From Spectators to Scientists
I think the iPad lends itself real well to teachers who instruct in accordance with the Next Generation Science Standards (from now on NGSS). First a little background on NGSS: These standards are written to guide science instruction in the K-12 classrooms. College professors like myself should be interested in these new standards as well for two reasons. First, our incoming students will have learned science under these new standards and it is important for us to know what our students know coming into our classes. Secondly, all college professors have potential science teachers in their classrooms. These future teachers will be using the NGSS to teach their future students. It is important that college professors are at least aware of the NGSS so that we can help this next generation of science teachers be equipped to teach the next generation of science student.
The previous generation of science standards in California focused on content. These standards listed the concepts and topics that students were supposed to know with their minds. In my opinion these standards tended to underemphasize the hands-on aspects of science and the connection between mind content and hands on experiences. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but the previous generation of science standards focused more on theory than on practice. I sensed that the processes of experimentation were underemphasized.
NGSS shifts the pendulum back towards practice. It will remain to be seen if the pendulum swings to an extreme where content is underemphasized. I am going to be initially optimistic that it won’t be an extreme. There is plenty of content in NGSS. Furthermore, my high school biology teacher and very good friend tells me that “NGSS is not the ceiling it is the floor.” Even though certain content topics are not mentioned in NGSS we can still teach them. In other words NGSS is not setting limits on content it is setting a minimum. That is what my friend means by floor not ceiling.
But there is a heavy emphasis on practice in NGSS. There are eight science practices in NGSS that cut across all levels of education and that we want to see all students mastering. They are:
- Asking questions
- Developing and using models
- Planning and carrying out investigations
- Analyzing and interpreting data
- Using mathematical and computational thinking
- Constructing explanations
- Engaging in argument from evidence
- Obtaining, evaluating and communicating information
Currently in many science classrooms K-16, students are spectators. They sit and learn about science but they are never given a chance to be a scientist. Imagine a PE baseball class where the teacher discussed hitting and modeled pitching, lectured on fielding and showed videos of major league games. Students were then tested on when to bunt or how many strikes a batter gets or what is the definition of a “pickle”. One might ask, “When do the students get to go out and play baseball? The kids just want to be baseball players!” NGSS is attempting to let the students be scientists at every level.
When I was a kid my parents could not afford a dish washer. And guess who had to wash the dishes 3 nights a week? Me! It was washing the dishes where I learned about gas laws without even realizing it. I would always take the glasses and turn them upside down while full of air. I would submerge them in water and let go. I always got yelled at for breaking glasses! But I learned about pressure and volume. Again, I did not use those words “pressure” and “volume” and I certainly did not say things like, “According to Boyle’s Law….” But when I did get to chemistry in the 11th grade and I heard about all of these gas laws they just made intuitive sense to me. Performing the mathematical calculations like P1V1 = P2V2 was easy for me to do because I understood the concept behind them. I understood these concepts because I had personal experience, in the kitchen sink!
It was only about six years later that I was teaching my own chemistry class. I explained the gas laws perfectly. (Ha!) I modeled the calculations. I gave the students guided practice at Boyle’s law and Charles’s law and Gay-Lussac’s law. I assigned “independent practice as homework. I followed the seven step lesson plan perfectly. Then I gave a quiz.
The results were terrible! It took me a long time to figure out that the students did not understand the concepts of gas laws. When I went back to reteach I told them, “You know, it’s like when you are washing the dishes and you take a class and…”
I heard back in unison:
“Teacher, we all have dishwashers at home!”
My students did not all have the experiences that I had. So back into the lab we go!
NGSS puts the experience back into the science classroom.
I am already seeing the results. My wife’s friend Teresa Collar at Raymond Elementary School in Fullerton is an early adopter. She teaches kindergarten. Around her room she has all kinds of experiences for her students. She has broken appliances for the students to take apart. I call it “appliance dissection”. I have always secretly been jealous of the biology faculty. Have a busted blender? Mrs Collar can put it to good use! She also has a “making table”. It is a table with cups of “stuff” to make things with. The cups have paperclips and popsicle sticks and tape and clay and different odds and ends that the students get to make things with at different times of the day. She also had a “boat building contest” She gave the students different kinds of paper to test the papers’ floating ability. The next day the students were to choose the best floating paper to build a boat with. Each group got a number of plastic bears to test the weight the boat could hold before sinking. Then the students could modify their design. Was this a kindergarten class? Or was it the skunkworks at Northrop Grumman? These kindergartners were learning by doing: designing, building, testing, modifying. That is the value I see in NGSS. Someday when they finally do learn the vocabulary, it has an experience to stick to.
So that is a little background on NGSS. I apologize for getting carried away by my enthusiasm for NGSS and not getting to the iPad just yet. In a future post I would like to discuss the ways that the iPad is an excellent tool for letting students experience the science practice developing and using models.