Ensure your classroom resources support this new vision for science education.

Like many other K-12 science teachers, I am fired up about the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). They encourage inquiry and -- more important -- require kids to actually do science instead of simply memorize facts. In this new vision for science education, students grapple with open-ended questions and spend time backing up claims with evidence and reasoning. Kids plan the investigations, as opposed to following "cookbook-style" labs. And they gather and summarize information from many sources instead of relying on a single text or on their teachers as the source of all knowledge.

But unfortunately, curricular and tech tools haven't kept up with this major shift in science education. As I dig around for NGSS resources to support teachers in my district, I'm often frustrated by a lack of great stuff. Plus, I encounter many companies claiming to meet the spirit of NGSS who completely miss the mark.

So, how can you ensure your district doesn’t invest a ton of money in a more traditional science curriculum that just sports fancy NGSS labels? Use these four tips to guide your research:

  1. Kids should be doing science.
    Mystery Science is an elementary website that encourages kids to do science using a combination of online tools and in-class experiments. Students explore interesting questions like "Do Plants Eat Dirt?" and solve the mystery themselves by growing seeds without dirt.
  2. Use NGSS verbs.
    When aligning to the NGSS performance expectations, pay attention to the language used. Look for tools that give kids a chance to "analyze," "design," "build," "evaluate," and "use" science content. Curiosity Machine has open-ended design challenges that empower kids to create solutions and modify them based on feedback from science and engineering experts.  Avoid tools with very specific directions telling kids exactly what to do.  
  3. Tasks should involve key NGSS concepts -- not just vocabulary.
    Be cautious of the NGSS alignment provided by a resource's publisher. Some have simply taken tools using the old model of science education and rebranded them with NGSS labels. One fifth-grade NGSS performance expectation asks kids to "develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment." A tech tool meeting this expectation should move beyond labeling organisms. Kids should be able to drag, drop, and create something showing the movement of carbon from the air to living things and back again.
  4. Kids can create their own models.
    This doesn’t mean building a clay model of the layers of the Earth's crust to match a picture in the textbook. Instead, it means looking at seismic data to determine how that model was developed. A great example of this is a teacher-submitted lesson on CK-12: Earth Science that uses an ASPIRE Seismic Wave simulation from the University of Utah. Kids look at the behavior of seismic waves to predict how many layers are inside the Earth.

Successful implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards can help ensure that K-12 students see themselves as scientists capable of taking on our world's challenges. But with the wrong curricular tools, kids might continue to view science as simply a collection of terms to memorize. Take your time when choosing NGSS resources, and carefully pilot them before your district does any major purchasing. Also, look to Common Sense Education for helpful recommendations on the best edtech for your classroom.

Emily P.

Emily is a National Board Certified high school science teacher in Novi, Michigan. She teaches Biology, Genetics, Medical Career Explorations and has previously taught mathematics ranging from Algebra to Calculus. Emily is currently working on aligning her district's K-12 curriculum to the new Next Generation of Science Standards. She is passionate about partnering with community businesses to give kids opportunities to do science and math in meaningful ways. Emily uses her experiences as a classroom teacher and as a parent of two young daughters to inform her reviews for Common Sense Media. She holds two master's degrees -- in educational technology and curriculum & teaching -- and a bachelor's in biology with minors in chemistry and math, all from Michigan State University.