Science became a formal focus of the curriculum in the late 19th century to address changing societal contexts and subsequent concerns, such as communicable diseases in densely populated areas and manufacturing changes spurred by the Industrial Revolution (DeBoer, 1991). Ever since that time, the goals and focus of K–12 science education have periodically shifted in response to changing societal context. Through these changes, the laboratory has remained a constant feature of science education and has traditionally been used to develop students’ inductive reasoning, provide experiences for conducting observations of nature and quantitative laboratory work, and facilitate students’ understanding of the nature of scientific investigations and the generation of scientific knowledge (DeBoer, 1991).
As we discuss in this chapter, recent developments in K–12 science education represent a significant departure from previous reform efforts. These current efforts draw extensively on research from the learning sciences, cognitive psychology, and education as they aim to convey the nature of science and engineering about how scientists and engineers think and work. Science investigation and engineering design as the central approach for teaching and learning science and engineering in middle and high schools is compatible with both the current reform efforts and what is known about how students learn. When investigations are at the core of science instruction, all students engage in the three-dimensional learning described in A Framework for K–12 Science Education (hereafter referred to as the Framework; National Research Council, 2012) in which they engage with scientific and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas. Foregrounding investigation and design is in keeping with the
current efforts that intentionally focus on all students regardless of their race,1 ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, level of English proficiency, or disability status.
Although this more research-based and inclusive approach to science education represents a marked shift from the past and a hopeful direction for the future, the structures and approaches of earlier eras that focused on preparing the future technical workforce and concentrated more on educating students who were socioeconomically advantaged (from historical/cultural perspectives, this would mean white) and/or identified as gifted still constrain today’s students and today’s reform. In this chapter, we provide an overview of some features of science education and science education reform, the greater focus over time on making that education more equitable, and the recent shifts toward standards based on the Framework (National Research Council, 2012) that frame learning around engaging students in the three dimensions of science and engineering performance. We also identify some implications for equity and opportunities to promote more inclusiveness in science and engineering education.
There are several traditional, prevalent, and often unquestioned views about education in the United States: Individuals can succeed if they work hard and the provision of a free public education is a great equalizer, with the vehicle for upward mobility and betterment chief among them (Giroux, 1989). A critical examination of U.S. education, both historically and con-temporarily, shows these perceptions about the utility of public education are realities for some but are unattainable aspirations for many. For example, many jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)2 fields require postsecondary (or specialized) education. STEM jobs are the fastest growing sector in the United States, and the national average wage for all STEM occupations was $87,570 in 2015, nearly double that for non-STEM occupations (Fayer, Lacey, and Watson, 2017). Consequently,
1 Throughout the report, the committee attempts to use terms for racial and ethnic groups that reflect the terms used in the literature, reference, or study being discussed. For example, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) uses white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Hispanic to describe specific population groups so when we discuss NAEP data we also use those terms. The committee recognizes that there are notable disparities within specific population groups (e.g., Asian and Pacific Islanders) and that the use of these groups and terms raises many issues that extend beyond the scope of our work.
2 This report focuses on science and engineering, in keeping with the Framework and the NGSS. However, other components of STEM such as mathematics and computer science are, of course, relevant to carrying out investigation and design.
securing a STEM job could contribute greatly to upward mobility and betterment. However, the reality of who has access to high-quality education in order to prepare and compete for these jobs substantially differs from the prevalent belief that these job opportunities are equally available to all.
The existing societal contexts at the time that many far-reaching decisions were made included a society that was hierarchically structured by factors, such as socioeconomics, race, gender, and language. This impacted the design of education in the United States in ways that meant not all students were served equally (Webb, 2006). It was not the intent to include everyone; subsequently, the education system excluded and marginalized populations. Although historians of science education often describe reforms with an emphasis on their content, these reforms did not exist in isolation from the society in which they occurred. The inequalities, inequities, exclusion, and marginalization of populations that existed in society, and in education generally, also permeated science education: this was operative then and it is operative now. The inequalities and inequities, intentionally produced throughout the history of U.S. education, endure and are ever-present challenges for realizing the Framework-guided vision for science education in the 21st century for which inclusion is a goal. A critical view of the current state of affairs indicates science education is not inclusive and more work remains, but a brief review of history shows progress.
