“Good news everyone! I’m sending you on an extremely controversial mission!”
―Professor Hugo Farnsworth, “The Birdbot of Ice-Catraz”, Futurama
It’s graduation season, and I’m in post-production now after playing the role of Audience Member in three recent productions of Commencement 2014. At UC Berkeley’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Professor Tanya Atwater of UC Santa Barbara provided the keynote address. She was excited to report on her experience as part of the team writing the new science standards. For members of the EPS department, the “good news” is that the new standards specifically include Earth & Space Science as one of four core disciplines. Advocates of coding-in-every-classroom will also be happy that one of the four is “Engineering, Technology, and Applications”, though they may be disappointed to find that coding is not all there is to technology.
However, as Professor Atwater pointed out, this is a creation devised by a committee, and a large one at that. These standards are huge, complex, and demanding. I won’t be surprised if primary teachers throw up their hands and say “Heck, the old Science Framework was complicated enough! We’re going back to literature, thanks a lot.” I had a peek at a few pages–the new standard can be surveyed in an interactively, online. For instance, if you select Grade 1 and Physical Sciences, you are taken to a page entitled Waves and Their Applications in Technologies for Information Transfer
If that’s not enough to send your primary-grade teacher screaming to the arts-and-crafts cupboard, he/she is then presented with a grid of expectations about what first-graders should be able to understand and demonstrate about waves, from sound waves to light waves. I can tell by the “clarifying statements” and all the hyperlinks to definitions for everything from the requirement that students “Make observations to construct an evidence-based account” to explaining that you use “Cause and Effect” to show that when the lights are off you can’t see objects. Well, says the gamer kid, what if I have my night-vision goggles on?
Meanwhile, the teacher is supposed to be tracing all the Common-Core standards links and the cross-discipline values obtained. As an engineer, I find that sort of thing daunting, while I suspect most trained teachers find those elements-links an easy yawn–it’s the demand they convey science skills to kids at what seems to be a very sophisticated level that presents a barrier. Remember, it’s unusual for an elementary-school teacher to enter the field with more than a bare minimum of science or technology training.
Not good news? Well, it may be good news for some students currently graduating in the sciences–the new standards create a market for teachers who have science toolkits ready to hand. And if states are not too heavy-handed in adopting these standards, the NGSS provides tons of leeway in the actual curriculum developed and in both straight-up statements and in the subtext of the descriptive matter the NGSS strongly urges the use of hands-on, experiential learning techniques. That’s good, especially in elementary school, because hands-on activities are the best, overall, at evoking those Aha! moments that make science exciting. What the scientists working on that committee were most excited about was the prospect of bringing that thrill to more students, not only to attract some to actually becoming scientists or engineers but also to allow those following other paths to understand what motivates the ones who do follow the siren song of science.
For example, if you jumped to Professor Atwater’s page, you’d have read her non-committee-developed description of her motivations to teach and her love for science, “In lecture, I used to think I wasn’t a good scientist if I admitted my passion. No more. In the last few years I have adopted a style of expressing my delight along with sharing why I’m delighted – the intricate order and sense (and, sometimes, irony) of how things work – wonderful!”
One of my best experiences during Commencement Week was talking about education with a Kindergarten teacher who was struggling with making sure his (yeah, don’t go sexist on me–men can so teach kindergarten) students each got the attention they needed, despite a class size of more than thirty, in a year when he had no parent volunteers to help out. And though he was looking forward to summer vacation, he was the most interested to hear about some of my “Messy Monday” science experiences. As a result, I’m determined that the next couple of activities I put up here under the “Messy Monday” label will be ones targeted to the K-2 crowd.
So, well, the new science standards, if you can get past the committee-style presentation, could be turned into good news. Let’s get kids doing the kind of science that comes naturally to them: trying things out, making mistakes, watching what happens. Let’s help them break free of seeing what they expect to see–it’s those wow moments of unexpectedness that give doing science that endorphin rush. It’s when the comet is chasing its tail on its way out of the inner Solar System or a water jet sprays farther than you guessed or you suddenly realize that a rainbow isn’t part of a prism or a raincloud or even a soap bubble–it’s the light itself that makes the rainbow.