Science Education Ratchets Up the Speed

Perhaps it was the famous speech in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy at Rice University—where he challenged the country to send a man to the moon in response to the Soviet Union taking a leap forward in space exploration with the launch of the satellite Sputnik—that propelled modern science education into the future.

Or maybe it was Judith Ramaley, president of Winona State University in Minnesota (who had previously served as head of the National Science Foundation), who developed “SMET” as an acronym for the foundation’s curriculum for science, math, engineering, and technology in the early 2000s that pushed the envelope. A few years later, the letters were reassembled to “STEM,” and that’s grown to be one of the most discussed initiatives in education.

Most experts agree that it is an exciting new time for science in schools. Science advances as part of STEM, supporting other learning in unique ways and playing a key role in developing important 21st-century skills.

“The ‘S’ in STEM will be getting the most focus, particularly when you recognize that technology and engineering have their roots in science,” says Kathryn Procope, head of school at the Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science in Washington, D.C., and 2016 NASSP Principal of the Year for the District of Columbia. “STEM gets students excited, and it’s our job as educators to use the tools that we have and the standards that are so well crafted to help our students experience science in the best way possible.”

She and other experts say principals should understand how valuable science is for learning and for developing key skills such as critical thinking—and should support new approaches in their science classes. A huge part of that involves providing adequate funding and getting acquainted with the latest revised standards for science that might make those classrooms look quite different.

New Structure

What does that new structure look like? Look to A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas for a glimpse into how science education is evolving.

“This was a major shift in how we look at science education,” says Patricia Morrell, a professor emeritus at University of Portland School of Education in Oregon and president of the Association for Science Teacher Education. “It recommends using a 3D approach that focuses not just on science content and core ideas, but also on how science is done—the practices—and a push for emphasizing the main ideas we see threaded through all the science disciplines to help in conceptual understanding—crosscutting concepts like systems, cause and effect, and patterns.”

She says teachers must adapt, and principals should gain an understanding of the efforts, which she says will make classrooms “noisy and maybe messy” with active learning, group work, and “very little direct instruction.”

Christine Royce, president of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), describes the methods as “3D science lessons, which might span several days where the students are investigating a phenomenon, collecting data, and engaging in the scientific practices around it.”

She says the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that grew out of the framework and were released in 2013 are resulting in new types of science lessons. They emphasize two other goals she sees as critical for science education—integrating science into other subject areas (including the other STEM subjects) and recognition that science classes can best help students develop key critical thinking skills. Royce warns educators to be cautious, however, about the replacement or diminution of science as technology gets more attention.

Collaboration and Connections

Procope and others actually believe that today’s heightened interest in technology education can pump up interest in science and provide a vehicle for it.

Portage High School in Wisconsin makes that connection central to the innovative programs that Principal Robin Kvalo has designed, where some sophomores move into courses in which they can be deeply involved in the “Enterprise” program—the school’s in-house manufacturing business experience—and take core English, math, and science classes in their lab. The connection between those core classes and the work they are doing is clearly made.

“The science standards of the course are taught by the science teacher, but the support for an application activity comes from the Tech Ed and science teacher collaboration,” she says. “They work together to help students put the content they’re learning into a practical application so they understand why they need to know and understand a particular science standard.” A unit on propulsion, in which students build a rocket, includes both the hands-on work of constructing a rocket and also careful study of the science involved in its flight, before and after, using material from their science class.

“This certainly can be done in any school with an intentional collaboration between science and tech ed teachers,” she says. (For more information on PHS’ Enterprise program, visit

Bruce Wellman, who teaches high school chemistry and engineering design at the Engineering Academy at Olathe Northwest High School in Kansas, explains that the students at his school are required to take honors biology freshman year, chemistry sophomore year, and physics junior year, but all have similar close collaboration with the projects in the lab. In fact, the courses are held in that wing.

“We have the teachers in all these courses sit down together and collaborate,” Wellman says. “They discuss where they naturally overlap in their curriculum and how can we enhance that. How can we mesh science and engineering design, for instance?” Teachers add in community service, at times, which he believes should be an important consideration for any new science or tech program, to attract students and make it more valuable to their community.

Critical Thinking

Officials at Talbert Middle School in Huntington Beach, CA, have been working out ways to prepare for a statewide assessment that will combine Common Core State Standards and the NGSS through a STEM program that gives a lot of attention to science. For instance, the students regularly get to use Chromebooks in science class all year to plan a science fair project through the STEM program.

Former Principal Cara Robinson said her goal was to “integrate science and technology using all our resources, with a focus on critical thinking skills,” according to an article in the Orange County Register. Critical thinking is increasingly important in science education and the workforce—from employers who say that college graduates need critical thinking skills, to preschool and elementary school experts who say such skills should be a big part of what young children learn. Science educators say critical thinking skills are best imparted in their classes.