Inclusiveness and Equity over Time
An examination of the history of science education in the United States shows that although inequality and inequity have been hallmarks of education and subsequently science education throughout U.S. history, they went unacknowledged in science education reform until the mid-1980s. Early formal science instruction was for whites only.3 In the mid to late 1800s, education was initially available and accessible only to the wealthy, but later expanded to include the poor for the purposes of socialization and vocational skill development. For a brief period during Reconstruction, after the Civil War to 1877, the education system included blacks, but what blacks could study and resources to fund those schools were severely limited (DuBois and Dill, 1911; Lee and Slaughter-Defoe, 1995). Special schools designed to assimilate Native Americans also existed during this time (Webb, 2006).
In a similar vein, the recommended directives for science curriculum and instruction from the early to mid-1900s—and efforts to implement
3Tolley (1996, 2014) contended that educators in the late 18th and early 19th centuries deemed science as an appropriate study for girls. Educators and others viewed the study of science as preparing girls for their social roles of mother, wife, and teacher; this was in lieu of the study of classics, which was prominently valued and reserved for boys.
those directives—were targeted at those who were recognized as citizens and entitled to the full rights of citizenship, to the exclusion of all others. Groups viewed as incapable of benefitting from educational advances were relegated to separate schools and less ambitious educational goals. For example, blacks were educated mostly in schools established by northern missionary organizations, foundations, and formerly enslaved African Americans. The manual training model, similar to present-day vocational tracks, dominated their education during this time (Anderson, 1978, 1990; Lee and Slaughter-Defoe, 1995; Webb, 2006). Government-sponsored boarding schools and on-reservation day schools for Native Americans sought to assimilate Native Americans into white culture (Webb, 2006). In these schools, academic subjects and religious instruction constituted half of the day and vocational and agricultural training comprised the other half (Hale, 2002). Laws and policies allowed and buttressed such unequal and inequitable education until the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 ushered in a new era.
Although the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 facilitated the desegregation of schools, racial segregation of schools continued into the 1970s, with whites receiving an education of higher quality (Orfield and Lee, 2004). Because of differences in access to resources and quality instruction, blacks and Hispanics were among the groups who did not enjoy the full measure of positive results from science curriculum reforms in the 1970s. Only in the 1980s, with the emergence of Science for All Americans (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989), was the inclusive goal of “science for all” made explicit; however, as we discuss below under “Inclusiveness and Equity over Time,” this goal has not yet become reality.
Many significant and historic events have influenced science education. The imprint of the emphases and efforts in more recent times are readily evident in present-day science education. These events include the Cold War, launching of Sputnik, standards-based reform movement, and federal policy such as the No Child Left Behind Act. Even though the content of these reforms are featured, it is important to note these events and their impact on science education did not significantly ameliorate the seemingly intractable exclusion, inequality, and inequity related to certain populations. The inequities and inequalities persisted throughout changes and reforms, impacting the parents and grandparents of today’s middle and high school students.
In 1946, President Truman created the President’s Scientific Research Board (DeBoer, 1991). Declaring science as paramount to the military strength and economic prosperity of the nation, the board advanced recommendations to remedy personnel shortages in the sciences at all levels of education with college/university a major priority, promote high-quality
precollege science programs that would foster an early interest in science and increase the pool of potential scientists, and develop an appreciation and understanding of science among the general populace. These recommendations gave rise to a science curriculum that most closely resembles today’s structure of general science courses in the disciplines with requirements including 1 year of general physical science, 1 year of general biology, and 1 year of general science for all, and 3 years of specialized study for students with an aptitude in science (DeBoer, 1991).
Curricula developed by scientists and science education faculty initially featured the content areas of physics, biology, and chemistry demarcated in the previous era’s formalization of science curriculum. They included laboratory experiments and student laboratory guides, with the goal of using the laboratory to facilitate student understanding about the nature of scientific investigations and the generation of scientific knowledge. Later, the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded other curriculum projects in earth science, engineering, physical sciences, and elementary science; these projects followed the logic of the earlier curriculum efforts.
