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.

Helen Quinn talks to Twig about NGSS

As many of you will know, America is about to undergo a sea change in science education and Helen is firmly at the heart of that transformation. She chaired the National Academy of Sciences committee that created the Framework for K-12 Science Education – the foundation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The NGSS program is a new way of teaching and learning science where students are supported to think like scientists and ‘figure things out’ rather than memorize key facts.

 

As you can imagine, our conversation with Helen dived straight into the Next Generation Science Standards; specifically, why she thinks the introduction of these new standards is needed so urgently, and her vision for what she hopes they will achieve.

 

“[Science] gives us the knowledge that allows us to think through the impact of our actions in a different way, and I want every citizen to have that knowledge and be able to affect the future in ways that are constructive and positive.”

 

So if you’re looking for some inspiration or just a reminder of why you work in education for a living, just click the link and watch the interview with Helen. We hope you’ll leave with a sense of reinforced purpose. We know we did.

 

View a clip from the interview here:

chalk drawing from children on the asphalt

How NGSS and STEM fit together

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.