Ben Sayler is the director of education and outreach at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, SD, and a professor of physical science and mathematics at Black Hills State University. He recently wrote the following editorial, which appeared in the Rapid City Journal:
Students come to us with unique sets of knowledge and skills.
They are not empty vessels. The time has come for developing academic content
standards that engage students not merely in memorizing a set of facts and
procedures but trying to seek out new information and develop skills that will
enable them to propose solutions to questions and problems. The proposed South
Dakota science standards do just that.
My role as a teacher in an alternative school offers unique
insight into the role and importance of customization by drawing upon prior
student knowledge and experiences to increase student interest and to make
connections between the old and new information, thereby strengthening learning.
Cognitive research has proven that student ownership of learning increases
encoding and retrieval of information. Students get to own their learning
because the proposed science standards ask students to engage in deeper
thinking and utilization of learning in unique and new ways. The standards also
aid learning by requiring utilization of English and math skills such as
analyzing data, communicating information and arguing from evidence.
For example, a student with a love of art can engage in the
study of the artist Alexander Calder and his kinetic mobiles while learning
about simple machines, specifically lever systems then create a mobile, including
images and items that correlate to them. They can communicate how mobiles work as well
as how Calder developed his techniques. Two students may have very different
proposals for how to remediate a water quality issue. Students studying
recycling could build pallet furniture, separation techniques for different
plastics, or make paper from used paper.
The new standards include practices (e.g. Ask Questions,
Investigate, Communicate). Just by definition, these are skills that must be
practiced. Students naturally ask questions. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Men
love to wonder and that is the seed of science.” We can utilize these student-generated
questions to breed interest and direct learning. Students can answer these questions by
engaging in investigations and engineering design. There is always something of
scientific interest sitting on the counter in the classroom: new zebra fish,
brine shrimp, a tornado tube, or kinetic sand. Change it up and use student
interest as teachable moments. Don’t just give them the answers but challenge
them to try to answer their own questions and communicate what they found out. Let
them set up an investigation.
Engineering is new to the proposed science standards and
provides a great motivator for student learning, especially those that thrive with
hands-on learning. Students studying momentum, impulse, and Newton’s laws build
egg-drop containers or vehicles that carry a “passenger”/egg. Students learn
about water quality by engaging in water testing and then proposing possible
solutions to remediate problems.
I am fortunate to have been selected to be a part of the
South Dakota workgroup to revise the state science standards. I can honestly
say, as a workgroup member for the proposed science standards, that these standards
have been developed with South Dakota in mind to ensure that our students’
unique needs are met. They are rigorous and they allow students to not only
learn challenging concepts, but to engage in science practices to obtain the
skills most important to future success in any career. These proposed standards
will allow teachers and schools to develop engaging curriculum that not only
connects with the unique needs of the local community, but also supports integration
of other content areas, and allows for real-world application of scientific
ideas and skills.
Julie Olson teaches science at Mitchell High School's Second Chance High. She is president of the South Dakota Science Teachers Association and chair of the South Dakota Outstanding Biology Teacher Award.