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Why Do Schools Need New Science Standards?

Northwestern’s Brian Reiser explains the new and improved approach to science class

EVANSTON, Ill.  --- Children are natural little scientists, questioning everything from why the sky is blue to how an iPod plays almost as soon as they can talk.

But the excitement of investigating, debating and figuring out how things work is often missing in American science classrooms, something new national standards are trying to change.

Brian Reiser, a learning sciences professor at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy is a contributing author of the framework used to develop the new standards, called The Next Generation Science Standards. He explains why they are so critical for children – and for a functioning democracy.

Q: Why have the new standards been controversial in some parts of the country?

A: The standards include scientific ideas about evolution or the scientific consensus about climate change. They describe what we know about the world through science, such as how climate works and what greenhouse gasses do in the atmosphere, and how we figure these ideas out and refine them over time. Though science can inform us on an issue, it doesn’t tell us what we as a society should do about it. That becomes an ethical or social question, not a scientific one. People arguing against science standards often misunderstand that. Fortunately, in Illinois, the new standards have not been very controversial.

Q:  Why did we need new standards?

A: National standards were developed for science in the 1990s. In the last 20 years we’ve learned that in the U.S. we try to teach too many topics in too little depth, focusing too much on facts, definitions and vocabulary rather than the deeper explanatory ideas. This is particularly true compared to countries that outperform the U.S. in math and science.

Q: How do the new standards change this?

A: Rather than just learning about what others already know, students will be involved in the scientific process, which leads to deeper science learning. The process of “figuring out” is powerful and manages to hook more kids on what is interesting and fun about science instead of turning them away from science, as often happens in typical classrooms today.

Q: Why is science so important?

A: To participate in our democracy and to be competitive in the 21st century, people need a better understanding of science. We live in a fast changing world. Medicine, technology, transportation -- all aspects of our daily lives -- are changing quickly, informed by advances in science and engineering.  These new technologies raise important social issues, including cybersecurity, environmental issues, stem cells, cloning and genetically modified foods. To understand and make personal decisions about these issues, we need to understand how science makes progress and how science resolves questions with evidence, debate, and consensus.

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