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Elementary science class: the Next Generation

A group of third-graders at Fruitdale Elementary in Grants Pass is constructing an emergency shelter that could serve them should an earthquake destroy their homes. They are given materials but no blueprints.

It's an exercise that showcases a new approach to teaching science that will soon be commonplace in Oregon: engineering design.

Oregon recently became the 26th state to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, which emphasize hands-on learning and the practical applications of science learning with the goal of giving kids the tools they will one day need to compete in the global job market.

"We put together engineering design kits for each of the grade levels," says third-grade teacher Cindy Bohannon. "In our Community unit, we go into machines and do a project called the 'speedy shelter.' They're given a certain number of bamboo stakes, duct tape, twine, and we put them in a scenario — after having learned about urban communities and using the resources around them — and have them design a speedy shelter in a specific amount of time with teams, and test that shelter."

While the 'speedy shelter' may sound more like play than science, what the children are doing, says Bohannon, is building a model.

"We chose to put it just prior to a Simple Machine unit related to force and how simple machines work to make our lives easier," she adds.

For generations, science learning has emphasized memorization of facts and concepts. The new standards demand that students demonstrate their knowledge by carrying out scientific investigations, designing and developing prototypes, and analyzing and interpreting data.

"We would expect to see, rather than a teacher lecturing and doing a demonstration of a science experiment, for the children to be doing background reading on that experiment or engineering design activity and then doing that experiment," says Cheryl Kleckner, science education specialist with the Oregon Department of Education.

A new science class, says Kleckner, might consist of "Collecting the data, going outside and collecting observations, and then the student would use that information to respond to a question or build evidence of a phenomenon that they've seen, so it's moving to the student doing and the teacher facilitating."

Oregon was one of several states that helped design the new standards, so its educators have been preparing for this change for several years, says Kristi Healy, science teacher at Ashland Middle School.

"This year, for instance, we built water rockets to demonstrate the physics of motion," Healy explains. "The kids did data collection, launched the rockets on an air compressor, and did experiments to maximize the distance and height (of travel)."

As she designs the hands-on parts of her curriculum, Healy sticks to the twin foundations of the new standards.

"First, it's scientific inquiry: How does this work," says Healy. "And then engineering design: In the end, you have to show that you have solved the problem."

The new emphasis on experiments and model building will require new materials. Without any new money from the state, this could end up as another unfunded mandate.

"Every year we have to resupply the engineering design kits," says Bohannon. "We're kind of baby-stepping at this point until we get some direction from the state, and if we get funding."

This new approach also demands a smaller class size, says Kate Kennedy, physics teacher at Ashland High School — which means more teachers and more funding to pay them.

"You want students to develop models or plan and conduct an investigation of their own, which is really what this demands — it's not 'watch the other people in your lab group plan and conduct an investigation,' it's you," Kennedy explains. "You can't really monitor, support and evaluate that kind of work in a class of 30 students."

Designing appropriate tests for the new standards will be challenging.

"Testing that is not filling in the bubbles on a multiple choice test "¦ are things you really need to evaluate in a more robust way," says Kennedy. "It's going to take an investment of time and money, and I'm not sure states are ready to do that."

Schools have more than four years to make the transition to the new Next Generation Science Standards. They will be looking to Salem, where the Department of Education — which must answer the testing and funding questions — has mandated that the new standards be fully implemented by the 2018-19 school year.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org.