Vicksburg Education Association President Liz Ratashak has been teaching secondary science for 25 years. Now so much is changing about how her subject is expected to be taught – and the veteran educator couldn’t be happier.
“This is the kind of guidance I’ve been hoping for my whole career,” Ratashak said.
The new Michigan K-12 Science Standards, based on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), call for a “three-dimensional” approach to K-12 science instruction that marries content and process.
Those three dimensions weave together ideas specific to each scientific discipline (life, physical, earth and space, engineering and technology), with scientific and engineering practices (investigation into answers and designing solutions), and big concepts that are common to all areas of science (cause and effect, stability and change, etc.).
Ratashak does not downplay the magnitude of the shift in organization and practice that schools and science teachers will need to make in transitioning to the new standards. “It’s a big philosophical change, from a focus on content to how science is done.”
That’s the reason behind a new MEA network of science teachers that includes Ratashak and 14 others connected with a Michigan State University project called Carbon TIME. Funded with a National Science Foundation grant, the project has developed six teaching units that the MEA network teachers have agreed to field test.
“We believe that teachers are more able to make meaningful changes to their teaching practices when they’re supported through networks of colleagues,” said Christie Morrison Thomas, the MEA Carbon TIME network leader and an MSU graduate student in curriculum, instruction, and teacher education.
Developed over the last seven years for use in middle and high school science classes, the six Carbon TIME units address a big concept that cuts across multiple fields of science and engineering: Transformations in Matter and Energy. They can be found online at CarbonTIME.bscs.org.
The MEA Network teachers have agreed to complete professional development, offer feedback after teaching three of the six Carbon TIME units, and act as a resource for others in their school, district, and region. A second cohort of MEA network teachers will begin working with the project next spring.
“This shift in how we approach science teaching and learning is wonderful and really positive, but it’s huge and teachers may feel unprepared,” Thomas said.
Developed by states over several years, the NGSS grew out of frustration that science standards and curricula nationwide focused too narrowly on facts and recall, which led to rote memorization instead of exploration, discovery, and problem-solving – the cornerstones of science and engineering.
This is the first year of implementation in Michigan, a time to learn what’s changing, try out new approaches, and replace some units here and there, Ratashak said. “My best advice is to bite off a chunk that seems manageable, and manage it. Then bite off another chunk, and manage that.”
School districts are in different stages of preparation around the state. Some have started training teachers in the new standards, while others haven’t. Some science departments are studying recommended course realignments (online at NextGenScience.org under “Middle and High School Course mapping”), and others don’t know it’s out there.
Educators should be asking for professional development and demanding more if they’re struggling or the training they receive isn’t adequate, Ratashak said. The new standards are scheduled to be assessed for the first time in 2020, but the assessment is still under development.
“Until then, I say ‘Do the best you can,’” Ratashak said. “Get some training, and get some more, and eventually it will start to sink in. Try things. Don’t worry about shifting everything all at once.”
Because the standards have been developed over years, some good resources are available online to help teachers understand the changes and take the first tentative steps in a four-year process of implementation.
NextGenScience.org offers monthly newsletters, a guide to implementation, course flowcharts, sample classroom tasks, and more. MSU’s Carbon TIME units at CarbonTIME.bscs.org cover a chunk of the middle and high school standards – about half of a traditional year of biology at the high school level. At TeachingChannel.org/NGSS, videos and other materials are available from teachers working to implement the standards.
Mostly what science teachers need is something that’s always in short supply: time.
“This is still so new,” Thomas said. “What teachers need from administrators is professional development and also a commitment of time to get together, talk, and work with colleagues.”
Meanwhile, teachers can reach out to Ratashak (email@example.com) or Thomas (firstname.lastname@example.org) for guidance in how to tap into training and networking resources. Ratashak says, “I’m interested in helping anybody along if they want help.”