By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
[Note to the reader: I am CEO of an online science lab provider and, while this article does not address online learning, it does have opinions related to the use of science labs. While I have made every effort to avoid bias based on my current position and believe that my opinion would be the same were I, for example, still a university professor, readers should be aware of my personal connection in this regard. -HK]
The long-awaited Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) second draft has been published for public review*. This is the final public review version. After diving into them, I found them lacking in some important respects.
I’ve taken the time to look at both versions (DCI and Topic arrangements). They’re both the same material arranged differently. I haven’t bothered with elementary school standards because I’m happy with doing any science at all in grades K-5.
I spent some time in the middle school area and was disappointed with the lack of academic rigor, the insufficient range of topics for three years of learning, and the paucity of quantitative investigations indicated. So, I went on to the high school topics hoping for something better.
As a chemist, the first thing I looked for was chemistry. There’s so no such topic. The NGSS document is arranged under three heading: PS, LS, and ESS. These stand for physical science, life science, and earth and space science. Earth and space science is certainly physical in nature but has its own separate section, while chemistry must lie hidden in physical science somewhere. The word chemistry does not appear.
Instead, most of what I’d term chemistry appears under two headings: Structure and Properties of Matter and Chemical Reactions. All right, a derivative word for chemistry does appear there but only in the topic-oriented version.
In order to see what’s afoot here, it’s necessary to list the topics under these headings. The good news and the bad news is that there are only ten topics (eleven if you count the bonus topic). It’s good because the list is short and easy to write here. The bad news is that this is all that there is for an entire year of high school chemistry. To give the NGSS their due, the introductory material does indicate that these are “core” ideas and that teachers are free to add on more material. You have to wonder how many teachers will bother to expand on the requirements that they’re given.
Here’s the list of the HS-PS1 standards plus one added from HS-PS3.
a. Evaluate the merits of different atomic and molecular representations based on their ability to explain a given property of matter or phenomenon.
b. Use the periodic table as a model to predict the relative properties of elements based on the patterns of electrons in the outer energy level of atoms.
c. Analyze and interpret provided data about bulk properties of various substances to support claims about the relative strength of the interactions among particles in the substance.
d. Develop a representation to show that energy is required to separate the atoms in a molecule and that energy is released when atoms at a distance come together to form molecules that are more stable.
e. Construct an explanation about the effects of changing the temperature or concentration of the reacting particles on the rate at which a reaction occurs.
f. Use models to support that the release or absorption of energy from a chemical system depends upon the changes in total bond energy.
g. Refine the design of a chemical system to specify changes in conditions that would produce increased amounts of products at equilibrium.
h. Use mathematical expressions to support the explanation that atoms, and therefore mass, are conserved during a chemical reaction.
i. Construct an explanation to support predications about the outcome of simple chemical reactions, using the structure of atoms, trends in the periodic table, and knowledge of the patterns of chemical properties.
j. Develop representations of the changes in the composition of the nucleus of the atom and the energy released during the processes of fission, fusion, and
3-g. Evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of nuclear processes compared to other types of energy production.
You really don’t have to read past the first few words to notice something truly unusual. Students are not required to obtain any data first-hand. No labs are required. [Update 1.23.13: See author's comment.]
Chemistry, famously or infamously, is known for requiring lots of lab work. As the National Research Council (NRC) indicated in its book, America’s Lab Report (ALR; free online), a science lab should be a place where students conduct science investigations. Preferably, these will be quantitative in nature. F. W. Westaway, a well-known expert on science education from the late 19th and early 20th century remarked that science has the characteristic that you could learn things first-hand.
Science has one enormous advantage over all other subjects. All facts can be obtained at first hand and without resort to authority. The learner is thus put in the position of being able to reason with an entirely unprejudiced mind. It is this possibility of self-elimination in forming a judgment that must be regarded as the greatest possible specific result of science teaching (Westaway, F. W., Scientific Method Its Philosophy and Practice, Blackie & Son, London, p. 49; free online).
The following quotes by James B. Conant appear in appendix H of the NGSS (p. 3):
…the remedy does not lie in a greater dissemination of scientific information among nonscientists. Being well informed about science is not the same thing as understanding science, though the two propositions are not antithetical. What are needed are methods for importing some knowledge of the tactics and strategy of science to those who are not scientists.
