Science instruction in K-12 education has long been provided as if science consisted of a body of facts to be memorized. The Next Generation Science Standards, however, rely on an inquiry-based approach in which students learn about science by engaging in scientific exploration. In this episode, Dr. Kristina Mitchell joins us to discuss this approach and its implications for college instruction.
After six years as a director of online education at Texas Tech University, Kristina now works for a science curriculum publishing company and teaches part time at San Jose State University.
- Texas Tech University
- Kristina Mitchell, Lecturer at San Jose State University
- Next Generation Science Standards
- Josh Eyler (2019) 64. How Humans Learn. Tea for Teaching Podcast, January 16th.
- Eric Mazur, Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University.
- Force Concept Inventory
John: Science instruction in K-12 education has long been provided as if science consisted of a body of facts to be memorized. The Next Generation Science Standards, however, rely on an inquiry-based approach in which students learn about science by engaging in scientific exploration. In this episode, we discuss this approach and its implications for college instruction.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Our guest today is Dr. Kristina Mitchell. After six years as a director of online education at Texas Tech University, Kristina now works for a science curriculum publishing company and teaches part-time at San Jose State University. Welcome back, Kristina.
Kristina: Thank you. It’s good to be back.
Rebecca: Today our teas are…
Kristina: Diet Dr. Pepper.
John: The same as last time. [LAUGHTER] I have a green tea today.
Rebecca: And I have a nice pot of brewed English Breakfast tea.
John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about the Next Generation Science Standards. How did you get involved with the Next Generation Science Standards?
Kristina: During my work at Texas Tech University in online education, I was doing a lot of consulting for publishing companies on their online and curriculum offerings, which led to a full-time job offer from a curriculum company that works specifically in K-12 and some higher ed science curriculum, and I learned very quickly that one of the newest trends in science education at the K-12 level are these Next Generation Science Standards that were created by college-level science professors in order to change the way we teach science to K-12 students.
John: How did these standards come about?
Kristina: I have to admit that because I’m relatively new to the science curriculum world, I am not an expert on their creation. But I do know that there were several panels of scientists from various higher education institutions that got together to try and figure out from the perspectives of different disciplines, “What do we want our students who come to university to know about science once they get there?” When I was in middle school, I don’t know how much you remember your middle school science lessons, but I remember dissecting frogs and doing our Punnett squares about genetics, but what I remember most is that we would learn those principles of science like Newton’s laws throughout the week, and then Friday, we would do a lab to prove that they were true. And unfortunately, that’s not how any of us do science. Being a social scientist myself, that’s not how I did science at the college level, as a researcher. So, the panel of experts from various scientific disciplines sought to change the way students think about science to think about it more as a process of investigation, rather than something you sort of memorize and then confirm.
Rebecca: The Next Generation Science Standards have three dimensions. Can you talk about those a little bit?
Kristina: Sure. So, these sort of three dimensions, or the three pillars of the way students are learning in K-12 about science, the first is they’re learning disciplinary core ideas. So these disciplinary core ideas are the core features of disciplines like physics or chemistry and the things that they really have to know about that specific discipline in order to build on that knowledge. The second one is science and engineering practices, so these are the ways we study science. And the great thing about the ways that we study science is that it doesn’t change across disciplines. Whether you’re a physicist or a chemist or a sociologist, you’re going to use the same types of scientific practices to answer your research questions. And then the final dimension, the third dimension, are cross cutting concepts. So, these are things like observing patterns or observing cause and effect, concepts that also span across all disciplines, not necessarily limited only to science. So it’s concepts that students can use to understand the world around them, regardless of what questions they’re asking.
Rebecca: Can you give us an example of how these three dimensions play out in a particular grade level?
Kristina: Sure. So when we’re thinking about what students are doing in science classrooms these days that might be different from the way we learned science when we were in seventh grade, students are doing a lot more investigation centered science. So, you walked into your classroom, your college classroom, and somebody walks in and says to one of your students, “What are you guys doing?” And your student might say, “Oh, we’re reading this chapter on…” Rebecca, I think you’re an art person, right?
Rebecca: Yeah, design.
