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New Science Standards Aim to Relate Concepts to Students' Lives

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A consortium of science and education organizations has released the first set of science standards since the original set prepared by the National Research Council and the American Association for Advancement in Science 15 years ago. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) aim to incorporate the scientific community’s understanding of science as it has grown and changed.

The new NGSS standards represent the core scientific concepts that practicing scientists agree K-12 students should know by the time they graduate. The framework for the standards was developed by the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve. Together they built compiled principals and solicited input from states about what pedagogy and curricular specifics to build in.

“Students need to understand how science works, the practices and the crosscutting concepts in order to be ready to assume their roles in a scientifically complex world,” said Frank Neipold, co-chair of the Climate Education Interagency Working Group at the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Neipold has worked on the standards in many capacities and sees them as vitally important to educating the next generation to think critically about how systems work together.

Twenty-six states helped write the standards, and while there is no obligation that states adopt them, many likely will. The standards focus on fewer core concepts, are meant to go deeper within each concept, and emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of science.

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The standards are organized in three dimensions: key concepts, crosscutting concepts, and practices. Key concepts are broadly important and teachable over a series of years, such as the subject of climate change, which can get more complex as students build upon their knowledge. The second dimension is crosscutting concepts, things that span the scientific disciplines like energy and matter, cause and effect or systems. Lastly, students will be expected to understand the practice of science, undertaking scientific inquiry and comparing the practices of science with those of engineers.


“The interesting and important part of the NGSS is that they really are about critical thinking in these cross cutting competencies,” said Don Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and leader of a project to implement the standards in Maryland and Delaware. “So I think teachers will really have the chance to help students think critically about these topics.”

While the NGSS are not part of the Common Core State Standards -- those were developed under the auspices of federal government and focus only on math and literacy -- there are some similarities. Proponents of both sets of standards say they're meant to emphasize close reading of non-fiction tests, performance-based standards, and an integrated approach to learning across disciplines.


One of the more controversial aspects of the new science standards is the inclusion of climate change in the curriculum. "There was never a debate about whether climate change would be in there," Heidi Schweingruber of the National Research Council told National Public Radio. "It is a fundamental part of science, and so that's what our work is based on, the scientific consensus."

Still, science teachers often find themselves pulled in to help bolster math and reading scores, leaving them with little time to teach science, let alone incorporate complicated new topics. Teaching climate change science can feel daunting to many teachers who don’t have a firm grasp of all the information, he said.

“We have not trained our teachers very well to work across disciplines,” Boesch said. Teaching climate change inherently requires integration of things like earth sciences, chemistry and systems. A changing climate will affect all parts of life. Teachers aren’t always comfortable teaching all the elements and will need to be trained.

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The standards are meant to lead the student through a progression of concepts, providing building blocks early on that can scaffold more complicated concepts in higher grades.

“We as a nation have a real deep and multidimensional problem on our hands that has to involve education of our young people,” said Boesch on the subject of climate change. “We need to equip people to have the skills as well as the knowledge to deal with it.”

The new standards will also require a whole new emphasis on revamping science textbooks. “A lot of materials out there are sub-par,” Neipold said.

“Climate change is not a political issue and it’s not a debate,” said Mario Molina, deputy director for the Alliance for Climate Education. “It’s science, strongly researched and thoroughly vetted science. So our hope is that teachers will not see this as political debate.” He believes students have the right to study climate change as it unfolds, as well as solutions to the problem.

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