Julie Neidhardt, science teacher at Hutchens Elementary School in Mobile, AL, and an NSTA ambassador who speaks to educators, businesspeople, and policymakers about science, says principals should understand that well-conceived, innovative science programs are the best places to learn critical thinking—and a variety of other important skills. “They’ll have a deeper understanding of other material in all other courses,” she says.

“The focus is on more than just science content—it will also increasingly be on scientific processes, since they are the very nature of scientific knowledge itself,” says Valarie Akerson, a professor of science education at Indiana University in Bloomington. “Students of all ages are fascinated about their world, and science helps them conceptualize it and understand how knowledge about it is developed by scientists. It engages students as it captures their interest and helps them build literacy about the world.”

How Principals Can Help

To support these programs, Royce says principals should ask science teachers to be innovative, keep an open mind about what science teachers propose for their classes, and provide them time and support to get the appropriate professional development.

Also, be careful not to assume that technology courses can replace science, Royce says. “There is still a need for students to have a strong science and math education that provides them with the necessary skills for future careers—both within and beyond the STEM fields. In order for students to be successful in employing STEM skills and strategies, they need a solid foundation in science,” she says. “I am fully for the inclusion of computer and coding skills, but not in place of science coursework.”

Morrell says NGSS includes listings of how the Common Core State Standards can be integrated with the science standards. (She recommends the curriculum planning guide on NTSA’s website,

Additionally, principals shouldn’t assume that science or STEM programs should be developed for only the most successful students, Morrell says. Often, those who don’t succeed in other courses for a number of reasons (including attention issues or autism spectrum concerns) thrive in science, especially with the focus in those courses on project-based learning.

Another looming challenge will be measuring what students learn. “The big question on the horizon is how to assess this new kind of science instruction,” she says. “This is currently being tackled by states and others. Again, teachers will need to be supported in professional development endeavors to learn how to develop these types of assessments.”

Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.

Sidebar: New Topics, New Approaches in Science

Science lessons lend themselves to a variety of creative topics and approaches, experts say, simply because science reaches into every aspect of our lives.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s extensive Edgerton Center program for K–12 education has lessons using Lego® pieces that help young students understand DNA and cell division in fish and the ways genes develop. They help students build quizboards (with their own questions and answers) and build flashlights to understand open and closed circuits. Through MIT, students also can learn how to build laser mazes with mirrors or take water and soil samples and search for contaminants.

On the opposite coast, the Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART)—a high-tech high school in Clovis, CA—teaches a host of scientific concepts through topics that interest students, such as forensics. They can learn about blood typing, fingerprinting, chromatography, and microscopic examination of hair and fiber samples. In a psychology lab, science is key as students investigate the inner workings of the human brain on both physiological and chemical levels.

CART has other innovative programs for 11th- and 12th-grade students from the Clovis and Fresno Unified School Districts. Students attend half-day classes in one of the dozen laboratories run by teams of instructors from both education and business classes. There are several labs covering science topics in biomedicine, biotechnology, environmental science, and psychology.

In environmental science, students carry out hands-on projects relating to careers in marine biology, wildlife rehabilitation, air quality, river ecology, alternative energy, and forests, and they work with environmental professionals and government agencies on real-life scientific projects. They grow native plants, restore wildlife habitats, rehabilitate injured and orphaned wildlife species, and monitor forests, tide pools, and beaches—all while learning and using core science principals.

Kathryn Procope, head of school at the Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science in Washington, D.C., believes gaming can help younger students understand the scientific method of developing objectives, problem-solving, and moving through scaffolding steps.

Designing a video game from scratch is also offered at CART, which leaders there see as valuable for those reasons, while also teaching tech skills.

“Science can be taught in so many interesting ways,” says Julie Neidhardt, a Mobile, AL, science teacher and leader at the National Science Teachers Association, “because it is connected to everything somehow.”

Sidebar: Next Generation Science Standards

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that were developed by representatives from 26 states and released about five years ago to guide new science instruction are described in detail on a comprehensive website ( that offers plenty of information about implementing them.

The new criteria will promote science programs that are distinct from prior science standards in three essential ways:

  • Performance. These expectations state what students should be able to do in order to demonstrate that they have met the standard, thus providing the same clear and specific targets for curriculum, instruction, and assessment.
  • Foundations. Each performance expectation incorporates all the three dimensions from the framework that had been developed: a science or engineering practice, a core disciplinary idea, and a crosscutting concept.
  • Coherence. Each set of performance expectations lists connections to other ideas within the disciplines of science and engineering, and to Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English language arts.