Let’s talk science education. In 2016, our state is due for putting out an update to the public school science curriculum. We do this every six years.
As we ponder the upgrades we need to make in how we teach our students science, it is worth noting that there is a national trend toward what is commonly called “STEM integration”- the blending of concepts in the disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. This type of education is meant to steer away from the teaching of these ideas in isolated, “textbook-y” chunks, and go more toward open-ended problem-solving that engages students and requires them to combine the textbook knowledge with their creativity.
There are a number of advantages to adopting a science framework of this style. In short: Motivation, jobs, and our state’s prosperity are on the line.
1. Under current conditions, content-based science curriculum is doomed.
I’m not going to attempt to resolve the ages old “Content vs. Skills” debate here. There are good reasons to go down both paths. I just want to highlight a specific consequence of what lurks down one of the two paths, should we continue.
Mississippi’s current Science Frameworks emphasize a knowledge base. There are certain scientific facts the students are required to know. This is great. It’s super, super important for our students to be well-educated on the scientific explanations for how the world works. And the existing frameworks explain exactly what students should know. However, other science standards, like the Next Generation Science Standards, emphasize more what students should be able to do. Let me give you a couple of examples to compare.
And this is from the Middle School strand of the Next Generation Science Standards:
Look at the verbs. The way we currently teach chemistry in middle school, kids are expected to “apply concepts” and “identify patterns” in the way chemical reactions work. It’s all about what they know. In the more experimentally-based NGSS, they’re expected to “analyze and interpret data,” “develop a model that predicts,” and “undertake a design process.” It’s all about what they can do. This doesn’t mean the Mississippi Framework eliminates science teachers’ ability to teach the content through experiments- it just leaves it up to the teacher, almost as an assumption.
There’s nothing wrong with that approach. It has worked for science teachers in Mississippi for a long time. They taught the content with hands-on science automatically. The problem is, now we have high stakes standardized tests for Language Arts that are really hard and which push for reading and writing to be taught in science and history classes as well as in English class. Administrators state-wide, faced with the threat of being under-funded if their schools don’t perform on these tests, have no choice but to examine ways to gain an edge. It seems simple: there’s nothing in our science standards that says we have to teach the content through experimentation. So they tell science teachers to teach the content through close reading rigorous text- articles about the science they’re supposed to know. This will put the knowledge in kids’ heads AND help the school succeed on the state tests.
In reality, this great-on-paper solution just fatigues the kids, kills their motivation, and makes science another “test prep” class. But it’s not the administrators’ fault. They have no choice. If we want to teach through hands-on science, we’ve got to have hands-on science in our job description.
2. “STEM”-integrated science is more aligned with national science standards.
The Next-Generation Science Standards are the result of an effort from the National Research Council (NRC), the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve. Yes, national science standards. A Common Core for science, if you will. In fact, they’ve been developed specifically to fit nicely alongside Common Core.
Obviously there are political hurdles to implementing national science standards in Mississippi, even before reading the standards. And that’s a real shame. I’m not saying we should buy into NGSS sight unseen. But as we look into adopting our next science standards next year, it is worth keeping in mind that we do want Mississippi science students to be competitive nationally.
3. Innovation might be the best ladder we’ve got.
If you’re “fed up with 50th,” you really should be on the STEM bandwagon. In a state wracked with poverty and looking for a way up from the bottom, we have to look at the resources we have. It is not enough to simply prepare our children for jobs that exist. There aren’t enough. What we need is innovation. The good news is, Mississippians have a great history of creating new products and services that brings in money from other parts of the world. From entrepreneurs like Edward Barq of Biloxi (Barq’s Root Beer) and Hartley Peavey of Meridian (Peavey Electronics), to our world-renowned engineering teams, like Mississippi State’s 1st place overall EcoCar 2 team, our ideas might be the best thing going for us.
Our ideas are our own, and they could be huge game changers. What do some of our kids in the Delta, in Northeast Mississippi, on the Coast, and around Jackson have that nobody else has? Brilliant, world-changing ideas, maybe. But without a science curriculum that teaches them exactly how to problem solve, how to give their creativity wings, and what critical thinking looks like in action, those solutions may never make it to the lab..
No world-class scientist ever went into her field because she read an interesting text about it. Reading and writing are important- critical, yes. But let’s not leave the lab time of our science classes up to chance. Let’s formalize our path to science education strength. Let’s make STEM integration an expectation for every Mississippi science classroom.