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Science steps up.

Concerns about curriculum and public image prompt new standards.

Carl Sagan, the late astronomer and astrophysicist who wanted to get everyone just as excited about science as he was, once summed up how those in the field feel about the rest of us: "We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology."

Some science educators say that is true, and despite the popularity of STEM in discussions about the direction of education, science too often is misunderstood and overshadowed by the "T" and "E" in the STEM acronym: technology and engineering. Yet, they say, science is at the center of our lives – from the health of our bodies and brains to the future of our planet and should get more attention – in society and in education.

"In order for students to be successful in employing STEM skills and strategies, they need a solid foundation in science," says Christine Royce, president of the National Science Teachers Association. "I am fully for the inclusion of computer and coding skills," she says, "but not in place of science course work."

She notes that the field helps in problem solving and conceptual understanding that is necessary in any endeavor

"There is still a need for students to have a strong science and math education that provides them with the necessary skills for future careers – both within and beyond the STEM fields,"

All those concerns were among the reasons for an initiative over the last five years that has developed  Next Generation Science Standards, she says.

Science education leaders also knew that part of the reason it wasn't getting the attention it deserved from students was that the instruction was not relevant enough and outdated.The previous standards were about 15 years old, and in a field was changing so rapidly an update was needed, so, working through the states, her group and representatives of other science education organizations began to develop new approaches.

The new standards, introduced in 2013 and now adopted by 19 states with another 19 approving something similar, focus on students learning about science with hands on projects and experiments and then evaluating the information they have collected and researched.

Patricia Morrell, a professor emeritus at University of Portland School of Education and president of the Association for Science Teacher Education says teachers using the standards may find their classrooms are more "noisy and messy" at times as they devote more time to active learning, group work and less direct instruction.

"This was a major shift in how we look at science education," she says. "It recommends using a 3-D approach that focuses not just on science content and core ideas but also how science is done  – the practices –  and a push for emphasizing the main ideas we see threaded through all the science disciplines to help in conceptual understanding – crosscutting concepts like systems, cause and effect and patterns."

The three dimensions in the initiative are:

  • Crosscutting Concept, that help students explore connections across the four domains of science, including physical science, life science, earth and space science, and engineering design.
  • Science and engineering practices that describe what scientists do to investigate the natural world and what engineers do to design and build systems. The practices better explain and extend what is meant by “inquiry” in science and the range of cognitive, social, and physical practices that it requires. Students engage in practices to build, deepen, and apply their knowledge of core ideas and crosscutting concepts.
  • Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs) where there are the key ideas in science that have broad importance within or across multiple science or engineering disciplines. These core ideas build on each other as student’s progress through grade levels and are grouped into the four domains: physical science, life science, earth and space science, and engineering design.

The standards are already having an effect, according to research by The Hechinger Report, and adjustments in science education are being made – from simple experiments for second graders to how advanced courses in high schools can give students sophisticated hands-on opportunities.

There is more information at the Next Generation Web site and at the site for the National Science Teachers Association site dedicated to the standards.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (