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New science standards aim to rekindle childlike curiosity

Ask any first or second grade students if they like science and you will get a resounding "yes." Ask the same question of high school seniors and you will likely get a very different answer. What happened during the intervening years?

There is little doubt that American students have lost ground in science globally. Our students perform below average for industrialized countries (OECD, 2014). This mediocre performance is alarming because it threatens the United States’ position as a world leader in science and technology. For the past three years, more than half of new patents in the United States were granted to foreign firms (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, 2014). Foreign individuals and companies are starting more Silicon Valley ventures than American individuals and companies (Quittner, 2014).

The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking. ─ Albert Einstein

Industry, business, education, and government have all expressed their concerns about the situation. These groups have analyzed the problem, cast the blame, and proffered solutions as varied as the groups themselves. However, in most cases they place the blame on some aspect of our education system. Therefore, their solutions usually involve changing some facet of science education, such as increased rigor, better teacher training, and more challenging standards.

Encouraging Curiosity

What can improve students’ performance in science? The solution may be found in determining what happened to our students between second grade and high school. If we can just keep that enthusiasm alive during the entire kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) experience, we will create a public that is informed, science literate, and excited about both science and our global standing in science and technology. However, how do we keep students enthusiastic about science? The answer is to return to the very core of science — curiosity.

What is science, anyway, but curiosity? Science is any process that satisfies your curiosity about anything in the natural world. This definition of science includes curiosity about why you might feel sick, what you did differently that improved gas mileage that last tankful, or how to best prepare dinner. Science excludes curiosity about how many angels fit on the head of a pin, whether lying is sometimes justified, or will a Pisces make a better mate than a Sagittarius. Yet many people, educators included, view science as an overwhelming body of knowledge too enormous to know or understand, and they are right. The body of scientific knowledge is too large, even for scientists. (See "Too Big to Know" box.) Cramming scientific knowledge into students has resulted in their loss of excitement about science. It has also created an adult population that views science issues as too complex to understand.

TOO BIG TO KNOW
“There were about 28,100 active scholarly peer-reviewed journals in mid-2012, collectively publishing about 1.8–1.9 million articles a year.” (Mabe & Ware, 2012)

1.8 million peer-reviewed articles in one year equals:
  • 4,932 articles each day
  • 205 articles each hour
  • 3.4 articles each minute
  • 1 article every 17.5 seconds

When science is taught as facts, students lose the natural curiosity with which they are born. This is one reason that K-12 science education is moving away from teaching science as facts, instead focusing on the fundamentals of science reasoning, referred to as science practices. This trend started with Project 2061 in 1987 (AAAS, 1990) and continues with the more recent National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education (National Research Council, 2012) and Next Generation Science Standards (National Research Council, 2013). The proposed changes to science education that concentrate on understanding and applying science practices in the classroom will keep the curiosity fires burning in students throughout their school experiences.

This new trend in science education is not trying to completely eliminate the teaching of science facts. Instead, the body of science knowledge has been distilled to the most important knowledge, or disciplinary core ideas. Disciplinary core ideas focus on the most important and relevant knowledge that applies to multiple science disciplines, forms the basis for more complex scientific knowledge, and relates to students’ personal experiences.

Applying K-12 Science Education to Adult Education

One of the objectives at CETE is to provide support to Ohio’s Adult Basic and Literacy Education (ABLE) community of educators. ABLE instructors teach and support Ohio’s adult student population. They teach skills needed to enroll in college, transition into a new career field, or improve English skills of speakers of other languages. ABLE teachers also prepare adults for receiving their high school equivalency diplomas. The current test for receiving high school equivalency approved by the Ohio Board of Regents is the 2014 GED®.

The 2014 GED® science test focuses on science practices, which are necessary scientific reasoning skills. The science practices, which the GED Testing Service® derived from the Framework for K-12 Science Education and the Common Core State Standards, are text-based and numerical in nature. They include understanding and expressing scientific information; designing, interpreting, and evaluating scientific investigations; applying scientific findings and theories; and using probability and statistics. In a nutshell, science practices are critical thinking skills.

The content comes from three areas: life science, physical science, and earth-space science. According to the GED Testing Service® website, "The content topics are designed to provide context for measuring the skills defined in the science practices section of this document (GED Testing Service®, July 2013)." In other words, the test questions use science content topics to evaluate test takers’ abilities to correctly apply science practices. This type of questioning is confirmed by sample questions on the online 2014 GED® science practice test. The new emphasis in K-12 education on science practices rather than science facts now applies to adult education as well.

Through workshops, webinars, and online training, CETE has and will continue to assist ABLE teachers in adapting to this new focus in science education. The 2014 Spring Teacher Academy concentrated on developing instruction that teaches science practices and retrofitting old curriculum to the GED® science test standards. Our goal at CETE is to assist Ohio’s ABLE instructors in guiding adults back to that second grade enthusiasm for science.

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Contributor: 
Rene Fernandez