Sunday, January 27, 2013

Science Education

Let’s get on with it

(“Cracking the Nut” part 2)


At the start of the winter semester with wind chills hovering below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, science education in School District U46 erupted into squealing enthusiasm as hundreds of elementary, middle school and high school students descended upon the Gail Borden Library in Downtown Elgin, Illinois for an evening of interactive science events and challenges. The U46 Science EXPO is the start of a renewed effort by science educators to drive home STEM Educational Initiatives and change the course of math and science experiences for students.

As part of this effort to bring the experience of scientific discovery to the students attending, I helped to implement an engineering challenge that would test the fortitude and resolve of students to achieve a goal.  Students were given prototype gliders with the mission to make adjustments to the wings of gliders that result in creating an excellent flyer.   With the enthusiasm and support of their peers, parents and teachers, these children strived to fine tune the gliders with scant experience, but with the resolve to achieve.

During the challenge,  grade school and middle school students repeatedly flew gliders off a launch table given specific initial conditions, with the task and responsibility to readjust the wing position to help improve flight performance.  This science experience was about gauging performance, obtaining immediate feedback, working under the scrutiny of peers and achieving the self-satisfaction of successful flights.  It was a wonderful experience for the children.  It was doing science.  Inquiry-based science and engineering is about letting yourself get caught up in the process of experimentation, trying out new ideas and always keeping the goal in mind!

Children as young as 6 years old were sailing aircraft over 30 feet down the flight path!   Soon student innovation produced “double winged” aircraft, which held out hope for greater distance and the prestige of being remarkably different!  Openness, collaboration, reflective thought, creativity and innovation were some of the problem solving attributes on display as the kids’ marshaled their efforts to be successful.

Harnessing such enthusiasm in a learning environment is the challenge for educators in the new science paradigm. The Next Generation Science Standards are explicit in the intent for teachers to develop these same attributes, as witnessed within these students at the Science EXPO, and bring the same opportunity for all students in the classroom.  The excitement I witnessed by the kids was contagious and refreshing.  I was cheering them on just like their peers and their Moms and Dads.  This is learning science within the support of a community of stakeholders relishing their vested interest.  It is the way of future science education and we,  as science educators, now need to get on with it.





Unleashing students’ intrinsic motivation to learn

By Greg Reiva


Two of the best books dealing with student intrinsic motivation to lean are the following:  Flow: the psychology of optimal experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the book called Mindset: the new psychology of success by Carol Dweck Ph.D.

This summer I am again working on and reflecting upon the most pronounced issue I grapple with in the science classroom. The issue is getting students motivated to learn.  It is the most vexing problem that educators like myself face because it will determine what we expect students to achieve in our schools.  It is the one issue where the problem and solution both gather strength from the complexity of thought by our adolescence.  Cracking the casing around this problem requires an insight into how adolescent students perceive themselves in the school environment.  From this understanding teachers can design dynamic curriculum that lends to students’ skills, abilities and mindsets.

This complexity of thought is a product of our students’ life experience well-seasoned in a culture that glorifies and justifies goals in terms of tangible experience.  Csikszentmihalyi explains in his book,  “People in a sensate culture (culture integrated around views of reality designed to satisfy the senses) are not necessarily more materialistic, but they organize their goals and justify their behavior with reference primarily to pleasure and practicality rather than to more abstract principles.  The challenges they see are almost exclusively concerned with making life easier, more comfortable, and more pleasant.  They tend to identify the good with what feels good and mistrust idealized values.”(p.219).

When I refer to “cracking the nut”, I am addressing the need to design curriculum that breaks down the barriers that students erect in their minds, which prevents teachers from reaching students’ intrinsic motivation to learn.  The goals we set before our students define the challenges they need to face as learners.   Czikszenentmihaly states that , “As longs as it provides clear objectives , clear rules for action  and a way to concentrate and become involved, any goal can serve to give meaning to a person’s life” (p.215).  He further states that, “People who find their lives meaningful usually have a goal that is challenging enough to take up all their energies, a goal that can give significance to their lives.  We may refer to this process as achieving purpose. To experience flow one must set goals for one’s actions: to win a game, to make friends with a person, to accomplish something in a certain way.  The goal itself is usually not important; what matters is that it focuses a person’s attention and involves it in an achievable, enjoyable activity” (p.216).

