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Iowa Science Standards: New questions, new possibilities

girl with butterfliesThis summer, I went to the statewide overview training on the Iowa Science Standards at our local Area Education Agency. I came away from the training with a new understanding of the role science plays in today’s world and the critical importance it holds in its future.

Reading and math are the foundational tools we use to understand science, but the Iowa Science Standards provide an avenue for truly understanding our world in the areas of life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering and technology. These standards embed both the English-language arts (ELA) standards and the math standards, providing authentic practice along with critical thinking and problem solving. ELA and math standards are the tools – science is the big picture!

The Iowa Science Standards training was completely engaging as we worked in teams of three to create a catapult to project a marshmallow four meters across the room. This creative activity helped us integrate the concepts of potential energy and force by constructing a small machine. We worked with a curling simulation and measured weight as it pulled the “stone” to the edge of the table, inspiring us to talk about the forces of friction and gravity. We used the science and engineering practices as we asked questions and defined problems, developed and used models, as well as analyzed and interpreted data. We constructed explanations and designed solutions. Team building, problem-solving, critical thinking – 21st Century skills embedded in the process of discovery through inquiry.

As I worked alongside district teachers representing grades K-5, we all agreed that science is one area that has been “set aside” in our classrooms as we focused on literacy and math instruction. We agreed that part of the resistance to science instruction is a shared feeling that we do not have the confidence to adequately instruct science with our students.

After our three days of training, we realized that it is time to get over whatever fear we may have about science instruction, in part because we were challenged to ask ourselves: Why science? We came to the realization that science encourages us to question the world. It is one subject that will assist us in meeting the problems in an ever-changing world. As we received training on the standards, we began to realize that science instruction is less about what we know and more about how we find it out.

With the Iowa Science Standards, we will see in our classrooms:

  • More integration and less isolation;
  • More math to predict what might occur in an experiment;
  • More teamwork and hands-on activities;
  • More connectivity between different disciplines;
  • More literacy, thinking, writing, and justifying embedded in science instruction as well as more explaining, evaluating, and constructive argument;  and
  • More noise and more mess.

The new Iowa Science Standards are based on the performance objectives found in the Next Generation Science Standards. They incorporate disciplinary core ideas in each of the areas of life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering and technology. They embed scientific and engineering practices along with crosscutting concepts. These crosscutting concepts (that cut across all disciplines) include:

  1. Patterns;
  2. Cause and effect, mechanism and explanation;
  3. Scale, proportion, and quantity;
  4. Systems and system models;
  5. Energy and matter, flows, cycles, and conservation;
  6. Structure and function; and
  7. Stability and change.

There was an excitement in our training that taught us the value of “I wonder” statements. There was a newfound enthusiasm about observations and the sharing process using evidence-based thinking and using evidence to support our claims.

We ended our three days of training with the question, “If our district was at full implementation, what would it look like? What would be happening in classrooms? At the building and district level?”

We began to envision a desired state across our district where there is a strong presence of science instruction in all grade levels as we build a systemic approach to STEM in our district (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). We looked at our current reality and then began envisioning a transitional period that will require action planning. We discussed the positive forces in our district, one force being clearly defined science standards that will provide our students with an opportunity to use critical thinking skills.

Through our professional learning communities this coming school year, we will have team time to plan cooperative learning opportunities for our students. With teachers from each grade level (K-12) having received the three-day science training, we are now ready as a district to move forward with a systemic approach to science instruction. As a group, we admitted there are forces that will inhibit our progress – time constraints, cost of implementation, lack of teacher knowledge and understanding as well as an unwillingness to change as we are forced to give up some of our current curriculum with which we are comfortable as we develop curriculum based on the new science standards for each grade level.

I left the science standards training with a deep respect for the critical role science plays in our world and an enthusiasm for pushing our district forward with the implementation of the Iowa Science Standards.

In addition to the overview workshop I attended, the Iowa Department of Education hosted three Iowa science standards immersion institutes in June. At these institutes, national leaders in science education engaged over 800 Iowa educators in lessons that are aligned to the standards and challenged participants to have focus instruction on students using the three dimensions of the standards to explain scientific phenomena. As we enter the second year of science standards implementation, I am excited to know the AEAs across the state will be supporting teachers and districts by conducting follow-up workshops focused on using phenomenon-based instruction and designing/locating aligned resources, lessons, and units.

In the words of Albert Einstein, “To raise new questions, a new possibility, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” What an exciting time for both our students and staff as they explore the wonderful world of science!


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