The influence of this science education curriculum reform movement continued into the 1970s, when the discourse in science education shifted from understanding the structures and principles of the scientific disciplines to developing scientific literacy. Scientific literacy gained prominence when the National Science Teachers Association (1971) declared it to be the most important goal of science education. Scientific literacy involved people’s uses of science—its content, processes, and related values—to make everyday decisions as they interacted with the world around them and with others in the world.
Science Education and Investigations in the Era of Standards-Based Reform4
The standards-based reform movement arose from the report A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). During this era, several national science education reform documents identified broad goals for science education that were eventually reflected in many state curricula as subject area learning standards. These documents include Science for All Americans (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989) and Benchmarks for Science Literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 1993) from Project 2061 of AAAS, and the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996).
Although these documents differ in their scope and focus, they all emphasize the content knowledge and skills necessary for developing a
scientifically literate society. Science for All Americans, for example, advocated the importance of scientific literacy for all U.S. high school students, to increase their awareness and understanding of science and the natural world and to develop their ability to think scientifically (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989). Four years later, the AAAS published Benchmarks for Science Literacy, which identified expected competencies at each school grade level in each of the earlier report’s 10 areas of scientific literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993).
The NRC’s National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) shared this focus on science literacy for all and emphasized the underpinnings of cognitive science and how students learn (Forman and Cazden, 1985; Frederiksen, 1984). The NRC proposed national science standards for high school students designed to help all students develop (1) abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry and (2) understandings about scientific inquiry (National Research Council, 1996, p. 173). In the standards, the NRC suggested a new approach to laboratories that went beyond simply engaging students in experiments. It explicitly recognized that laboratory investigations should be learning experiences, stating that high school students must “actively participate in scientific investigations, and . . . use the cognitive and manipulative skills associated with the formulation of scientific explanations” (National Research Council, 1996, p. 173). The standards presaged the practices of science by emphasizing the need for students to use evidence, apply logic, and construct scientific arguments and explanations for observations made during investigations.
Alongside the goal of scientific literacy for all, a secondary goal for science education emerged in the early 2000s of preparing the future scientific and technical workforce. In 2004, the National Science Board called for improvements in science education that would increase the number of U.S. citizens who become scientists and engineers (National Science Foundation, 2004). At the same time, there was a growing awareness that secure, well-paying jobs that did not require postsecondary education nonetheless required abilities that may be developed through scientific investigations. These included the ability to use inductive and deductive reasoning to arrive at valid conclusions, distinguish among facts and opinions, identify false premises in an argument, and use mathematics to solve problems (American Diploma Project, 2004).
In 2001, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was reauthorized as the No Child Left Behind Act. This legislation increased the national focus on accountability and placed a heavy emphasis on academic performance in core subjects such as mathematics and English language arts. It also mandated that test scores be disaggregated so that achievement disparities among racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups would
be visible to stakeholders. To satisfy the requirements of No Child Left Behind, many states used achievement scores in relation to benchmarks of adequate yearly progress to categorize schools and publicized the classifications. An unintended consequence of the emphasis on reading and mathematics scores was that science was largely squeezed out of the curriculum, especially in the elementary grades (National Research Council, 2011). Critics of No Child Left Behind also argue that curricula and instruction driven by standardized testing did little to advance science as inquiry, the science education envisioned in the National Science Education Standards (Anderson, 2012).
As discussed in Chapter 1, the Framework (National Research Council, 2012) has dramatically influenced the current thinking about science teaching and learning. It differs from previous reform efforts by bringing the science practices into the heart of the discussion, not presenting them as a separate goal, and by including engineering practices as part of the conversation. The Framework’s three-dimensional learning moves away from a presentation of discrete facts in different disciplines and “toward a coherent set of ideas that can provide a foundation for further thought and exploration in the discipline” (Passmore, 2014).
