How Do We Keep Students Engaged in Learning Science?


Children come to school with curiosity and questions about their world. As educators, we need to keep children curious and excited throughout their schooling—encouraging them to explore their environment, ask questions, make predictions about what they think will happen and why, and test those predictions. Toward this end, states have collaborated to develop a completely new set of K-12 science education standards, called the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

While the NGSS expressly do not dictate to teachers exactly what or how they have to teach or how to assess students’ progress, they provide an opportunity for us to revamp learning and assessment to foster students’ natural curiosity. Prior generations of standards separated what specific content students should know from skills they should be able to perform, leaving the integration of these implicit. In contrast, the NGSS emphasize using scientific practices to develop and apply scientific ideas and paying closer attention to how we build understanding within and across the disciplines of science over time. Only by involving learners in doing science can we connect to their intrinsic interests in how the world works.

With respect to assessment, perfect examples of how to measure this kind of highly contextualized, knowledge-in-use learning don’t exist yet. Most current tests emphasize factual knowledge or require that students participate in “inquiry” without deeply incorporating disciplinary core ideas or requiring students to connect relevant ideas across the science disciplines. We need new models for science assessment that promote engagement in the disciplinary practices of science, and this is what my team at SRI Education is aiming to do.

We are excited to participate in one of the first projects to take on developing the assessments that measure three-dimensional learning. SRI’s Center for Technology in Learning, together with the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago, CREATE for STEM Institute at Michigan State University, and the Concord Consortium, were recently awarded a $2.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a new system of classroom assessments that teachers can use formatively to make instructional decisions.

We are focusing on middle school physical science as a starting point and as a proof of concept to design an approach and a model of what three-dimensional assessments can look like for the NGSS. Our work is a co-design effort: we have included experts in assessment design, science, science education and statistics (to see that we have valid and reliable information about students). We have also notably included teachers as co-designers to help ground what we do and make sure it will work for their students.

In contrast to benchmark tests given maybe quarterly, we are talking about developing assessments and practices that are more an ongoing part of the learning process. We hope our assessments give teachers the tools and resources they need to adapt and adjust their instruction. Thus, tasks will be technology-based to provide teachers more rapid feedback about their students’ thinking. We are aiming to include visualizations that, for example, allow students to construct models of interactions among atoms to explain how mass is conserved in a chemical reaction. We also will be thinking about how we can create tasks that connect to and build from students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds. In doing so, our aim is that these assessments will provide the context for rich dialogue and conversation among teachers and students and that makes science relevant for students.

More soon as we continue on our venture in assessment design!

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