What about science?

January 4, 2011
Kevin Gant

Kevin Gant

A recent blog by the Buck Institute of Education points out that there are strong connections in the Common Core Standards in the English/Language Arts to the practice Project Based Learning. With a set of “national” standards for E/LA and Math (but ONLY E/LA and Math), the Common Core is becoming a common buzzphrase in the world of American Education, and every time I hear it, I keep on asking, “what about science?”

I ask the question sort of half-heartedly, because there have beenNational Science Education Standards since 1996, as put forth by an effort of The National Academies, a consortium of The National Research Council, The National Academy of Sciences, The National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. These standards are both robust and detailed, and their existence begs a similar question as was addressed in the BIE blog: “How does Project Based Learning connect to the national science standards?”

The standards have been around for quite a while, so another way to ask that question, might be, “How have project-based science teachers accommodated the national standards with PBL?” In our work with schools, a clear pattern has emerged: science teachers are often “early adopters” of PBL. (though not the only ones, before anyone in the Social Sciences gets upset). This should be no surprise. Because they teach an application-oriented discipline, science instructors are often already connecting standards to life outside the classroom through labs, which are logical starting points for generating project ideas. And because of the collaborative nature of Science, the group work of PBL fits naturally into science classes.

So it is also no surprise that national standards for science support the practice of PBL. In fact, reading the standards might provide some great ideas for projects. The document is peppered with anecdotes of teachers facilitating units that manifest the standards, and while the story of Ms M. teaching a unit on the history of photosynthesis (and hence green plants) in the 9-12 content standards is not a project exactly, it’s not a far stretch to take her idea and convert it to a project. For instance, students might use a historical experiment with photosynthesis to determine which plants they could plant around a parking lot to best scrub the air. If you are a science teacher, spending time with the standards is well worth the effort.

Further, the standards go beyond merely content standards, and address the practice of teaching in the “Science Education Program Standards”, like Standard B: The program of study in science for all students should be developmentally appropriate, interesting, and relevant to students’ lives; emphasize student understanding through inquiry; and be connected with other school subjects.

Sounds a lot like the goals of PBL, doesn’t it? Relevant. Interesting. Integrated. Inquiry-driven.

Lest you are concerned that there will be no Science Standards associated with the Common Core, fear not: it turns out that an effort is on the way. The National Academies, responsible for the original national science standards, are creating an updated Conceptual Framework for Science Standards, which will then be used to create the ‘Next Generation Science Standards’, crafted by some of the same organizations that created the Common Core.

At NTN, we are mapping the projects in our Project Library to the national science standards, so that when the Next Generation Science Standards emerge, we’ll be well-prepared to carry out similar work. Meanwhile, our work now, and the science standards in place reinforce our confidence that PBL is excellent science teaching.

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