This integrative approach signifies the importance of emphasizing the contexts internal (what occurs inside the learner’s mind) and external (varied and layered contexts that impact learning and learners) to the learner that facilitate learning and the application of that knowledge. Learning is seen as a progressive process in which learners equipped with existing knowledge and myriad abilities from their interactions with the social and physical world refine and develop more in-depth and sophisticated understandings about and competencies around phenomena over time as they continue to make sense of phenomena or solve new problems. This includes learning that takes place as part of a community: that is, the collective learning in classrooms that accompany the individual learning (Bereiter and Scardamalia, 2014). An important goal is to guide knowledge toward a more scientifically based and coherent view of the sciences and engineering, as well as of the ways in which they are pursued and how their results can be used.
The Framework served as the basis for the state-developed Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which set expectations for what students should know and be able to do (NGSS Lead States, 2013). As of 2018, 19 states, along with the District of Columbia, have adopted the NGSS. Many other states have adopted their own new standards based on the
Framework. In this report, we refer to “science standards” as science standards consistent with the Framework, and we direct our advice to states, districts, and schools seeking to implement Framework-aligned standards. We do so because the research on learning that underpins the original 2006 America’s Lab Report and the 2012 Framework, as well as in the updated How People Learn II (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018), provides evidence that the new direction for science education holds the best promise for more effective and equitable science and engineering education.
Investigation and Three-Dimensional Learning
As described in Chapter 1, the Framework emphasizes that learning science and engineering involves fostering three kinds of scientific knowledge and skills at the same time: scientific content (core ideas and crosscutting concepts) and the practices needed to engage in science investigation and engineering design. Classroom instruction consistent with the Framework engages students in investigation as a strategy for developing students’ knowledge and skills to make sense of natural phenomena and understand engineered solutions to human problems beyond the classroom. During science investigations, the learner’s internal processes, learning contexts, and task engagement converge to foster practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas into science performances for attaining the major goal of science education articulated in the Framework—for all learners to use knowledge in preparation for their individual lives and for their roles as citizens in this technology-rich and scientifically complex world.
This instructional stance aligns with and extends findings from Chapter 3 of the 2006 America’s Lab Report, which defines “Integrated Instructional Units” as those that engage students in doing science investigations or other “hands-on” science activity that are integrated into the content learning (National Research Council, 2006). A review of research for the 2006 report showed that these “Integrated Instructional Units” are more beneficial for student learning and for student interest in science than the “Typical Laboratory Experience” in science instruction, where lab work consists mostly of following predefined procedures and is a separate activity from the remainder of the science teaching sequence.
The 2006 report and related National Research Council studies on science learning—Taking Science to School (2007); the Framework (2012); and Learning Science in Informal Environments (2009)—are supported by a growing body of evidence that engaging students in science performances is more effective than simply memorizing and engaging in activities to demonstrate accepted science theories and a description of “the scientific method,” along with pre-planned laboratory exercises (Furtak et al., 2012;
Penuel et al., 2015; Songer, Kelcey, and Gotwals, 2009; Weiss et al., 2003). In line with the theories of learning discussed in Chapter 3 of this report, interacting with real-world phenomena may enable instructional choices that facilitate students making connections among new concepts (Carey, 1986; Glaser, 1984) and prior knowledge, foster episodic linkages with lived and vicarious experiences, relate abstractions to concrete objects and experiences (Fyfe et al., 2014; Moreno, Ozogul, and Reisslein, 2011; Stice, 1987), promote the transfer of concept understanding to new situations (Gobert and Buckley, 2000; Schwartz and Martin, 2004), and cultivate actions and perceptions that align with the goals of science education.
Operating from an initial premise of context and content as conjoined, science investigations can leverage students’ familiar contexts in promoting and achieving three-dimensional learning for all learners, regardless of the learners’ demography or prior experiences with science (Krajcik and Shin, 2014). Research has shown that context familiarity, particularly as it relates to culture, activates prior knowledge and thus enhances comprehension. For example, a recent study conducted by Song and Bruning (2016) on climate change showed that when American and Korean students were given passages couching global warming in different cultural contexts, learners recalled and elaborated more from their respective native cultural contexts (American and Korean). The familiar context activates schemata, which is an elaborate web of connected concepts (Freebody and Anderson, 1983; Pritchard, 1990; Reynolds et al., 1981). As discussed in Chapter 3, because learners have a limited amount of novel information that they can hold onto, the activated schemata can lessen cognitive load.
