What's the Big Deal with Next Generation Science Standards?

For folks in the science education world, yesterday was a BIG day – the day the final draft of the new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were released. Think of it like Harry Potter Book 8 for the science world.

What are NGSS?

NGSS is a new set of K-12 science standards “for states, by states.” That means they’re not national, but hopefully will be adopted as science standards by most states. They were created in part by 26 lead states and a total of 40 states have indicated they are considering adopting NGSS either in full or in part.

What’s the big deal?

Well, it’s true – NGSS are kind of a big deal. The last standards came out in 1996, but were not adopted by many states and a lot has changed since then, including many developments in climate science. And, yes, climate science IS in the standards, at all levels from elementary school through to high school, making ACE along with many others very excited about their debut.

But it’s not climate science alone that has us excited about NGSS. The field of Earth and Space Science (including topics like environmental science, geosciences, planetary sciences, hydrology, ocean and atmospheric science and others) is given equal footing as one of three main dimensions of the standards along with Life Science and Physical Science. Hooray! Earth and environmental science courses now stand a chance of being given equal recognition as a rigorous science discipline.

That’s far from the only big change in these new standards. A core component of NGSS has been the inclusion of the practices of science as well as the content. As NGSS itself said, “Coupling practice with content gives the learning context, whereas practices alone are activities, and content alone is memorization.” The goal is for students to understand the process of science and not just specific factoids. Crosscutting concepts like cause and effect or stability and change were also highlighted throughout the standards and engineering and technology were interwoven into the standards as well.

Any downsides?

As with any endeavor this all-encompassing, there have to be drawbacks. Based on feedback from reviewers in the 2nd draft comment period, a full one-third of the total standards (known specifically as performance expectations or PE’s) were removed. Reviewers thought there was just too much content expected in a given school year. Most students will probably celebrate this shortening of the standards, but the downside is that several standards, including some of those relating to climate science, were removed.

The upside to this tradeoff, however, is the added depth and the increased instruction time that can be given to the remaining standards. The basic science of climate change – the greenhouse effect and human contribution to it through burning fossil fuels – is still included in NGSS at the elementary and middle school levels, with high school content extending to practices such as analyzing climate model results and modeling flows of energy through the climate system.

What’s next?

The release of NGSS is just the first step in a long path of implementation. Each state will decide whether or not to adopt NGSS in part or in full. Teacher professional development will be a hefty component of ensuring the success of these standards – new topics such as engineering, technology and earth science make these standards a far cry from the current status quo of biology, chemistry and physics. And assessment of student performance won’t begin until the 2015-16 school year.

NGSS represents an enormous challenge for science education in our country and a huge opportunity for all students to foster a greater understanding and love of the knowledge and practices of science. This is especially true for climate science, a topic so relevant to students’ lives and futures that they have a right to know about it. NGSS provides that opportunity. ACE is looking forward to supporting our students, teachers, schools and districts across the country as they rise to the challenge of bringing the Next Generation Science Standards to life.

ACE makes a splash in the NGSS news.

Rebecca Anderson

Rebecca Anderson is ACE’s Director of Education. She came to ACE in its inception in 2008. Rebecca develops ACE's science content, manages the online climate education resource Our Climate Our Future, oversees the ACE Teacher Network, and works with schools in the Reno-Tahoe area. Prior to ACE, she did paleoclimate research in the Arctic and Antarctica.