Friday, January 16, 2015

Proposed science standards will prepare students for STEM success

My name is Michael Amolins. I am a parent, science teacher, school curriculum coordinator and administrator. I am also an active research scientist at Sanford Research and Augustana College in Sioux Falls. These experiences led me to volunteer as a member of the Science Standards Work Group that helped construct the proposed K-12 South Dakota Science Standards.

I want nothing more for the children of South Dakota than for them to be prepared with the best possible STEM education we can offer. I want nothing more, but in fact expect nothing less.

As a parent, I have an obligation to my son to provide him with a future full of hopes and aspirations.

As a teacher, my job is to translate the desires of parents into palpable results that make our children capable and competitive in the STEM-centered global economy of the 21st century.

The work group established a protocol that ensured we constantly reassessed our purpose and asked ourselves whether or not the standards we were authoring were in the best interest of our state, and more importantly our children.  Throughout the writing process, we used multiple resources, including the Next Generation Science Standards, to help reach those end points. Below are some key questions that helped drive our efforts:

·         Does this document contain guidelines that are in the best interest of our children?
·         Would the practices and skill sets within these standards prepare our children to be competitive for STEM careers in our communities, state and region?
·         Would the implementation of these standards teach our children the critical thinking skills necessary to be curious, informed observers of their world?

Finally, looking at this as a professional research scientist, I have the expectation that this state will prepare our future workforce to be competent problem solvers, hard workers and logical thinkers. I would expect that if I hire scientists from South Dakota,  they would be just as capable as scientists from out of state. In addition, I would expect a graduate from Rapid City to be just as capable as a graduate from Pukwana, Wilmot or Wessington Springs.

The proposed standards are not content focused, but  skills focused. Essentially, they are dedicated to helping students develop the mechanics, laboratory technique and intellectual prowess to become competent, independent problem solvers.

The guidelines established provide local teachers and administrators the flexibility to adopt curriculum that adheres to the needs and interests of their communities, while also asking them to shape that curriculum around the concepts of experiment design, data assessment and time management. This represents a significant conceptual shift from previous versions of this document. The proposed standards would cease to be a checklist of specific content we require all children to learn, and instead become a means by which children develop problem solving skills any high school graduate needs to be successful in a world where STEM dominates forward progress.

These proposed standards provide the necessary guidance to prepare our children to become successful, contributing members of a society driven by science and technology.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Dual credit students exhibit motivation and sense of responsibility by Ruth Raveling

Faulkton dual credit students with teacher Nikki Melius

This month, high school juniors and seniors across South Dakota begin another round of reduced-cost dual credit courses at our state’s technical institutes and public universities. These courses are available at the cost of $40/credit hour. That represents a tremendous cost savings, and the opportunity wasn’t lost on the more than 1,000 students who took such courses during the fall semester. I applaud these ambitious young men and women.

I got to meet several Faulkton students enrolled in dual credit courses last fall and was immediately impressed by their motivation and sense of responsibility.

Dual credit courses are college-level; not college-level adapted for high school. For instance, if a Faulkton student signs up for a dual credit college algebra course at South Dakota State University, her classmates are SDSU students. These classes are rigorous.

The distance from Faulkton to SDSU? About 160 miles. Which means that student isn’t driving to her class three days a week, where she could talk with classmates and simply raise her hand if she has a question. Like the Faulkton students I met, many students take the $40/credit dual credit courses online. They don’t meet their instructors or classmates in person. Students must email, text or telephone their instructors if they have questions. These classes require initiative.

Technical institute and university calendars and schedules don’t completely match those of the K-12 system either. One student I met explained that while Faulkton had a day off, he had a test to take in his dual credit course. Professors don’t check in with their students daily to ensure they’re making progress on assignments and projects either. As one student told me, “It’s kind of a learning curve to change, because you go from having daily assignments to, ‘Okay, this is what you have for these next two weeks. Get them done.’” These classes require strong time management skills.

All of this might sound like a heavy weight for high school shoulders. So I asked, would they do it again? Yes was the nearly unanimous response. Why?

One student points out the cost savings: “You don’t have to take it in college and pay twice as much.”

Another likes that his dual credit course (Introduction to Theater) is getting him ahead: “With my major, I’d be able to go straight to the acting classes instead of having to take that theater class that first semester.”

“These students are now our best advocates for the program because they’re very honest and they’ll tell fellow students that there are a lot of benefits, but it does change your learning,” says Nikki Melius, the teacher who administers Faulkton’s dual credit program.

The future is bright for these motivated young people, and because of them, so is the future of South Dakota. 

Ruth Raveling is the South Dakota Department of Education's information specialist.