The Reformation of STEM Education in California

The cry for science education reform in American public schools has gotten louder as our students continue to fall behind in world test scores. We can’t produce global leaders and innovators if we’re giving them a seriously lacking science education. To remedy this, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were born. The brain child of 18 experts in varying scientific fields, with input from communities across America, the NGSS provides students with a learning experience catered to critical thinking, and hopes to teach students how to behave like professional scientists.

California adopted this framework, integrated it with its existing science education standards, and began implementing them in 2014. According to the framework, the standards hope that at the end of a 12th grade science education, all students have enough scientific knowledge to engage in public discussion on related issues, be careful consumers of scientific and technological information related to their lives, and have the skills to enter careers of their choice (in STEM or otherwise).

Teachers are still redesigning their classrooms, materials, unit lessons, and teaching styles to fit the new standards; preliminary test have yet to be released to the public. However, I’ve been able to see in a high school classroom how these new standards are changing the way students learn science. The goal is to give students a phenomenon or a scientific problem, and they must use STEM principles to come to a conclusion on their own. The process is engaging and collaborative, and it forces students to think critically about their situations.

I gave a low-quality spectroscope and some tubes of gases to a class of students who generally dislike chemistry, and I asked them to explain the emission spectra of various elements to me The forced interaction with their classmates fills in gaps where a student’s individual knowledge is lacking, and in doing so it brings students out of their shells. Students can’t learn science and engineering just by being talked at four times a week for 50-90 minutes. By engaging them in a topic where they are required to question everything—to struggle amongst themselves, pose questions to one another—to reach their answer, they take ownership and pride in their learning.

You might be thinking, ”STEM isn’t for everyone, so why redesign the system to make it more complicated for students who don’t want to pursue a career in those fields?“ Try to think of a career where critical thinking skills and collaboration aren’t important. It’s hard to find one. The purpose of the new standards is not directly aimed at future STEM majors. The framework makes science more accessible for all students, but developing students’ rational, intelligent thinking and interpersonal skills in a science classroom carries over into any area of interest that they may have. The NGSS framework aims to take those necessary skills and add an appreciation for science to them with the hope that they can use that in a future career and in their lives as citizens.

Recently, California has been hit especially hard with drought, wildfires, flooding, and mudslides. We need a new generation of students eager to step up and take on the challenges that face them in their state and in their country. These are the future leaders, innovators, educators, and residents who will be tasked with improving our state and nation. We have the responsibility to give them the tools to do so, and that begins with a better education system aimed at letting students take ownership of their learning.