Kristina: “So we’re reading this chapter on Photoshop,” and you ask them, “Okay, well, why are you doing that?” And they’d say “Well, because Professor Mushtare told us to.” In trying to get them away from that instead, the way they’re trying to implement science in the classrooms now would be to get students, you know, if they came into your classroom to say, “Well what are you guys working on?” And they might say, “Well, we’re trying to make a flyer for this project.” And you’d say “Why?” And they’d say, “Well, because we’re trying to figure out how we can make people more excited in this project that we’re working on.” So, getting students to start from the point of “What are we trying to figure out and why do we have to do this activity in order to figure that out?” …rather than “What are we memorizing, what are we learning because the teacher told us to?”
John: So it’s more of a project-based learning or inquiry-based approach to the discipline.
Kristina: Absolutely. And we’ve seen that a lot emerging in higher ed. So, it’s really great to see it reflected in the K-12 space too.
John: But it’s important probably for faculty to be aware of this, because if students are starting to use this approach, as they move forward, they might expect to see more of that in higher ed, where they might see it as a step backwards if they have to move to something that involves more rote learning, for example.
Kristina: Exactly. We’re seeing a lot less “sage on the stage”-type activities, both in K-12 and in higher ed. So it’s really important, I think, that we all kind of know what both sides of education are doing so we can at least know where our students are coming from.
Rebecca: How do you see this new approach helping students be better prepared for college?
Kristina: Well I definitely think that the idea of empowering students to be in charge of their own knowledge is really important. Sometimes I find that a struggle that my students have is doing this sort of figuring things out on their own. If I don’t give explicit instructions with explicit rubrics, they sometimes feel very lost. And so empowering them to recognize themselves as people who can ask questions and figure out the answers to those questions, that goes far beyond just physics class. That goes into just being a responsible and productive member of society. So, I think hopefully we can see students taking a little bit more ownership in their learning because of these trends at K-12.
John: Does it also perhaps give students a little more motivation when they have a goal in mind, and they know why they’re doing things rather than just doing it because their instructors told them to?
Kristina: Yeah, I would definitely think so. I definitely remember my seventh grade year not being passionate about the science, other than “Wow, cool. It’s a dead frog.” So thinking about empowering students to ask these questions might get them more excited about what they’re learning about.
John: In one of our earlier podcasts, we talked to Josh Eyler, who emphasized the importance of curiosity and nurturing curiosity and this approach seems to be very nicely tied into that.
Kristina: Absolutely. And I think about my own political science classroom. One of the fun activities I’ve done and I swear the first time I went through it, it was one of those days where I thought, “Ah… I’m tired. I don’t have anything that I’m interested in lecturing about. We’re almost through this semester, what am I going to do today?” And so I decided, I’m just going to have the students write questions on index cards related to political science and hand them all in and I’ll answer all of the ones that I can. And that was one of the best days of class. I’ve recreated that many times in semesters. And so seeing that these Next Generation Science Standards where we’re trying to get students to think there are some things you learn about each discipline, but there are some practices and concepts that apply everywhere and you just learn how to ask the right questions and you use these concepts and practices to answer them. It’s something that I’m using in my political science class, even really, before I realized that I was specifically doing so.
Rebecca: Do you have any idea how students are responding to this curricula?
Kristina: So every individual curriculum and program is going to be a little bit different, but they are all going to tie into these main ideas. And one thing that we’ve seen in student performance and student preferences is that the students really like doing things in class, having activities and hands on specifically to science. Of course, that often means labs. But one thing that I often talk to teachers about and get a lot of really good feedback on is the idea that we kind of think of doing science looks like it’s in lab coats with safety goggles, but we all know as researchers ourselves that science looks like talking sometimes. And sometimes it looks like asking questions, and sometimes it looks like taking notes or revising models, and getting the teachers and students to realize that that’s all part of what doing science is. They get really excited at the idea of doing science themselves. Of course, they like to see things explode in class, but sometimes just getting them the opportunity to have discussions with each other. It’s amazing to me what the middle school students are capable of, and our elementary age students, what they’re capable of. I have kids myself and I didn’t know that they were learning such higher level concepts of science in class.
Rebecca: There’s big movements to move STEM to STEAM. Is the humanities represented in this new model?
Kristina: So, when we think about STEM, that’s kind of what everyone’s prioritizing these days: the science, the technology, engineering and mathematics… and the A to add it to STEAM would be the arts. So the idea that the arts are also important, but I think there are some key pieces missing here. When we focus exclusively on STEM and on creation and innovation, that’s really good. We need creation and innovation. But as I feel like sometimes we’re learning right now, without a good background knowledge of history, we might be creating and innovating things that either already exist, or have already been tried, or that don’t have a good basis in what we’ve experienced as a society. It’s like they said on Jurassic Park, you spend so much time wondering whether you can and you don’t stop to think about whether you should.
