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New K-12 science standards emphasize hands-on learning

Raymond Cree Middle School teacher Nichi Avina has been developing new lesson plans based on the Next Generation Science Standards.
Sanden Totten / KPCC
Raymond Cree Middle School teacher Nichi Avina has been developing new lesson plans based on the Next Generation Science Standards.

In 2013, the California State Board of Education approved new science standards for K through 12 classes.

They're called the Next Generation Science Standards and put a stronger emphasis on actually doing science rather than just memorizing facts.

It represents a huge shift for teachers and many schools have yet to make the transition.

They have until around 2017 at the earliest to do so, but a handful of districts are already giving the new standards a trial run and sharing what they learn with the rest of the state.

That's what's happening this year at Palm Springs Unified School District.

PSUSD and a few other select districts landed grants from the state and from the non-profit research and development agency WestEd to spend the next three years testing out and developing curriculum around NGSS.

The 8th grade science class at Palm Springs' Raymond Cree Middle School is part of this new pilot program.

A recent lesson had those students learning about exothermic and endothermic reactions, chemical changes that result in heating or cooling.

Then they put that knowledge to use by inventing hot or cold packs using everyday items like plastic wrap and sandwich baggies, as well as calcium chloride, vinegar and baking soda.

"We're going to put our chemicals in the containers and we are gonna figure out how to make them open in the bag without having to mess with them too much," said student Logan Bender about his group's invention.

(A cold pack designed by a student in Nichi Avina's 8th grade class.)

Some teams pulled this off with clever designs using bags, straws and pipe-cleaners. Other ended up with a total mess. They’re learned something though, said teacher Nichi Avina.

"It is chaotic, but I think that’s part of the whole process of inventing," she said.

"It’s almost like an open-ended question."

Avina is one of a small group of teachers in the state working on lesson plans for the Next Generation Science Standards.

Over the next several years, California’s roughly 1,000 school districts will transition to the NGSS, tossing out standards from 1998 that focused more on textbook learning.

Avina says the new approach gets kids to think deeply about science because they have to use it to solve real world problems.

She said in the old way of teaching students were asked to regurgitate information given to them by a teacher.

"With this new way of teaching, it’s almost like we’re exploring together and I am just facilitating the process."

Designing a hot or cold pack is a perfect example of this in action, she said.

It takes knowledge of chemical reactions and engineering skills. Students will even name and pretend to market their inventions to better understand how professional engineers work.

The new standards also focus on ideas that show up across scientific disciplines, like energy use and cause and effect. These help to highlight how scientists see many topics as universal rather than isolated to one field or another.

Putting all this into lessons takes more planning and hands-on supervision than your typical lecture would, said Avina.

"But I am seeing the gains in the student’s ability to retain the information."

Even students who typically aren't that engaged will perk up when they are forced to do their own creative thinking and problem solving, she noted.

(Raymond Cree Middle School teacher Nichi Avina in her classroom.)

"They absolutely learn science better that way," said William Sandoval with UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

Plenty of academic research backs this up, he pointed out.

He thinks the Next Generation Science Standards work well because they combine scientific ideas with the process of making discoveries.

"Historically we’ve always separated science ideas from ways of doing science and we don’t want to do that anymore... kids learn science better when you do these things together."

Still, the new standards create new challenges.

It requires students to spend lots of time digging deep on certain topics, meaning they can't cover as many issues in a school year.

In-class experiments can also be costly. Nichi Avina estimates she'll need a few hundred dollars more a year for supplies.

Most of all though, the new approach will require a lot of adjusting on the part of many teachers, said Sandoval.

"That’s probably the single biggest issue for California and other states... how are we going to get teachers to learn what they need to learn to teach in a way that’s aligned with the intent of the standards?"

Hopefully, the lesson plans developed at Palm Springs and the other 7 school districts in the pilot program will help to solve this problem.

For Raymond Cree Middle School, 8th grader Stephanie Zavala, the new approach is already making a difference.

"It’s fun, It’s not boring. You use your own imagination to see what you can build," she said.

She's looking forward to more science classes like that in her future.