Life lessons light up science education

Upcoming NSTA conference focuses on standards and creativity
By: | Issue: February, 2015
January 15, 2015

From designing more creative and flexible science classrooms to developing community service projects that engage girls in STEM, this year’s National Science Teachers Association conference in March is all about K12 students connecting learning to the real world.

Implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and an accompanying push for hands-on learning is bringing new ways to think about integrating scienceÑand scientific thinkingÑinto everyday experiences.

Take designÑa topic not typically connected to science. Building a flexible classroom with space for displaying work, gathering in groups and working on projects can foster an environment of experimentation and invention, says Peter Exley, an architect and presenter at this year’s conference.

Exley’s firm, Architecture is Fun, designed such a space for a Chicago school by connecting six science labs with hallways to create a vibrant area filled with science materials, moveable furniture and displays.

“What we did in that space is just establish a culture where everybody from the student to the teacher is empowered to manipulate the space and to set up or display what they are working on in a public manner,” Exley says.

Creating a fun and informal science space can be part of a new construction project, or it can be as simple as looking for local artists to decorate existing classrooms with science-inspired artÑwhich can help students look at the subject in a different way. “What can an artist bring to an expression of a DNA strand?” Exley says. “Let’s think about science in an artful way and think about art in a scientific way.”

Along with design and creative thinking, another hot topic at the conference will be the NGSS, which promises the biggest classroom changes for next year. A dozen states will implement NGSS curricula amidst a nationwide push to ramp up engineering instruction.

What’s coming with NGSS

Although most states have yet to adopt the standards, many teachersÑeither on their own or as part of a districtÑwant to apply NGSS concepts to what they teach, NSTA Executive Director David Evans says.

The guiding principle of NGSS is that students learn science best by doing science, Evans says. But expanding those hands-on projects can pose big challenges. In-depth PD that covers the NGSS and hands-on science education is a key solution, Evans says.

At the elementary level, the biggest challenge in the dozen states now aggressively implementing NGSS is the availability of science material, Evanssays. Elementary curricula can take advantage of similarities between NGSS and Common Core math and English practices, says Ted Willard, program director at NSTA.

“Science instruction can provide a meaningful context for students to learn math and English language arts in addition to the science learning that takes place,” Willard says.

The key to planning a good NGSS curriculum is allowing students to investigate the same events and objects studied by professional scientists. The topics have to be engaging to motivate students to do in-depth work. That means teachers need to gain a deep understanding of the core ideas before they plan lessons, Willard says.

NGSS is also structured around learning progressions, which can be difficult to coordinate and plan across grade levels.

In middle and high school grades, changing how teachers teach is a significant challenge. Helping teachers understand how students benefit is therefore crucial, Willard says. He suggests showing teachers videos of classrooms using NGSS so they can see how the standards can more deeply engage students.

Implementing NGSS doesn’t necessarily mean throwing out current lessonsÑbut rather restructuring them to get students more involved in discovery and the scientific process, says Stephen Pruitt, senior vice president of content, research and development at Achieve, an education reform nonprofit that helped develop NGSS.

In his conference presentation, Pruitt will discuss how NGSS tools now being developed can give teachers a deeper understanding of the standards.

Engaging girls

NSTA will feature multiple presentations this year on ways that engineeringÑwhich plays a much bigger role under NGSSÑcan better engage girls. One of the best ways to do that is through community service projects, says Janet Mambrino, co-chair of the mathematics department at Xavier College Preparatory in Phoenix, an all-girls school.

Five years ago, Mambrino launched an engineering program at Xavier in which students in grades 9 through 12 use science in community projects. Students in grades 9 and 10 studied thermodynamics to conduct a campus energy audit. They analyzed concepts such as heat loss by comparing the temperature inside and outside of buildings with different windows. Then they devised several solutions to improve energy efficiency, from changing campus lighting to implementing better water conservation.

Students in higher grades designed an interactive sundial for a public park in Phoenix, and created their own formula for a pervious concrete that allows water to percolate back to the water table. Since launching the program, students are more excited to study STEM subjects, and several students plan to major in engineering in college, Mambrino says.

“It helps them to see the reason for doing [engineering],” Mambrino says. “They see the impact that they have on others and they realize that this is a way that they can make a difference in the world.”

Administrators interested in launching such a program should start smallÑwith one or two easy-to-complete service projectsÑand work on getting buy-in from students by basing projects around their interests, Mambrino says.

Drawing and modeling

It’s not enough to simply add engineering to a science curriculum, says Cheryl Farmer, founding program manager and project director of UTeachEngineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Teachers have to integrate engineering in a meaningful way.

Designing an engineering curriculum that clearly addresses science standards can be challenging because it requires teachers to create projects that address multiple concepts, she says.

Julia Alexander, a science teacher and NSTA presenter, suggests that teachers start by examining the curriculum objective to determine which science standards and concepts are involved.

Then, they should integrate engineering and “cross-cutting concepts”Ñcore ideas, like cause and effect, patterns, and energy and matter, that are relevant to science and engineering.

Alexander will use the example of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska to have students design solutions for removing oil from water. Students will learn about density, matter and the properties of oil. The project also will introduce them to engineering, and the process of building models, testing them, refining them and figuring out why some may fail.

Building a model doesn’t have a task as enormous as her Valdez project, Alexander says. A model can start with drawing a picture or working with clay. Finally, Alexander suggests getting students to start drawing concepts and modeling solutions for projects from the first day of class, so that by the time they get to an engineering project they are familiar with the process.

One way to make teachers and students more comfortable with the engineering design process is to apply it to everyday subjects like reading, according to Mia Dubosarsky, director of professional development at The STEM Education Center at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). WPI offers teacher degree programs, and the Center provides PD, resources, and support for STEM educators.

Dubosarsky uses, for example, an elementary school book called “Little Bear’s Trousers,” by Jane Hissey, to show teachers how to use the design process when analyzing a book. This workshop is titled Engineering a Story, and is based on a program developed by Bill Wolfson.

The main problem in the book is that the bear has lost his trousers. After brainstorming, teachers sketch out solutions to any one of the many problems in the book. Two potential solutions for the main problem could be using a microchip to keep track of the trousers or building a closet. The teachers analyze the ideas together to see which ones might work. Finally, teachers can “write” to a character in the book explaining their solution or add a different ending that incorporates their solutions.
Applying engineering concepts to problems within a story they are reading with students can improve teachers’ comfort level in teaching the subject. “It’s a very comfortable method for teachers and administrators,” Dubosarsky says, “to get familiarized with the science and engineering processes.”

Jessica Terrell is a freelance writer in California.