Rebecca: So you were just raising that question about ethics and things like this. So,how do you see this curriculum evolving so that the humanities are better represented or integrate more into our integrated learning in K through 12?
Kristina: Well, one thing that I think is really great about the NGSS is that it definitely starts to sort of de-silo the disciplines of science. So, when we think about physics and chemistry and earth science and life science, when I was in school, those were all completely separate years, both in middle school and in high school. And the NGSS standards definitely start to recognize that we can’t silo our disciplines like that because they have so much to speak to each other. Some questions you need many disciplines of science to answer. And so I’m hoping that slowly, more and more curriculum writers will apply that same standard to the humanities, to the social sciences, and to the arts, the idea that nothing can truly be siloed because social science speaks to even questions like “What scientific research do we do? What research questions do we ask?” That can’t be explained using natural sciences alone. Because yes, natural sciences might seem really unbiased, but we’re asking certain questions and we’re not asking others. So using social science and humanities to help answer those bigger questions. I’m hoping that we see less siloing across disciplines over time. And even at universities, we’re starting to see increases in things like cluster hires, where multiple people from different disciplines all come at a sort of similar question, kind of like what we’re doing here. We’re three people from very different disciplines. But we’re all interested in the question of, you know, what makes teaching good or bad.
Rebecca: One of the questions that’s risen a lot in higher ed, and I know as a popular conversation on our campus, is about fake news and debunking pseudoscience. Do you see that this curriculum helps with that,? …perpetuates that?
Kristina: I think that’s a really good question, and kind of a difficult one, because I think it’s really important to teach students how to interpret the world around them, and what science is and how it’s done, because that can help us determine the validity of the information that we get. But I also think, like we were just talking about, there is a move away from rote learning, from the idea that an expert in a field tells us what is true about that field and we learn it. The fact that we’re moving toward anyone can be an expert, anyone can do the research themselves, anyone can ask questions. Sometimes, I also worry that that pendulum might swing too far, because that’s sometimes where we get people who go online and find whatever Google can tell them about vaccines not being safe or about climate change not being real. And because they feel empowered to be their own expert, they’re treating themselves and their research as equivalent to people who have devoted their lives to getting advanced degrees and who know the answers to these questions. And so I worry that maybe we’ll see the pendulum swing a little too far in the other direction, but I’m not sure.
Rebecca: Based on knowing what you know about higher ed and what you know about this science curriculum, what do you think faculty should be thinking about in terms of what their students might know or might not know, or how they might know differently than they did before?
Kristina: I think that it’s important to teach students what expertise is to begin with, when we think about what it means to be an expert and know something. So, when we go back to those next generation science standards, and think about those three dimensions, the disciplinary core ideas, to me, those are the things that experts already know and that we can accept as the core ideas of each discipline. So, starting from that point and saying the question of vaccine safety has already been established, we know that the vaccines that are here are safe. That’s a disciplinary core idea. But now let’s use our science and engineering practices and our cross-cutting concepts to think about other types of preventative medicine that maybe don’t have the same consensus or new types of vaccines? How would we know that those are safe or how would we know that those are effective? So, I think it’s important not to forget about those disciplinary core ideas that are things that experts have already figured out questions that have already been settled, and then allowing people to start from that point and ask their own questions and do their own research using the scientific method.
John: Changing the topic just a little bit, we get a fair number of people who are interested in the STEM fields when they’re in middle school and even high school, but then they get to college, and all of a sudden, they have to start taking calculus classes, and Matrix Algebra, and Organic Chemistry. Is there any way that perhaps lessons learned from this approach could be used to make college classes more effective and not having so many people get lost along the way once they hit these courses that have been traditionally a bit of a barrier to progress in those areas?
