Art, Design, Engineering, & the Next Generation Science Standards

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 [the] 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 the Phenomenal Science curriculum, the 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 phenomenon: 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 scientific 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 first-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 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.


Project Based Learning & Culturally Responsive Teaching

There is much discussion lately among teaching communities about the concept of Culturally Responsive Teaching. There have been many equity and diversity models in education over the years, so it is important to distinguish the differences between them to better understand CRT. According to the work of Zaretta Hammond, self proclaimed “former writing teacher turned equity freedom fighter,” CRT can be distinguished from other models in the following ways:

Multicultural EducationSocial Justice EducationCulturally Responsive Teaching
Focuses on celebrating diversity.Focuses on exposing the social political context that students experience.Focuses on improving the learning capacity of diverse students who have been marginalized educationally.
Centers around creating positive social interactions across difference.Centers around raising students’ consciousness about inequity in everyday social, environmental, economic, and political aspects of life.Centers around the affective & cognitive aspects of teaching and learning.
Concerns itself with exposing privileged students to diverse literature, multiple perspectives, and inclusion in the curriculum as well as help students of color see themselves reflected.Concerns itself with creating lenses to recognize and interrupt inequitable patterns and practices in society.Concerns itself with building resilience and academic mindset by pushing back on dominant narratives about people of color.

While there is no singular approach to inclusive teaching, it is worth noting that different approaches favor different outcomes. The goal with Multicultural Education could be stated as striving toward social harmony. The goal with Social Justice Education could be stated as engendering and cultivating critical consciousness. The goal with Culturally Responsive Teaching, however, places a premium on all students actuated as independent learners.

The value that this approach brings to the conversation of equity and inclusion should not be understated. Harmony and consciousness are important, but achievement is also a favorable outcome. It is favorable because it equips the learner with the skills needed to create the life that they choose. But CRT is not a checklist. Teachers do this work responsively. They are practitioners and practitioners are positioned to evaluate the impact of their practice as it pertains to achievement outcomes. After all, the case can be made for most instructional practices that they have a positive impact on achievement. Only when approaches are evaluated in comparison with each other can they be understood. This idea has been developed through the research of John Hattie over decades. The text Visible Learning helps practioners evaluate strategies in their own practice, given that Visible Learning “occurs when teachers see learning through the eyes of students and help them become their own teachers.” As PBL teachers, we ask ourselves the question, “How does PBL help students to become their own teachers?”

For a long time, project based learning has been ill-defined and inconsistently administered. The research from Hattie reflects this. PBL in and of itself is not a high-leverage practice. PBL is valuable because it is an excellent vehicle for high-leverage instruction. Unfortunately, there is not enough data yet to evaluate the effect of Gold Standard PBL as dictated by Buck Institute, but we can look at the effect of high-leverage practices if we unpack them within the PBL model. Through these high-leverage practices, practitioners move the locus of learning to the student-centered learning environment. This is a departure from what is often seen as the traditional approach – learning coming from the teacher or text books. Through this reorganization, and in concert with Multicultural and Social Justice Education, the learner is positioned to construct their own narrative.

Hattie describes strategies that are worth the investment of finite instructional time as being greater than or equal to an effect size of .4. He calls this the hinge point. One strategy identified through this work is classified as “strategy to integrate with prior knowledge.” It has an effect size of .94. You can see this programmatically applied in high quality PBL as the “need to know” protocol. Not only does this process account for the diverse perspectives of learners, positioning them to begin the learning path by activating prior knowledge, it sets the stage for authentic classroom discussions. This has an effect size of .82. By returning to the questions laid out by students, and ideally generating new ones along the way, the need to know protocol eschews some of the common pitfalls of traditional discussion structures such as question taxonomies – essentially questions generated by teachers. It also has a tendency to distribute the power dynamics of the discussion because the locus has been moved from the teacher to the students.

Evaluation and reflection is yet another effective strategy that is well-articulated within the BIE’s Gold Standard PBL framework. It carries an effect size of .72. Evaluation and reflection is characterized in many different ways in PBL. The need to know process itself creates a framework for students to self-evaluate their path along a challenging question. We also use protocols embedded in the design thinking framework to ensure that this feedback comes early and often.

Strategies are tools, and educators employ these tools in sophisticated ways to achieve optimal outcomes. John Dewey writes in School and Society, “What the best and wisest parent wants for [their] child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.” As culturally responsive teachers, we endure in this mission, and respond to our students through project-based learning.