Everyday there’s so much talk about science. Think about it—you’re either hearing about a new cure for a dreaded disease, a new pill for weight loss, an astronaut planning to live for a year in space, or a car that can run without gas and only needs an electrical charge every two hundred miles. Science is our life. It’s about the air we breathe, the food we eat, the tissue we choose. People are fascinated by science and children come to school excited to learn about science. Purposeful science instruction involves nurturing this excitement into an understanding that science learning is a process through which we connect to the natural world. This happens as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) suggest by focusing on strategically selected core ideas that intertwine the fields of science and engineering.
The core ideas span the spectrum of science, including physical sciences, life sciences, earth and space sciences, and engineering, technology, and applications of science. Keeping students engaged with science learning involves designing instruction that invites them to employ science and engineering practices as they tackle real world science issues like global climate change, erosion of hillsides, or even issues related to natural resources. Contextualizing these topics within life events invites students to ask questions, analyze data, design solutions, and build evidence-based arguments, among other practices. Through such investigations crosscutting concepts identified by NGSS, such patterns, cause and effect, systems and system models, and energy and matter, connect the disciplines of science and make each topic live.
Teachers today are given the exciting task of helping students to navigate the NGSS using critical thinking skills, problem solving tools, and design efforts—all rooted in research-based evidence. In tandem with this, disciplinary literacy can live within scientific study. Exploration of scientific topics involves:
- reading to investigate a question
- writing to share data
- listening and speaking with others about next-step possibilities
- using academic language to convey ideas.
With all of these possibilities, many educators are finding themselves at a crossroad—a time when instructional paradigms must change in order to ensure that students leave school with a knowledge of science and a love of the investigation of science. In order for all students to become scientifically aware citizens, they can no longer be asked to robotically follow the steps to a pre-planned lab or listen to a lecture on a science topic for an entire class period. Instead, instruction must cause students to build the language and background knowledge necessary for them to handily, skillfully, and collaboratively engage in researching, experimenting, and developing the solutions to real world problems. The lowering of carbon emissions, the reduction of ocean acidification, and the design of energy efficient transportation are just a few of the issues at hand. We, as a society, need our students to be the problem solvers, the designers, and the architects of solutions to local, national, and global problems.
With many new standards now being implemented in classrooms (CCSS, NGSS, and other state standards), students in science and other disciplines will likely be reading informational text for 50% of the school day. Readings should drive an investigation of real world phenomena, promote inquiry research, and cause debate and argument about issues. Instruction, centering around informational science reading, and causimg students to know and challenge complex ideas, is essential.
Students are better able to design investigations, participate in inquiry studies, and debate science issues rooted in research IF they have background knowledge and language (both technical and academic) in place. To build such knowledge (beyond the scope of what’s in the head of the teacher), students must have opportunities to fluently read and discuss complex science texts. Some of the most interesting and engaging topics in science—the ones that will capture students’ attention—are around new research. Instruction needs to support students negotiating with complex ideas in complex texts if they are to become our world’s thinkers and problem-solvers, independent of a teacher’s non-stop guidance and delivery of information.
Strategic, thoughtful, well-planned science instruction for every student will help ensure that a future of informed citizens understand science well enough to support their life-long investigation of topics that influence their planet and others who share it with them.