Science investigation and engineering design offer a promising vehicle for anchoring student learning in meaningful contexts. Interacting with real-word phenomena allows instructional choices that better connect to students’ lives, experiences, and cultural backgrounds than science instruction that is focused on discrete facts organized by discipline. Learners can apply their own assets and experiences to cognitively challenging tasks. When students problematize data, measurement, and observation obtained during an investigation they get a more accurate representation of how science and engineering are done in the real world, instead of using standard canned activities where students all receive the same materials and always arrive at the right answer (Duschl and Bybee, 2014). The presence of a productive struggle as a part of doing science helps keep learners from leaving school with a naïve notion that obtaining results from investigations and developing scientific knowledge are straightforward and nonproblematic. Student engagement in deciding, developing, and documenting lead students to acquire conceptual and epistemic knowledge and help them to attain problematic images of the nature of science. The Framework (National Research Council, 2012) argues that understanding of how
science functions requires a synthesis of content, procedural, and epistemic knowledge. Epistemic knowledge is fostered in a classroom through critiques and arguments about which ideas are worth pursuing further and are values intrinsic to learning science.
In such environments, science ideas emerge as needed to solve problems or make sense of phenomena. Investigations also provide opportunities for inclusion and support of language learners by engaging students in experiences of realistic classroom discourse (Lee, Quinn, and Valdés, 2013). In these ways, investigation also provides opportunity for meaningful learning of science to be enjoyable and memorable for all students and, ideally, to stimulate their longer-term interest and engagement.
The Framework’s Influence on Our Update of America’s Lab Report
As discussed in Chapter 1, several aspects of Framework-aligned standards represent notable differences from the context in which the 2006 report was written and have implications for the conceptualization of investigation and its role in the curriculum. First, the Framework called for the inclusion of engineering as one of the core disciplines to reflect the importance of understanding the human-built world and to recognize the value of better integrating the teaching and learning of STEM disciplines (p. 8). Framework-aligned standards include the engagement of students in engineering design projects to produce solutions to actual societal problems as well as science investigations to support students in developing explanations of real-world phenomena.
Second, the Framework and other studies have concluded (partly on the basis of the 2006 report) that the idea of the “science lab” should be generalized to include a broader concept of investigation, which refers to all aspects of engaging in the scientific and engineering practices, whether in the laboratory or outside of it. Thus, in this report, instead of using the term “laboratory,” we use “investigation” to describe both the three-dimensional student science and engineering performances and the central focus of what students are doing in science classrooms to learn. While some aspect of investigation in K–12 education may include doing an experiment in a traditional science lab, investigation consistent with the Framework includes various ways that students can obtain data and information to make sense of phenomena. The emphasis is on carrying out the full suite of science or engineering practices, calling on the crosscutting concepts as tools for problem solving and applying one’s developing understanding of the disciplinary core ideas in order to develop models and explanations of phenomena and the systems in which they occur, or to engineer designs that solve a meaningful problem. Through this work, students are developing the capacity to incorporate the science and engineering ideas, concepts, and
practices that they are learning into their everyday thinking and problem solving, and to communicate these results to others.
Third, as noted, Framework-aligned standards assume that a progression in science learning and student growth through middle and high school is fostered through the learning that occurs in elementary science (National Research Council, 2007). As implementation of Framework-aligned standards matures, students will enter middle school with some basic skill in using all of the science and engineering practices (NGSS Lead States, 2013, App. F), some facility in applying crosscutting concepts, and some fundamental understandings of all the disciplinary core ideas. By the time they reach high school, students will be expected to design and carry out increasingly sophisticated investigations, in which they “identify questions to be researched . . . decide what data are to be gathered, what variables should be controlled, what tools or instruments are needed to gather and record data in an appropriate format, and eventually to consider how to incorporate measurement error in analyzing data” (National Research Council, 2012, p. 61). These expectations and the K–12 learning progression influenced the decision to add middle school investigations to this update of the 2006 America’s Lab Report. While this report does not address elementary students, it also is important to note that successful efforts to improve science and engineering education must begin before students enter middle school so that they are prepared to engage in science investigation and engineering design in the manner described here.
