By Carolyn Alverson-Thornton
At the time of year when parents and students alike are busily preparing to go back to school – scrambling to get the supplies they will need, possibly attending orientations or signing up for activities, and some students will be starting a new school or level. In addition to looking forward to seeing their friends again and meeting new friends, kids feel the anticipation of wondering what learning opportunities the new year will bring. It’s fun to learn more about a favorite subject, and explore new ones.
There are so many new routines to get used to, especially for students who are beginning a new level such as the transition to middle school. There, the adjustment to having several teachers and routines to get used to at once may be a bit stressful at first. Once the newness and excitement settle down a bit, students and their parents may find themselves discovering a new source of interest and motivation in the classroom in the form of science class. There are reasons for this – primarily, science class being a place where kids can indulge their curiosity about the natural world, and also the recent innovations that are making science much more hands-on.
In response to reports that America is falling behind several other industrialized nations in science and math, combined with a new understanding of how children learn, our 20-year-old science standards have now been updated. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are intended to build science, technology, engineering and math (collectively known as STEM) understanding as students progress through the grades, to better prepare them for the demands of today’s job market.
What does all that mean for kids going back to school? They can look forward to a new approach in science class. That approach means more hands-on activities, and less emphasis on teacher and textbook as main sources of information.
It means fewer experiments with just one expected outcome, and more investigations involving discussion and problem solving, with teacher as guide. Kids may observe a phenomenon, ask questions, and design their own experiments. They will be encouraged to think things through.
Another change in science instruction is the integration with engineering (building problem-solving skills), math, and writing. Rather than being more complicated, this allows students to actually use their math skills to figure things out, and their writing skills to keep lists and journals, for example. They may have more time to explore a topic such as plants, animals, earth science, or space, and use their own questions to do so.
The degree to which all these elements come together in any class depends on how far along teachers are in putting the new standards into practice. New funding, teacher training, and materials have already made their way into our classrooms. It is indeed an exciting time for science education as new methods, resources, and a real effort to make science more engaging and hands-on takes hold.
Starting a new school year is always full of anticipation for students and parents alike. Amid the excitement and eagerness of children at the beginning of the year, they may just discover that their natural curiosity about all things related to the natural world, and their attraction to hands-on activities could lead them to their new favorite subject – science!
Carolyn has been teaching for over 30 years and is an advocate for giving children hands-on experiences by means of field trips to the ocean, marine sanctuaries and labs, and instilling excitement in young minds for the natural world. Newly retired, she has more time to play Swedish folk music on her fiddle!