Just over sixty years ago, the first-ever artificial satellite was launched into Earth’s orbit. Twelve years after the end of World War II, and five years before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet satellite Sputnik elevated tensions between the world’s great powers. As described in an article from the Harvard Gazette entitled “How Sputnik changed U.S. education”, Sputnik’s “beeping signal from space galvanized the United States to enact reforms in science and engineering education so that the nation could regain technological ground it appeared to have lost to its Soviet rival.” In the midst of the Cold War, Sputnik was a catalyst that led to educational reform and innovation in the fields of science and engineering in particular. The goal was to create the conditions necessary for brilliant, divergent thinkers to lead the charge for innovation on the global stage. On occasion referred to as the Sputnik Shock, this period in educational history can also be characterized for its bold and formative work in the field of creative studies. Educators, building from the work of J. P. Guilford and his traits theory of creativity, led investigations such as “The Identification of Creative Scientific Talent” designed to attract and categorize these desirable individuals. What was ultimately limiting, however, was the premise of the approach. If the presumption is that the purpose of high-leverage teaching practice is to identify and foster genius, of what use is education as it is broadly applied to our constituency? According to the National Science Teachers Association, initiatives embedded in the Next Generation Science Standards carry even more promise than the radical reforms that came about as a result of Sputnik, and seek to answer that question.
The Learning and the Doing of Science
NGSS at first glance offers a different approach to science content. To compare, Michigan’s prior iteration of standards for first grade outlined the following categories for physical science: physical properties, states of matter, and magnetism. Most of the learning statements involved students observing, identifying, or somehow demonstrating their understanding of a concept. Physical science in first grade is now focused topically on the wave functions of light and sound and their capacity to transmit information. While there is less “content” covered, or so called Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs), there is more opportunity for investigation, application, and interdisciplinary comparison. For example, one focus of life science standards in first grade emphasizes biological information structures in living organisms – sense organs. Through this thematic context, students begin to understand that much of the information that organisms take in to survive is structured as a wave. This alignment allows for students to make connections between disciplines of science.
What is interesting to observe in the language of the statements is the diversity in the description of activities. What was once “observing, identifying, or demonstrating” looks more like “plan and conduct an investigation, construct an evidence-based account, or design and build a device.” NGSS articulates the kinds of science activities, and the ways of thinking, that will lead to science understandings. Project-based learning can be the perfect context for standards that emphasize applied, interdisciplinary learning.
After working with PBL and NGSS for several years, and having a variety of instructional tools at hand, the first grade team at A2 STEAM set out to revise a PBL unit that would culminate in the following performance expectation: “Use tools and materials to design and build a device that uses light or sound to solve the problem of communicating over a distance.”
An Inventory of Resources
Teachers had been using resources with some success in years prior. The unit structure of PBL drives students to think about the authentic context of their learning and apply it. Additionally, Project Lead the Way curriculum has an excellent method of framing this work within the design and engineering process. PBL and PLTW have been working together for years at A2 STEAM. Recently, through work with NGSX cohorts and Phenomenal Science curriculum, emphasis has been placed on phenomena-based investigations, modeling, and arguing from evidence. Before designing a device, students need to construct their understanding of how sound functions. Students first plan and conduct investigations to provide evidence that vibrating materials can make sound and that sound can make materials vibrate. Students also make observations to construct an evidence-based account that objects in darkness can be seen only when illuminated, and plan and conduct investigations to determine the effect of placing objects made with different materials in the path of a beam of light. Rather than being told how light and sound works in the natural world, students construct their learning together. Through this pedagogical structure, the identity of the student as a scientist is far more likely to eschew the trends of social privilege compelling more and more students to believe that they are capable of doing this kind of work.
As A2 STEAM has also embarked on an initiative to foster creative skills through collaboration, students have been engaging with the design thinking process to work together to design for a purpose. The design thinking process is helpful for this type of work because of its “flare and focus” structure situated within a collaborative, creative context. The flare of the process accounts for times in which students are allowed to freely explore their ideas. Focus helps students to resolve their ideas within the parameters of the deliverables and the perspective of the group.
For 1st grade students, their science performance task was situated within a broader driving question, “How can we improve our K-1 playground experience?” Through discovery, students identified the need to amplify sound as a means for communication across the playground. Before students could effectively design, it was important for them to constructively engage with the phenomena of sound. This process begins with a phenomena: a ringing bell. Students are asked the question, “How do bells make music?” Students investigate, develop models to explain their thinking, and engage in structured dialogue with their peers. The teacher serves as the facilitator of learning, drawing from the reasoning of students to co-construct valid explanations to answer investigation questions. Ultimately, students would collaboratively design a solution that capitalizes on their science understanding. This is where the science and engineering practices embedded in NGSS assert a bold new vision for the purpose of high-leverage practice.
Collaboration + Access = Cultural Responsiveness
These strategies are designed to leverage the ideas of a far more inclusive sample of students. Without a constructivist approach, students are far more likely to engage in science concepts if they have had some prior exposure, or access to science resources. Think of the science exposition of yesterday, the science fair. While students have the freedom and autonomy to use the scientific method in pursuit of inquiry questions of interest, students are also left to their own resources. Resources can be described as access to scientific equipment, literature, and adults working in the fields of science, among others. It’s no wonder that students who succeed in science are students who can speak the language of science already.
What further justifies the approach, however, is what this strategy does for all students. When properly administered, students who identify as literate in science concepts are often challenged in ways they wouldn’t have been. An avid 1st grade reader can regurgitate facts about sound waves read from an informational text, and it sounds impressive. If they cannot apply this understanding to a context rooted in a shared experience, of what value is the information? Through investigation, modeling, and arguing from evidence, their understanding is improved through their relationship to other the learners because it must stand up to scrutiny. The approach favors a diversity in thinking that might not be demonstrated in a typical proficiency assessment. It challenges all students to reckon their perceptions of the world with others. This is just what scientists do.
The radical assumption in our national education project is that all students benefit from a diverse classroom environment. NGSS helps us to understand why this is true.