Current Views of Investigation
The context of this study in 2018 is significantly different from that of the 2006 America’s Lab Report. At the time of the original report, the research base and understanding of how students learn was strong, but not widely used as the basis for science instruction. The effects of the accountability movement on the science curriculum and focus of instruction were just beginning to be felt. Demographics in the United States were shifting, and No Child Left Behind was prompting conversations about the performance of different student groups and the need for educational equity. In 2018, our committee is comfortable making recommendations for science and engineering learning that build on the robust literature on how students learn and with making a more explicit acknowledgement that the struggle to overcome a long history of inequity and inequality in opportunities for the learning of science in U.S. schools is far from over.
Although the actuality of science classrooms has changed little since 2006, the descriptions of effective science teaching and learning are significantly different now, and science and engineering are showing signs of increasing prominence in the curriculum. The new thinking no longer
includes labs as something that supports classroom endeavors; instead, science investigation and engineering design are the center of how science and engineering are taught and learned and the way that students make sense of the world. The three dimensions of the Framework form the process for learning via investigation and design, whereas traditional labs saw inquiry skills and the steps of the “scientific method” as separate steps and goals from the content knowledge that was being fostered in the lab. While the thinking about science education and investigation have shifted dramatically since 2006, the experiences of students in middle and high school classrooms have changed to a much smaller degree. Here we briefly discuss the context of science instruction in middle and high schools into which changes will be introduced to put investigation and design at the center. Aspects of this context related to resources are further addressed in Chapter 8, and the way that investigation and design fit into the larger education system are discussed in Chapter 9.
Most middle school students fall into the early adolescent range (ages 10–13), and most high school students are adolescents (teenagers). These developmental stages represent times of profound and rapid physical growth, cognitive development, and social change (Piaget, 1977). These transformations are especially pronounced in middle school.
The transition to middle school itself is a significant adjustment because the structure of the school day differs greatly from elementary schools. In many settings, students are no longer in self-contained classes. At the same time, students of this age are beginning to form their own identities—defining themselves and starting to make more of their own choices about friends, sports and other extracurricular activities, and school (Darling, Caldwell, and Smith, 2005; Eccles, 1999; Meeus, 2011). Adolescents may experience considerable self-doubt about all aspects of their lives, from their appearance to their intellect. As a result, the more challenging academic work in middle school can become a source of stress and anxiety (Eccles, 1999; Romero et al., 2014). Bullying by peers also increases during middle school, and social influence becomes excessively important. Peer influences can drive many of the choices students make about their engagement and participation in academics and other activities that potentially compete for their time and attention (Albert, Chein, and Steinberg, 2013; Eccles, 1999).
Adolescence is a time of great uncertainty during the transition from childhood to adulthood. As they go through adolescence, high school (and many upper middle school) students mature physically and further develop their identities and personalities. These rapid physical, cognitive, and emotional changes can be overwhelming, and adolescence is typically marked
by self-consciousness and sensitivity (Harter, 1990). Peers still exert a strong influence, and teenagers also begin exploring other interests as they search for and establish a stronger sense of themselves. Because these interests might or might not be related to academics, they can take attention away from school. Examples include sports competitions, music performances, and part-time jobs. Also, during adolescence, young people begin thinking more about their future plans for school and work. While these plans can be a source of stress and anxiety, they begin to shape the decisions students make about taking future courses and participating in other activities that align with their burgeoning interests (Bandura et al., 2001; Eccles and Wigfield, 2002).
Alongside these physical and developmental changes, cognitive capacities of young people also change rapidly during middle and high school. For example, early adolescents begin to transition from concrete thinking to more complex thinking during their middle school years (Eccles, Wigfield, and Byrnes, 2003). During adolescence, students develop (1) more advanced reasoning skills, (2) the capacity to think abstractly, and (3) an ability to consider multiple points of view. They also become more metacognitive (able to think about their thinking) (Keating, 1990). The development of these capacities has implications for how science and engineering investigations are designed at the middle and high school levels.
