The Next Generation of Scientists Starts Here

By Morgan Martin, NGSS Teacher on Special Assignment TK-12, Los Alamitos USD

Mon Feb 18 00:00:00 UTC 2019

I’m often shocked by the fact that I became a science teacher. And it’s not because science isn’t fascinating or important or potentially life-changing for students. But because it wasn’t until I reached college that I had science classes that sparked curiosity and wonder and allowed me to explore questions about the natural world as a way to learn science content, theories, and practices.

Most of my early years in education were filled with the rote memorization and regurgitation of science terms. I could tell you what the definition of photosynthesis was, but I couldn’t tell you how the process was related to plant cells or construct any kind of model to show what was really happening. 

As my science education changed, I realized that if more of us could learn science this way—as a topic filled with wonder and surprises—we would have far more people devoting their lives to this transformative field. We’d have more chemists and doctors, more astronomers and engineers. We’d have more people searching for answers to our biggest questions and helping solve some of humanity's most entrenched challenges.

A New Way of Teaching and Learning Science

I started teaching science ten years ago. I went into the profession with the firm belief that no kid should have to wait until college to have access to rigorous, engaging science education. And, realistically, if kids need to wait that long, they’ll have given up on science all together by then. That’s why I’m so passionate about the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)—they offer students the chance to experience science learning in a new and exciting way from kindergarten. 

I realized that if more of us could learn science this way—as a topic filled with wonder and surprises—we would have far more people devoting their lives to this transformative field.

The powerful cornerstones of the NGSS are phenomena-driven instruction and three-dimensional learning. This means that each lesson begins with a question about observable events in the natural or man-made world (how do boats float? why does a drop of water sit on top of a blade of grass? why do leaves change colors in the fall?), and as the lesson unfolds students design solutions to discover the answers to these questions. 

The goal of phenomena-driven instruction is to spark curiosity and wonder about the things kids are seeing in the world around them every day. When science becomes relevant and interesting students begin to think about how and why rather than simply what is. It’s a delicate balance of guiding discovery so that students are able to arrive at solutions without teachers presenting them with answers. 

Kids get to approach science as the real scientists they might one day become.

That’s why the three-dimensions are key—they offer a process to explore the science content behind phenomena that isn’t simply fact-based. Kids are still taught to recognize and learn core ideas, but now students are actually engaged in activities where they build their knowledge by analyzing data, constructing experiments, or designing models while making connections to other phenomena through cross-cutting concepts like cause and effect. In this way, kids get to approach science as the real scientists they might one day become. 

I have seen students change as they experience this kind of science learning in my classroom. I’ve watched their faces light up when they start to understand why metal sticks to magnets or how an airplane stays up in the air. I’ve heard them demand to have science every day because they don’t want to miss what happens next. And I’ve seen them dig deeper into a topic because they’ve caught the scientific bug–more answers inevitably bring about more questions, and they can’t stop themselves from continuing to learn. 

Materials Matter for Meeting Standards  

The NGSS are powerful, but there’s no question the standards present a departure from how science has been taught before. Teachers need and deserve quality materials that support their instruction during this time of transition. Materials are integral to ensuring students have the opportunities for curiosity and wonder balanced with structure and guidance so they ultimately understand the science behind the questions they are exploring. 

Finding the right materials is a particular struggle because up until now there hasn’t been a lot of independent information about the quality of available science programs. That’s beginning to change with tools such as NextGen Time and the upcoming release of EdReports’ middle school science reviews, the first reviews of year-long programs in the country.  

Materials are integral to ensuring students have the opportunities for curiosity and wonder balanced with structure and guidance so they ultimately understand the science behind the questions they are exploring.

I joined EdReports’ inaugural science review team because, as a teacher, I understand the challenge of searching for materials and what a difference having materials designed for the NGSS innovations can make. Throughout my career, I’ve had to create most of my own science content and the time investment is significant. I’ve also been fortunate to develop deep understanding around the NGSS and have worked directly to support teachers new to the standards for the past two years. I wanted to continue to contribute my knowledge so educators like me would have access to necessary resources without having to devote all their time searching for them or making them from scratch.

Morgan conducting a science lesson with students

Participating in the EdReports’ review process was an incredible learning experience for me. I met educators from across the country who were devoted to improving science education for all students while supporting their colleagues with powerful resources and tools to make real change. The process was thorough and reviewers looked at every page, clicked on every online feature, and examined every lab and lesson for the presence of the three-dimensions and phenomena driven instruction. 

Because our evaluation depended upon citing large amounts of evidence to support our conclusions, the review went beyond surface level features. For example,  it was not enough for a program to mention the term ‘cause and effect’; what mattered was that the materials supported students actually using cause and effect to understand the science. My hope is that when educators read our reports, they can be confident that the information they encounter is independent, accurate, comprehensive, and, most importantly, that the reviews put the knowledge and skills students need front and center.

The Power of Information 

In my home state of California, and in school communities across the country, districts are gearing up for science materials adoptions. Many educators, including myself, have only experienced adoptions where they were forced to rely on publisher presentations to determine the quality of programs. 

But those days are over. Information is pouring into the field and we now have the tools to develop our own questions for publishers based on evidence about how well the materials will meet the NGSS standards. We have options to investigate whether or not programs will support the kind of transformative science learning that students deserve. And, while I know there’s still work to be done, educators have resources that can empower them to take the lead in creating classrooms where kids never stop asking questions and a new generation of scientists are born.

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