The urgency for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education was heralded by a workforce imperative and the need to supply an increasing demand for STEM jobs. This was followed by the introduction of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The NGSS was introduced at a time when concerns over science education were running high – the PISA scores had come out, painting a bleak picture of today’s students’ scientific understanding. This, set against the background of the urgent requirement for STEM professionals, brought into sharp focus the need for an overhaul in science education. But what does this mean for teachers? Is the NGSS just one more tick on an ever-growing checklist of educational and pedagogical demands? And where does it stand in relation to STEM?
Schools that use integrated STEM instruction focus on the integration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics at every level of school education, even including pre-kindergarten; NGSS, set firmly on the foundation of three-dimensional learning – scientific and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts and disciplinary core ideas – looks at how best this instruction can be integrated and taught in the classroom. Teachers well-versed in these three dimensions might wonder about the concept of the NGSS science and engineering practices. There is clearly an overlap between the current instructions in place for teaching STEM subjects and the NGSS standards; does this mean that the NGSS standards are simply a loosely disguised update of the STEM standards? Not quite. NGSS and STEM both address the same urgency within science and science education, they just do it in slightly different ways. Think of integrated STEM instruction as a road map and the NGSS as a GPS. Both direct you to the same destination, except while one gives a general route, the other provides a more guided approach to finding your way, with the option of many alternate routes – whatever suits you most. The overlap only gives teachers more room for experimentation with lesson plans and curriculum activities.
The first step to understanding the NGSS-STEM correlation is to understand how each practice works. STEM education focuses primarily on fulfilling the STEM workforce demands. This means identifying and selecting students who show aptitude or interest in science, technology, engineering or maths, and helping them develop the necessary skills needed in these fields. A good STEM education focuses on problem-solving: identifying the source of a problem, exploring alternate solutions, and then designing and constructing the solution. It’s real-world science as real-world scientists experience it, designed to allow students to experience the satisfaction that comes with the successful implementation of a solution. NGSS takes a broader perspective, focusing on scientific inquiry, developing scientific curiosity and finding solutions. It aims to make science accessible and enjoyable for everyone. The NGSS learning outcomes were designed not just to prepare future scientists and engineers, but also to instill a scientific way of thinking in each and every citizen. It originates from the belief that a good science education provides the knowledge that allows us to think through the impact of our actions in different ways, providing every citizen with the knowledge and ability to affect the future in ways that are constructive and positive. A crucial part of accomplishing this objective is to simplify science education and make it accessible to everyone. One way of achieving this is to contextualize science as it is taught in the classroom within events and phenomena that happen in the real world, thus forging a strong understanding of the science. Children are encouraged to observe the real world around them, ask questions, draw possible conclusions and gather evidence to support or refute their theory. STEM instruction places priority on identifying and nurturing abilities addressed by science education; NGSS focuses on enhancing scientific literacy amongst all students.
The overlap between STEM and NGSS depends on how the two are implemented. While NGSS uses a broader approach to scientific education, many of the approaches can also include certain mandates of STEM education. Where it differs slightly is in focus: STEM education sets its sights firmly on developing solutions for the manmade world, while NGSS focuses on laws and processes of the natural world, how these laws affect the human world and how humanity affects Earth. For example, in studying insects and ants, NGSS would include an examination of their life processes and habitation, and their place in the ecological cycle, whereas STEM education, would concentrate on studying the ants’ behavior to attempt to replicate this knowledge to be used in medical or engineering practices. In order to understand the various maladies and ailments that can affect the human world, a study of how other species deal with them can be hugely helpful – for example, investigating how certain species of ants use bacteria to ward off harmful microbes, a method now being used by doctors to help humans overcome antibiotic resistance. Here, STEM education would need to learn from NGSS practices, which focus on the natural processes and how they interact with the human world.
Overall, STEM and NGSS complement one another with certain intersecting aims. They open up possibilities both for teachers to experiment with how science is taught and students to better explore the topics and the world around them. What sets them apart is inclusivity. While STEM isn’t very inclusive, NGSS broadens the parameters of scientific knowledge to everyone in order to build valuable connections with knowledge and responsibility, the real world and the human world, and ultimately with conserving the natural world and human progress.