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.