Middle schools typically include grades 6–8, 7–8, or 7–9. The average U.S. middle school science class has 23.6 students, but there is considerable variation by locality. For example, in 2013, 20 percent of U.S. middle grades science classes had 30 or more students and 23 percent had fewer than 20 students, according to the National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education (Banilower et al., 2013).5 Because middle school is such a tumultuous time for early adolescents, many schools and districts have adopted different structural approaches to promote the engagement and success of these students. Some notable examples include creating teams or cohorts of students that progress through middle school together, and looping, or having teachers and students stay together for 2 or more years. In looped middle schools, students have different teachers for each subject area, but they stay with the same subject area teachers over a period of multiple years. These and other approaches are designed to foster relationships
5 This section is excerpted, with minimal changes, from Chapter 3 of the 2015 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report Science Teachers’ Learning. It summarizes the results of the nationally representative 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education (Banilower et al., 2013).
and promote a sense of belonging so that middle school students do not fall through the cracks, become disaffected, and drop out of school.
Most middle schools have dedicated science teachers, and students participate in science class daily or every other day (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2015). Middle schools spend about twice as much per pupil for science equipment and supplies than elementary schools and provide more instructional resources for science teaching (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2015). During the No Child Left Behind era, science was largely squeezed out of the curriculum in grades K–5 (National Research Council, 2011), so it is not surprising that middle schools across the country allocate more time in the curriculum and other resources for science learning than elementary schools. The 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education found that 57 percent of middle school teachers indicated that their facilities were adequate, and about one-half viewed their equipment as adequate. About 40 percent viewed their consumable supplies and instructional technology as adequate (Banilower et al., 2013).
The most frequent instructional techniques reported by middle school science teachers were the teacher explaining science ideas, whole-class discussions, and students working in small groups (Banilower et al., 2013). Middle school science teachers also reported that at least once a week their students were asked to
- supply evidence in support of their claims (64%);
- engage in hands-on/laboratory activities (62%);
- represent and/or analyze data using tables, charts, or graphs (54%); and
- read from a science textbook or other material (56%).
Reflecting the increasing emphasis on testing and accountability at higher grade levels, science tests and quizzes are more common in middle school, including short-answer tests and tests requiring constructed responses (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2015).
Based on the 2013 data, middle school science classes do not incorporate instructional technology (e.g., computers, calculators, probes, and sensors) to a great extent (Banilower et al., 2013). Only 30 percent of middle school teachers reported that they had used instructional technology in their most recent lesson. Most middle school teachers (80%) use commercially published textbooks or modules as the basis for instruction (Banilower et al., 2013), and about one-half use these texts or modules for 50 percent or more of their science instructional time. They also supplement these materials with other resources or skip parts they deem unimportant.
The grades served by high schools depend on their feeder middle schools, and either include grades 9–12 or 10–12. The average U.S. high school science class size is 21.7 students, which is smaller than in middle school. Fifteen percent of high school science classes have more than 30 students, and 36 percent have fewer than 20 students (Banilower et al., 2013).
The following discussion focuses on comprehensive high schools as opposed to the few hundred STEM-focused high schools in the United States (Means et al., 2008). STEM-focused schools are organized around one or more of the STEM disciplines and may or may not have selective admissions criteria. They are generally characterized by expert teachers, advanced curricula, and sophisticated laboratory equipment; the schools with selective admissions criteria also often feature apprenticeships with scientists (National Research Council, 2011). By design, the science and engineering experiences in these STEM-focused schools differ from those in comprehensive high schools.
Similar to middle school, the most frequent instructional approaches in high school are the teacher explaining science ideas to the whole class, students working in small groups, and whole-class discussions (Banilower et al., 2013). Relative to middle school teachers, high school teachers are more likely to ask students, at least once a week, to do hands-on laboratory investigations (70% versus 62% in middle school) and to represent or analyze data using tables, charts, or graphs (58% versus 54% in middle school).
