Blog: The Educated Reporter

Learning Scientific Methods Can Have Lifelong Value

EWA recently held a seminar on STEM education and student skills at the University of Southern California. We asked some of the reporters who participated to contributes posts from the sessions. Today’s guest blogger is Lillian Mongeau of Ed Source. You can find out more about STEM education on EWA’s topic pages. 

Twenty-six states across the country have adopted new standards in science that call for hands-on lessons meant to develop student understanding of the key concepts of scientific exploration.

Rather than outlining what facts students must know, the Next Generation Science Standards set the bar for what students must be able to do, said Helen Quinn, particle physicist and chair of the Board of Science Education for the National Research Council. Understanding how to design an experiment or draw conclusions from a set of evidence requires that students actually try to do those things, she told a gathering of education journalists at the second annual EWA seminar on STEM education.

“You cannot learn to argue from evidence by being told how to do it,” Quinn said. “You have to do it yourself. You cannot learn how to analyze data without getting some data to analyze yourself.”

Todd Ullah, director for science for Los Angeles Unified School District, said district leaders and teachers in states like his where the new standards had been adopted were working to change instruction methods to better help children meet the new requirements. In many urban schools, a growing focus on math and English has crowded out science instruction, leaving a gap in knowledge among teachers, said Ullah, who sat on the same panel as Quinn.

“It will be key that we build leadership capacity, especially for science teachers,” he said.

To make the new standards a reality for all students in Los Angeles will take some work, Ullah said. Some groups of teacher, like elementary school teachers, have had very little science instruction support in recent years. In addition to preparing teachers to lead lessons that will help students meet the new standards, the school district needs to address the issue of facilities and supplies, Ullah said.

School districts are also working on the problem of how to assess students. Figuring out how to test students’ ability to perform tasks, rather than answer multiple-choice questions, is a challenge, Quinn said.

“You can’t measure (how well students have met the new standards) by asking if they know it, you have to ask them to do something,” Quinn said. “That is the assessment problem.”

Though states have yet to crack the code on how to test a large number of students on a performance task, Quinn said she thinks they’re headed in the right direction.

“We have to get beyond multiple choice because that’s not what they need to know in the real world,” Quinn said.

One of the goals of the new science standards is to give students a foundation in the scientific method: Come up with a question then conduct an experiment to determine the answer. Even if students don’t go on to become chemistry majors, the argument goes, the logical reasoning skills and grounding in the basics of science will help public school graduates in other areas. When faced with a health care decision, for example, someone with at least a basic understanding of biology and how to read a summary of scientific findings will do a better job picking the best treatment plan, Quinn said.

“You’re not just preparing students for college or in one subject, you’re preparing students for life,” Quinn said.

Adopting the new science standards will proceed more slowly than did the adoption of the new Common Core State Standards, because state boards of education tend to review their science standards less frequently than they review English and math standards. Quinn said science is just as important as English and math, and she hopes that more states move to adopt the new standards soon.

“Kids come to school today with a different experience of the world than 50 years ago, but curriculum was designed 50 years ago,” she said.

These days, students can find out any scientific fact they want by looking it up online, but they can’t learn to solve a problem on their own without practicing. Schools can provide students with the time and space to get their hands dirty, Quinn said. Allowing time for experimentation, as outlined in the new standards, is far more important than ensuring students know a certain set of facts, she said.

“The question is not: “How much you should learn?” but, “How much can you learn and use?” Quinn said.


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