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By Brian Witte / Varsity Tutors
August 11, 2015

Historians may one day look back on the 21st century as a scientific revolution of sorts. Like the Industrial Revolution that occurred in the 1700 and 1800s, a scientific revolution would transform many aspects of the world around us, including our own selves. The United States may one day play a central role in opening the door to a scientific revolution, but to do so would require a sophisticated method of educating our students about science.

The Next Generation Science Standards (or NGSS) represent one such attempt to bring K-12 science education into the 21st century. The Next Generation Science Standards come at a time of upheaval in education, when change is certainly necessary, but the structure and content of this change remains unclear.

The Next Generation Science Standards are young, and their precise use in American classrooms is not yet known. Despite this fact, now is an ideal time for students to familiarize themselves with one possible educational future. After all, preparation is key to a smooth transition and continuing success, and with that in mind, here are four things every student should know about the Next Generation Science Standards:

The NGSS is not a curriculum

The Next Generation Science Standards are just that – standards. They are a series of goals and best practices that are intended to inform teachers’ science instruction, but they are not a set of lesson plans, a list of required textbooks, or a collection of exams. In other words, the NGSS essentially serves as an outline, not a step-by-step guide. The methods that each state might use to help students meet these goals are deliberately vague. The NGSS thus allows for local control and some flexibility in instruction.

The NGSS emphasizes science practices

Science is not a simple accumulation of knowledge, but is instead one way of closely examining and understanding the world around us. Knowledge is a product of that process, but memorizing facts alone is not science.

The Next Generation Science Standards emphasize this key distinction by identifying important engineering and science practices. Under the NGSS, students will be expected to know and understand how scientists work. For example, what role does data play when forming a hypothesis? What does it mean to test a hypothesis? What is the difference between a single observation and a trend in data? Even students who choose not to continue their education in a STEM field will be able to apply STEM principles to their lives, perhaps by evaluating claims made in advertising, or by observing patterns of occurrences in their day-to-day existences.

The NGSS explores ideas across science disciplines

The various branches of science may appear radically different to a non-scientist. Astronomy, for instance, deals with the whole of the universe, while Earth science is only concerned with our planet. In reality, all branches of science share common elements: the importance of patterns, the role of matter and energy, the use of mathematics to describe and predict, etc.

This inter-connectedness is emphasized in the attention that the Next Generation Science Standards give to crosscutting concepts. An intensely narrow focus may be necessary in order to make advances at the frontier of a given field, but most individuals can benefit from learning to recognize the connections between scientific disciplines. For example, what do a sick child and a warming ocean have in common? Both scenarios represent a system that is out of balance, and understanding one can help us to understand the other – and the world – more clearly.

The NGSS has some items in common with other science frameworks

Crosscutting concepts and scientific practices still rely on a base of knowledge. The NGSS divides this knowledge into four domains: the physical sciences; the life sciences; the earth and space sciences; and engineering, technology, and applications of science. Each grade level will explore the content most relevant to its age group, with the understanding that this material will be revisited in later grades at a deeper level of complexity. While this is not unique to the NGSS, its developers hope that the context of this knowledge will lead to a more coherent, personalized grasp of science for all students.

The future of the Next Generation Science Standards remains to be seen. The documents currently available on the NGSS website are simply targets to potentially reach for, and states are not obligated to follow these guidelines. The decision to opt in or out of the Next Generation Science Standards may ultimately be subject to input at the state, district, school, and/or classroom level. If adopted, NGSS implementation would also require substantial community buy-in – from students, to parents, to teachers, to principals. Despite these initial challenges, the roadmap that the Next Generation Science Standards provide is an intriguing one, and we may one day see it in all or a portion of our classrooms.

Brian Witte is a professional SAT tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.

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