New science standards call for more hands-on classroom activities

Inside Jake Seiler’s Prairie Ridge High School chemistry class, students shook together compounds such as dinitrogen tetroxide and nitrogen dioxide, and stuck them into cold water and into hot water.

The students see whether they change color, and by the end of the lab after testing various compounds, Seiler said, they should be able to predict what happens if the substance is heated or cooled.

Students applying concepts, designing more, having them make modifications and doing more hands-on activities is the main thrust of the Next Generation Science Standards being put together and which are expected to be adopted by the state possibly by the end of the school year.

The proposed standards even have progression for students on what knowledge they should be gaining by certain grade levels. For example, between third and fifth grade, students should be learning how humans and other organisms can be affected if the global temperature continues to increase. By middle school, students would be learning how human activities alter or damage the biosphere and how humans can reduce their impact on the environment.

In District 158, which includes Huntley High School, science teachers are preparing for the new standards.

Mike Wheatley, director of the health, physical education and science curriculum, said teachers at the elementary level will have students doing more hands-on activities when it comes to science.

Part of the new science standards is integrating the Science Technology Engineering Mathematics approach.

Students synthesize information from other subject areas to design solutions to problems. Students need to use math to back a solution to a problem in a science class, Wheatley said.

Wheatley said District 158 plans to have the standards in place for the 2014-15 school year.

The proposed science standards are broken down into three categories: the traditional acquisition of knowledge, cross-cutting across disciplines such as using math in science and hands-on science activities.

Jeff Robinson, a biology teacher at Huntley High School, said the new science standards will be a shift in the science curriculum.

Historically, science teachers concerned themselves with teaching science facts, having students work a section out of a textbook and then take a test.

“But it’s a shift [to] teaching them a scientific mindset and giving them the ability to be scientific thinkers,” Robinson said.

For example, instead of having students memorize parts of a cell, students will be asked how does a piece of DNA produce a protein, Robinson said. If students are investigating a problem, and they have to figure out the tiny details, it will leave a longer impression.

Matt Elder is a science teacher at Marlowe Middle School in Lake in the Hills, where students have begun to work on a medieval unit.

As part of the unit, his class will build one-and-half-foot catapults to launch ping-pong balls. The students have to research and design the catapults on their own, Elder said.

“One of the things we decided to do is incorporate problem-based learning where students have more responsibility of gaining knowledge, rather than us telling them what to do,” Elder said.

Kathy Gilbert is the math division chairwoman at Prairie Ridge High School, and next school year she is slated to become the STEM division chairwoman at the school when the science and math departments merge.

At District 155, the science curriculum already has a lot of lab activity that the Next Generation Science Standards emphasize.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a radical change for us,” Gilbert said.

As part of her role this school year, she has been observing science classrooms and preparing for the upcoming science standards.

“The emphasis in the past on science curriculum has really been on acquisition of knowledge and finding out different things and getting knowledge.” Gilbert said. “With our current generation of students, it’s easier and easier to find knowledge if you need it. The Internet has made things easily accessible. The acquisition of knowledge, while still important, is not going to be the major thrust. ... We’re really looking to see students do science. Be more active in science.”

Gilbert said the emphasis of the standards will be on doing science, from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“Let’s do science, let’s investigate, let’s analyze, let’s make it a part of who we are, instead of an abstract concept,” Gilbert said. “In order for people to be successful in our current world, they need to be able to analyze, break things down, put things together, and have that curiosity for learning.”

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