From my experience working with students in science class for over 20 years, I believe that you have to meet the students where they are with respect to their knowledge, interests and experiences.  It is important to design curriculum that lends to the strengths of students by incorporating both their interests and their needs as learners.  Teachers have the foresight to envision a future for their students full of opportunity and personal fulfillment.  Teachers have the professional expertise to develop those attributes, within their students, that are most needed so they can take on the multitude of challenges faced in their lives.

Carol Dweck states in her book called Mindset, “This low-effort syndrome is often seen as a way that adolescents assert their independence from adults, but it is also a way that students with fixed mindset protect themselves. They view the adults as saying, “Now we will measure you and see what you’ve got”. And they are answering, “No you won’t”” (p.58).  Students protect their egos as they confront the hard transition of adolescence and the demands of school.  It is up to the teacher to create a learning environment that accommodates the needs of these adolescent students and focuses upon a growth orientated mindset.  The dynamic curriculum design structures learning as an opportunity to showcase their abilities not as a test of abilities.  It will nurture and develop abilities!  Carol Dweck states that, “For students with the growth mindset, it doesn’t make sense to stop trying.  For them, adolescence is a time of opportunity: a time to learn new subjects, a time to find out what they like and what they want to become in the future” (p.59).

The essential structure that a dynamic curriculum incorporates begins with clear well established goals that students work toward and have a chance of completing.  The learning environment provides the means to attain these goals by facilitating the learning process through interesting and challenging projects and scientific investigations.  Students are closely monitored during this process and the immediacy of the feedback becomes a critical factor necessary to spur motivation and to guide students on a forward thinking path.  Science projects by their nature require discipline and are couched within boundaries of expectation.  Students work to fulfill these expectations and at the same time experience a deep sense of enjoyment as they move through the learning process. 

To provide the science education that our students deserve in the 21 century requires a science curriculum that addresses real needs of our students.  Curriculum is not a means to cover content as much as it should be a means to develop abilities within our students.  The ability to think, reason and commit to goals are expectations in learning that science teachers should strive for in their classrooms.  Science educators, in the modern classroom, adapt to changing demographics, while utilizing new cutting-edge technologies and addressing issues that affect the lives of our students.  If teachers can provide an education that students perceive as meaningful in their personal development, then there is a chance that the barrier of resistance to learning (cracking the nut) will fall and students will become their own advocates for knowledge and understanding.  These are the fundamental characteristics that intelligent and successful people process in our modern and globally connected world.



Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Next Generation Science Standards

The Next Generation Science Standards and
 redesigning science curriculum in our schools

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) most recent draft report advocates that science education in our schools should provide engineering and inquiry-based projects embedded within the curriculum. 

The goal for science educators today is to develop, within each student, a mindset and a reverence for decision making based upon evidence.  Engineering and inquiry-based projects are one of the primary means for students to develop these abilities and be able to produce rational and logical arguments supporting explanations of scientific experiments and theories.

Robert Lang, high school teacher at Glenbard North High School in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, recently published an article in Science Teacher Magazine.  In this article Lang details his effort along with a team of physics science teachers in his school involved in redesigning the physics curriculum.  The goal is to more closely align learning outcomes to the goals of NGSS.  Throughout the article Lang emphasizes curriculum reform encouraging more rigorous debate among students with respect to evidence-based arguments.  He states in the article that having students work on engineering challenges to solve real problems has resulted in higher exam scores in his science classes a noticeable increase in the level of confidence expressed by his students when solving problems.

In this current issue of Science Teacher Magazine science teacher Mark Vondreck describes the essence of doing STEM research in his physics science classroom.  He believes that putting “physical systems” in front of students to play with results in students gaining understanding of hidden complexities that exist within the system.  Students come to appreciate both the concepts learned in physics and the process of doing science.