Kristina: That’s a really great question, and we even see that in political science. I teach our research methods class in political science and it has just the tiniest bit of statistics in it. And students are like, “Why am I doing math in a political science class?” And then of course, in graduate school, we’re seeing increasing amounts of quantitative knowledge needed to finish graduate programs and then to compete on the job market. So, I definitely think that the rise of math as something important is a deterrent to some students who might otherwise be interested in entering STEM or social science fields, but I think that also comes down to the pendulum again. I think that it’s important to realize that quantitative methodology is a method of understanding scientific questions, and you don’t have to use quantitative methodology to answer every scientific question. Some of them can be answered using qualitative methods, and even discussing political theory or other types of theories in other sciences or in the humanities. I think it would be good if we could open up the doors a little bit to people who have really high level intelligence and interest and curiosity, but maybe don’t have an interest in math. I think both by making math more accessible and less required, we might be able to get some really interesting new perspectives in our college level courses. I don’t like the idea of using hard math classes as a way to weed students out. And I think that’s sometimes what they’re used for, because I took Matrix Algebra in grad school, and it was really hard. And I’ve never used it since that class… ever again. So it’s not as though it was a skill I needed to be a PhD in political science. It felt more like a class that was used to weed out students who weren’t as interested or weren’t as good at memorizing how to do Matrix Algebra.
John: The point I was trying to get to, I think, is that perhaps if more of these inquiry-based methods were used to motivate the material, it could help get past that. I actually had a similar experience with Matrix Algebra. And when I was learning, I was able to do the proofs and work through it, but I didn’t really understand it until I started using it in econometrics and other disciplines, when all of a sudden it just made so much sense and why all those theorems were there and useful. But we lost a lot of people along the way there. And perhaps that’s something we could build into all of our classes to help motivate students and not just hit them with a lot of theorems and not necessarily even just rote learning, but a lot of inquiry for which the motivation may not be obvious to people when they take it.
Kristina: Definitely. And I think that when I teach my Statistics and Research Methods class, it always is easier for the students, and they always do better, when I tie the math we’re doing to a real question. So even something as simple as “We’re trying to figure out whether the average American is conservative or liberal,” and this is our question that we’re trying to figure out. Now we need to do a difference of means test to figure it out. And so that would be, going back to what we were saying earlier, the idea of you walking into my class and asking my students what they’re doing. Well, they could answer “We’re memorizing how to do a difference of means test from chapter 12 because Dr. Mitchell told us to,” versus saying, “Well, we’re trying to figure out what the ideology is of Americans from different regions, so we have to use this mathematical test so we can answer that question.” So really about framing it in terms of “What are you doing and why are you doing it?” and making sure that we know that the students would answer in a way that gets them excited about the material.
Rebecca: I think context is everything. The real world problems that you’re talking about in the new science curriculum is not unlike the kinds of things that you’re talking about in your classes or even when you have to use math in design class. So, a lot of visual arts students think math is completely irrelevant to them, but when it’s put in context, when you need to do certain things, all of the sudden it makes more sense. I teach a creative code class and we do fairly complicated geometries there, actually. And if you can see the results, sometimes it makes a lot more sense to some of our students.
Kristina: Exactly. So the fact that they would know why they’re doing this and it’s to accomplish a specific goal, rather than just “We’re memorizing this because the professor told us we had to, it was going to be on the exam.”
Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]
Kristina: Lord, help us for how many times we hear “Is this going to be on the exam?” That seems like the motivation for trying to learn something. And it would be great if we could move it away from that being the motivation, toward the motivation being “Well, we’re trying to learn this because it helps us figure out this question or this design problem.”
Rebecca: Or the motivation, like, “Hey, I really need to understand this mathematical principle, because I really want to know the answer to this question.”
Rebecca: And that leads to where they actually start asking for the things that we’ve prescribed previously. [LAUGHTER]
Kristina: Yeah, and it becomes just a tool to figure things out. And if they want to figure the answer out, then they’re going to need all the tools.
John: Could you tell us what this would look like if we were to stop by a seventh grade class, and this was being put in practice?
