Not that you can’t improve your practices from inside a building, but I would encourage you to look for avenues to earn credits or CEUs that involve going out into the field. One example is Wright State University’s Project PIES. This program for Ohio educators takes place at the Duke Marine Lab in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Classroom educators from many disciplines conduct research in chemistry, environmental sciences, as well as geology. And it was FREE!

After you’ve built up your professional development resume and packed it full of learning and exploring, I would encourage you to apply for the highly competitive NOAA Teacher at Sea, as well as NASA SOFIA’s Airborne Astronomy Ambassador programs.

After my selection as a SOFIA AAA in 2014, I prepared for my two NASA research missions by taking a semester-long course, in addition to the many webinars that included discussions with astronomers and astrophysicists. Pushing myself to learn new content and the struggles that accompanied the very rigorous course work, made me think creatively about how I could integrate this new content into my classroom.

While flying on my 10-hour missions, I was able to see how elite teams of engineers and scientists work together to literally solve the mysteries of the universe. The new content, as well as the opportunity to spend extensive time with professionals in the field, allowed me to witness firsthand how science is actually practiced, and caused me to restructure many aspects of my curriculum to help prepare my students to meet future challenges in a thoughtful, scientific manner.

One way for us to improve as an educational community is to share experiences that we find of value. What are some of your most valuable professional development experiences as you’ve attempted to improve scientific practices or learn more about the engineering design process? Let us know in the comments section below.

Tom Jenkins teaches both middle school science and STEM in Enon, Ohio. He is a NASA SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador, Manager of Special Projects at the Dayton Regional STEM Center, as well as the Boeing Science Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Tom via Twitter: @TomJenkinsSTEM.

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