The appendix goes on to explain that tactics are analogous to science “practices” and strategy to “the nature of science explanations.” What are these science practices? According to appendix H, only four are fundamental to understanding the nature of science:
- Developing and using models
- Analyzing and interpreting data
- Constructing explanations, and
- Engaging in argument from evidence.
These certainly are important but miss one very crucial issue. Can we really expect our students to learn about science if simply handed a table of data to analyze? Should science learning in school be entirely left to analysis of second-hand data? The NRC has strongly suggested not in ALR.
We find ALR and NGSS to be in conflict here. I am inclined to take the part of ALR because there’s nothing that can match first-hand data taking for engagement and for truly comprehending the nature of science, which includes being faced with empirical data that are complex and often ambiguous.
I look at the NGSS and, remembering “Where’s the beef?” from a famous commercial some years ago, ask, “Where’s the lab?”
Has the NGSS left us without labs in high school chemistry? For years, the effort has been all in the other direction, even pushing labs down to kindergarten in some instances. I’m not sure at all about the value of going that far, but the idea of learning science with entirely second-hand data leaves me aghast.
The NGSS authors may well come back by saying that they have plenty of “lab” work. If you look carefully, you’ll see several instances of something like “Design, evaluate, and refine a device that ….” But that’s an engineering lab and is very different from a science lab. Engineering is about building things. Science is about exploring the great unknowns of the universe.
They also do occasionally have a “Design and conduct an investigation ….” But read further in the “Clarification Statement” and you see that it says, “Qualitative observations only.” Lord Kelvin, who accurately measured absolute zero, said, “To measure is to know,” and more fully, “I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.”
What’s going on here? Do the NGSS abandon all that scientists hold dear? It feels that way to me.
If you read the fascinating book, Scientists in the Classroom, written by John L. Rudolph and published in 2002, you’ll find a sort of déjà vu. Rudolph explains how science was being taught from a “life-adjustment curricular ideology” that dominated the curricular planning in the post-war period of the 1940s and early 1950s. Rudolph explains, on page 5, that this life-adjustment approach has its roots in a progressive education movement of the time and that “academic subject matter was marginalized in favor of courses designed to meet the immediate social, personal, and vocational needs of the student.”
I’m sure that the authors of NGSS would protest vigorously if presented with this analogy. However, the injection of lots of engineering projects and the almost total elimination of any quantitative measurements by students and of nearly any sort of first-hand science investigation leads to the conclusion that we have something similar afoot here but with different roots and purposes.
Science is now to be presented as a sort of mental exercise with “provided data.” You don’t get your hands “dirty” unless you’re actually building something, doing engineering. We’re back to what Carl Sagan complained about in his book, The Demon-Haunted World: “But there was no soaring sense of wonder, no hint of an evolutionary perspective, and nothing about mistaken ideas that everybody had once believed.”
Where, indeed, is the “soaring sense of wonder”? Where, also, is the sense of history that Sagan alludes to in this quote? Michael R. Matthews has written eloquently in his book, Science Teaching, The Role of History and Philosophy of Science, that we cannot teach science well without these aspects.
What we see is repeated use of “Develop a representation …” or “Construct an explanation …” or “Use models to support …” or “Evaluate the merits ….” These are not bad by themselves but have pushed out the soul of science by completely taking over the new standards, at least in chemistry and, in my reading, all of the other topics as well. Where do students measure? Where do they see with their eyes the nature of the materials that they’re studying?
Putting aside my bias for chemistry, which owns only ten of the nearly 100 topics, I am not happy with abandoning the laboratory and replacing it with engineering projects and “think” science almost entirely. I hope that this situation changes but feel a juggernaut bearing down upon our science courses and suspect that we are helpless to stop or even deflect it.
* Note from the authors of the NGSS report: “The second draft of the Next Generation Science Standards opened for feedback on January 8, 2013 and will remain open for feedback until January 29, 2013. We fully encourage all interested parties to review the draft as individuals or in groups and provide feedback to the Lead States and writers.”
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