Kristina: Absolutely. So if we think about what a seventh grader might be doing, so if we start from that point of the goal is to figure something out, and maybe they’re learning about Space science. They’re learning about Earth and Space and trying to figure out “Why do some objects in Space orbit other objects?” …like “What does that mean? How does that happen?” So, one really fun activity that I’ve seen middle schoolers doing is they have these embroidery hoops and these marbles. And so what they do is they put the marble in the embroidery hoop, and they sort of spin it around on the table. And so the marble is swirling in circles and then they lift the hoop and marbles start shooting everywhere. So it’s very funny in a seventh grade classroom, because you got kids running everywhere trying to chase their marbles. And so at first, they’re just having fun, tracking which way the marble goes and trying to figure out when they lift the embroidery hoop which direction will the marble head, and then eventually they start realizing, “Oh, well, the marble kind of wants to go straight, but the embroidery hoop is keeping it going in a circle.” So, if we think about the sun, with the planets orbiting it, if the sun suddenly disappeared, Earth would kind of want to go straight out in whatever direction it was headed. But because the sun’s gravity’s in the middle, it’s keeping Earth going in a circle around the sun. And so they start putting these pieces together and eventually they come up with this idea of the relationship between inertia, which keeps the earth going, and gravity, which is what keeps it in that same orbit. When they think about what is the core idea they’re learning about, well, they’re learning about orbit, but the way they’re figuring it out is by looking at this small model of what is actually happening at the planetary level. And that’s really reflective of the kinds of things that scientists do in their labs. We’re running models that try to simulate what’s happening in space, or what’s happening in the political world, or whatever discipline we’re doing. We’re trying to create these models to help us understand it. And so that’s what the students are doing, too.
John: That reminds me of a talk that Eric Mazur has given in several places, including at Oswego, where he talked about the Force Concept Inventory, and how, while students were able to plug numbers into formulas and solve problems very well, when they were asked about questions like that, specifically, if I recall, “Suppose that you’re swinging a rock on a sling, and you release it, what would the motion look like?” And basically it ends up flying in essentially a straight line… well, other than the effect of gravity. But when people were asked that, they would bring up things that they had seen in cartoons where they expected it to loop through the air, perhaps as it’s moving. That’s actually one of those things where people in really good institutions who had taken a college class had some really poor intuition. And this type of practice can help prepare them with better intuition on which to build later.
Kristina: There was also a video at, I think it was Harvard’s graduation, where they asked a bunch of STEM majors who had just graduated if they thought they could make a little circuit that would light up a light bulb. And so they handed them everything they would need to do, and everyone’s like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, I got this no problem.” And they couldn’t, they couldn’t figure out how to light the light bulb up, because as much as they had done the math in class, they just had never really done the practical aspect. And so getting students hands-on to do the things with those science and engineering practices in whatever discipline we’re in. It’s really important to get our students in the driver’s seat to start practicing what they’re going to be doing when they leave the classroom.
Rebecca: It also seems like having multiple pathways to the same information is a good way to play with our memory, and make sure that it sticks and it stays there. So, something that’s embodied, something that you memorize, something that’s a couple different kinds of examples.
Kristina: Exactly. Maybe it can move it from our short-term back to the long-term memory to help us keep that knowledge.
Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking “What’s next?”
Kristina: So I think I’d really like to start exploring what this does look like in a classroom setting for myself. So rather than just focusing on what it looks like for students in K-12, I’d like to see if I can use a similar style of teaching in my political science classroom, and just see what kinds of evaluations I get and how the students like it. I think the idea of getting rid of these silos and recognizing that we all use the same practices and concepts could help us with keeping our college experience for our students interesting and consistent. And we start realizing that they’re going to learn in each of our disciplinary core ideas, but there are a lot of things that we all have in common. So, I’m really going to try this semester, maybe my student evaluations will suffer greatly, but we all know from my past talks that they’re biased anyway. But I just kind of want to see what it looks like if I let my students take a little bit more of a driver’s seat in asking the question, “What are we going to figure out? What do we want to know about the world?”
Rebecca: Do you have a piece of this semester that you’re most excited about that you already have planned in this domain?
Kristina: Well, I’m doing the research methods class this semester, which of course, involves some math. And I think that I would like to use their ideas about what kind of data we should be looking at and what kind of questions we should be answering. Because I think that’ll make it a lot more meaningful for them, rather than if I say, “We’re going to look at the American national election study,” letting them figure out “What question do you want to answer?” And then I’ll teach them whatever method it is that they need to know in order to answer that question. So, we’re going to try it. We’ll see how it goes.
John: In a past podcast, Doug Mckee talked about a similar situation in his econometrics class where he was using a time-for-telling approach. Where basically you face students with problems and let them wrestle with it a bit before giving them some assistance and helping them resolve things, and there’s a lot of evidence that those techniques can be really effective.
Rebecca: So, it sounds like well wishes on your new adventures. [LAUGHTER]
Kristina: Thank you.
Rebecca: Thank you so much for joining us.
Kristina: Of course, this is great. It’s always great. I think eventually I’ll have to come visit y’all.
John: That would be great. Well, thank you.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.