Vondrack writes the following:
“The practice of science often involves extended experiences that are foreign to most high school students, as well as many teachers who don’t have a research background.  If we want our students to be aware of the practices of science and how science works, and gain an appreciation for how complex the world is compared to simplified, approximated and idealized world of science textbooks, then we need to expose them to concrete examples of real phenomena and get them thinking about new ideas.”
What Vondrack writes clearly defines the challenge that science educators and other stakeholders in science education face as they redefine a new paradigm of how our students learn science in the classroom.

Giving students the opportunity to learn in an environment that encourages independent thought, skepticism and collaboration is fundamental to the process of doing science.  Science educators now advocate for this long view of learning the concepts, theories and practice of science.  It entails deeper understanding brought about by minds-on and hands-on engagement by students over time.  The reason for this new emphasis is the realization that understanding comes from experience, questioning and reflection.  The measure of time for this to occur in the classroom is determined by the learning environment provided by the teacher.   It is not about a transfer of knowledge, but more like absorption of the reality of the experience.  Learning is measured by student performance in the process of doing science.  The educator facilitates this process in the classroom and students, immersed in this environment, develop the skills and abilities needed to think critically and to solve problems.

A quote by Grant Wiggins from the book titled Understanding by Design, “the learner should come to understand the skill’s underlying concepts, why the skill is important, and what it helps accomplish, what strategies and techniques maximize its effectiveness and where to use them… understanding-based teaching of skills develop more fluent, effective and autonomous proficiency than does instruction relying on rote learning and drill-and-practice methods alone.”

The case for change in science education, in how we deliver learning opportunities in the science classroom, has never been clearer and more pressing than it is today.  Educators must realize that they have to provide these new opportunities for students to better prepare them for 21st century challenges that they will face in their lives.


Thursday, January 03, 2013

Doing SCIENCE at its most fundamental level.

For me, the goal of this school year has been to create well-designed science experiences for my students, which increase their capacity to take on new challenges to solve real-world problems and producing solutions that are inspiring and thought provoking.  Students are empowered by these experiences that provide both the information and understanding gathered within the curriculum.  It is the means through which learning takes place.

The Alternative Energy Project in Physics (solar energy, wind energy, fuel cell technology and energy conservation) provides students with opportunities to apply new knowledge and solve real-world problems through thought provoking inquiry-based research.  During the school year students perform scientific research and become critical thinkers by basing logical arguments upon an adherence to evidence.  This STEM Research in the physics classroom is an essential component to the science curriculum because it encourages the development of needed 21st century skills and abilities by all students.  These STEM Research Projects provide the tools, resources, guidance and objectives to help motivate students to write proposals, conduct experiments and publish their findings and conclusions.

Two books that I recommend as resources for teachers wanting to design STEM Research into their curriculum are the following:

§  STEM Student Research Handbook by Darci J. Harland and published by NSTA Press.

§  Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe and published by ASCD.

The issue that continues to challenge me, as a science educator, is how to effectively assess students’ abilities after they complete performance-based projects when applying what they know and what they learned in physics.  During this school year I have attempted to gauge the level of students’ understanding in science by looking at their abilities to solve problems, conduct inquiry and think deeply about results.  These STEM initiatives ensure that education standards requiring coverage of concepts  like motion, force, and energy are addressed and learned as these student researchers define variables, conduct experimentation, problem solve, analyze data and construct narratives expressing  researched outcomes.

Recent effort to implement these new curriculum initiatives provide me with a new opportunity to break the mold of current thought of how understanding is defined and have all students work for inspired, inquiry-driven and performance-based learning.  The habits of the mind of all these students become minds-on and hands-on learning as students commit to delivering evidence-based outcomes.  Student learning is not only enhanced by “the process of doing science”, but it is also supported by students thinking more deeply about concepts, theories and principles.  Students ask more probing questions related to their scientific investigations and they are engaged in the process of science at its most fundamental level.