Perspective: Improving STEM Education with Next Generation Science Standards

By Chad Dorsey

These are exciting times in education. Public awareness of the need for science, technology, engineering and math education is rising, and new STEM initiatives are beginning across the nation. In this issue, we welcome one of the most important events in this new awareness of STEM, the release of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). These new standards highlight important new dimensions for science education and present many opportunities for technology to aid teaching and learning.

Chad Dorsey is President of the Concord Consortium.

The importance of these new standards and their heritage should not be underestimated. The NGSS have been a long time in coming, and are grounded in the National Academy of Science's thoughtful and important Framework for K-12 Science Education. Together, these documents signify a new and influential direction for STEM education. They elevate the importance of Earth science, present engineering education as coequal with science education for the first time and emphasize a key set of Scientific and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts that should buttress all learning in these disciplines.

Our true call as a nation is to prepare a world of future scientists, engineers and citizens who are fluent in the way science and engineering are performed. Students must possess the ability to do science and engineering—this is the key to unlocking deep student learning and is essential to building a nation of literate citizens and an innovative, competitive workforce. Technology holds great power to build such understanding.

These pages provide numerous examples of how the NGSS— and especially its Practices and Crosscutting Concepts—are central to our work in STEM education at the Concord Consortium. Over nearly two decades, we've been demonstrating how technology can make complex concepts more approachable, underscore important crosscutting ideas and engage students in the practices of science and engineering.

Scientific and engineering practices

One of the most important practices of science and engineering is the design of investigations for exploring and answering testable questions. Scientifically accurate models and simulations provide a ripe proving ground for such experimentation, making investigation possible in areas that could otherwise never be explored. And probeware such as motion detectors, temperature sensors and other devices for recording data extends students' senses and permits them to see multiple representations of their surroundings unfold in real time.

Models and simulations

Models are key to understanding, exploring and expressing almost all concepts in science and engineering. Even paper or drawn models of objects or systems can have great utility in the classroom. However, in many cases, technology opens significant new opportunities for learning, especially about processes that occur very quickly or slowly or phenomena that happen on scales too large or small to observe easily.

Atomic and molecular processes are at the core of practically all physical phenomena, yet they remain invisible and mysterious. Modeling software such as our Molecular Workbench brings these hidden processes to light and makes them fully explorable. A solid understanding of geological processes is essential for comprehending everything from climate change to resource extraction. Models and simulations like those in our High-Adventure Science curriculum shed important light on these complex and otherwise invisible concepts. And through the use of our Energy2D and Energy3D software, students can design virtual houses and examine their thermal efficiency, placing virtual heaters and adjusting the angle of the sun's rays coming through windows. This use of virtual representations permits students to design solutions more quickly while actively integrating the process of engineering design with the underlying scientific principles that define its natural constraints.

Actively using models and simulations can help students build understanding and convey ideas. Molecular Workbench addresses this need by permitting students to design and modify their own models to represent physical scenarios and then test their ideas. Students can develop a firm understanding of the relationship between genes, observable traits and DNA mutations by using one of our genetics models to design and perform their own investigations. Students gain an appreciation of how natural statistical variation influences inheritance patterns.

Models are especially powerful at engaging students in the process of science, by helping them understand how to generate and test predictions based on their growing scientific understanding. (Scientists in all disciplines leverage the predictive power of computational models.) And models help build understanding about scientific concepts. When students confirm predictions with models and simulations, a classroom comes alive with motivating "a-ha" learning moments. A model that does not confirm a student's prediction as expected is equally important; the student must incorporate new ideas to reconcile the unexpected behavior.

Probes and sensors

Investigations of phenomena in the real world can also be enhanced in meaningful ways through the use of technology. Probes and sensors make acquisition of real-time data quick, accurate and straightforward and permit students to explore everything from the complex motion of objects to the intricate thermodynamics of chemical reactions. The instant feedback such devices provide allows student investigations to center on core ideas rather than on tedious experimental setups. Technology opens the way for students to perform multiple experiments within a short time, evolving their understanding through experimentation and discovery. And when the physical world and the world of models and simulations merge—such as in our work with mixed reality—technology adds an important layer of visibility to real-world investigations, augmenting student understanding of physical processes in exciting new ways.

Crosscutting concepts

Technology-rich curricula can help students build a nuanced picture of their world by emphasizing crosscutting concepts for science, math and engineering education. Using standardized representations in engaging and structured opportunities for exploration, technology can present phenomena in such a way that crosscutting concepts are highlighted across domains.

Students can use technology to navigate across multiple scales in space and time, gaining an in-depth appreciation for science's dynamism and interconnectedness. Using technology, students can also engage with systems and system models to a depth that no other medium can accommodate, and explore cause and effect in new ways.

Models and simulations provide striking, manipulable views of intangible concepts such as cycles, conservation of energy and matter or the intricate connection between structure and function. Technology makes ideas like stability and change accessible to students—often for the first time. They find themselves able to manipulate aspects of a system to understand its intricate balances and truly comprehend ideas such as change over time, equilibrium and dynamic feedback loops.

The NGSS hold the potential for helping focus the current national concern for improving STEM education. They will undoubtedly help bring clarity and unity to the patchwork of state standards that has developed throughout the standards movement in the past decades. We hope they will be seen as a new opportunity to find the most effective ways to approach STEM education on a national scale. As this occurs, innovative educational technology will be a critical component in this STEM education revolution.

At the Concord Consortium, we remain hard at work providing opportunities for revolutionary digital learning in science, math and engineering. With the advent of new learning standards, the need for this work becomes more pressing. We're excited to continue innovating in these areas, and we invite you to join us in exploring their promise further.


Chad Dorsey (cdorsey@concord.org) is President of the Concord Consortium.

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