Helen Quinn

Twig talks to… Helen Quinn

Theoretical physicist Helen Quinn chaired the National Research Council committee that created A Framework for K–12 Science Education—the foundation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) program. As such, she was instrumental in building the program that focuses on new ways of teaching and learning science, in which students are supported to think like scientists and engineers in investigating natural phenomena and engineering design problems.

Twig Education CEO Catherine Cahn spoke to Helen about how NGSS will change the way that science is taught in elementary school and why this stage in students’ development is key.

Catherine Cahn: How can we inspire a love of science in students at a young age?

Helen Quinn: To encourage students to learn, to want to learn, means you have to find ways of engaging them in activities which they find interesting and rewarding, but are also learning activities. That’s the kind of situation where kids get turned on—not just to becoming scientists, but to becoming learners and to becoming thinkers. That is what we want to see in elementary school science.

CC: When did you first develop an interest in science yourself?

HQ: I was very fortunate to go to an elementary school that was very progressive. It was actually a new school on 50 acres of bushland with only three classrooms, and so we had a huge outdoor area to explore and study. We didn’t call it science, we called it nature study. We went out and figured out what plants grew where and why. We just spent a lot of time exploring and finding out what was going on, and that was just part of the way that school functioned at that time. And it gave me a grounding in being curious and asking questions that has served me in good stead throughout my career as a scientist.

CC: What is your vision of how the Next Generation Science Standards will transform elementary science education?

HQ: Science should be one of the things that makes school fun and interesting for kids and engages kids in wanting to learn. That is done by the right kind of activity, putting the right kind of material in front of the children that will make them curious and make them want to ask questions—and then the support for them to investigate and find the answer to those questions and to think for themselves. In my experience, that experience gets kids not just more interested in learning science but generally more interested in learning.

CC: How will this shift in elementary science benefit students?

HQ: What young students think about is what do they like to do and what is interesting to them. What would they like to read about? What are they interested to find out more about? If they are only exposed to sports as something that’s interesting and fun to do and read about, then they become interested in sports. If they’re exposed to engineering and the design process, and have fun designing things, then they become more interested in “Where can I get more such opportunities?”—and maybe eventually they’ll start thinking about becoming engineers or scientists.

CC: Can you describe how you think that a successful science experience in elementary builds the foundation for success in secondary school in all subjects?

HQ: I think the issue of middle school children being turned off to science is partly an issue of middle school children who’ve been turned off to learning by their elementary school experiences. Learning is a sequential process—everything we learn we build on our prior knowledge, and the richer and deeper our prior knowledge is the more we are ready to learn the next thing. A good elementary school science program is designed to build a base for the kind of science learning that needs to happen in middle school, and the middle school program builds a base for the kind of science learning that’s to go on in secondary school. At each level, you’re revisiting topics but revisiting them at a greater depth. So if you’ve built the base, you can start at a different place and go further with the topic.

CC: How do we encourage people from all backgrounds to consider STEM careers?

HQ: Put it this way—people don’t choose a career they’ve never heard of. Just knowing that there are people that do science rather than that “science is just a bunch of facts that I have to know”—or knowing there are people who design things rather than just thinking things exist because they exist—is really important in order to even begin to think about careers that are different from those of their parents.