As at the middle school level, most high school teachers report that their classes have access to the Internet, personal computers, and non-graphing calculators. However, high school teachers have greater access to more sophisticated scientific equipment, including microscopes, probes for collecting data, and graphing calculators (Banilower et al., 2013). This greater access to scientific equipment is reflected in higher percentages of high school teachers, relative to middle school teachers, who rate their facilities, equipment, consumable supplies, and instructional technology as adequate. However, still less than one-half (48%) of high school teachers rated their instructional technology as adequate, which may explain, in part, why only about one-third of high school science teachers reported using instructional technology in their most recent lesson.
Most middle school (80%) and high school (77%) science teachers use commercially published textbooks or modules as the basis for instruction (Banilower et al., 2013, Table 6.1). Yet, high school science teachers use textbooks and modules less extensively than middle school science teachers do: less than one-third of high school teachers use them for 50 percent or more of their science instructional time compared to
approximately 50 percent of middle school teachers (Banilower et al., 2013, Table 6.11). Like middle school teachers, high school teachers often supplement textbooks and modules with other resources or skip parts they deem unimportant.
Middle and high school students are adolescents who are shifting their perspectives to engage more with the wider world. Their interest in science may change during the course of these school years in reaction to their experiences in and out of school. They enter with existing views about what science is and who scientists are; these views can be influenced by their involvement in science education and how it shows them the nature of science and engineering.
As the historical discussion in this chapter illustrates, having students understand the nature of science has long been a goal of K–12 science education. With the inclusion of practices and core ideas related to engineering, technology, and the applications of science in the Framework, this goal broadens to include an understanding of the role of engineering and the interplay between science and engineering in the development of new technologies and in developing solutions to real-world problems.
Prior research on teaching and learning the nature of science has identified eight ideas about science that all students should come to understand (NGSS Lead States, 2013, App. H):
- Scientific investigations use a variety of methods.
- Scientific knowledge is based on empirical evidence.
- Scientific knowledge is open to revision in light of new evidence.
- Scientific models, laws, mechanisms, and theories explain natural phenomena.
- Science is a way of knowing.
- Scientific knowledge assumes an order and consistency in natural systems.
- Science is a human endeavor.
- Science addresses questions about the natural and material world.
These are metacognitive ideas that students do not generally recognize without explicit or guided learning, that is students do not come to understand these ideas by simply doing science projects, particularly those of the traditional science lab experiment. However, engaging in investigation can provide context and experiential basis for students to begin understanding the nature of science and engineering. This understanding allows students
to distinguish science and engineering ways of knowing from other ways of knowing, such as those used in the humanities. Classroom discourse and guided reflection can help students see the value of empirical evidence as a powerful tool for understanding the world.
Following from the ideas of the Framework, the core idea of engineering design includes the following three component ideas (NGSS Lead States, 2013, App. I):
- Defining and delimiting engineering problems involves stating the problem to be solved as clearly as possible in terms of criteria for success and constraints or limits.
- Designing solutions to engineering problems begins with generating a number of different possible solutions, then evaluating potential solutions to see which ones best meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
- Optimizing the design solution involves a process in which solutions are systematically tested and refined and the final design is improved by trading off less important features for those that are more important.
Student Views of Science and Engineering
More than 60 years of research on students’ perceptions of scientists “has demonstrated that students do not have a clear perception of what science has to offer them or what scientists do” (Wyss, Huelskamp, and Siebert, 2012, p. 503). This body of research reveals that although the perception of women as scientists has increased over time (Miller et al., 2018), an enduring perception persists of scientists as “old, white males working in a laboratory performing dangerous experiments” (Wyss, Huelskamp, and Siebert, 2012, p. 503), especially as the students get older. Particularly as demographics in the United States continue to shift, these perceptions mean that an ever-larger swath of the population does not see science as relevant to them or as including them.
Although considerably less research exists on middle and high school students’ perceptions of engineering, the existing research also suggests an incomplete understanding of the field. For example, in one sizable study of middle school students, a large proportion of the students “have no perception of engineering. Others frequently perceive engineers as working outdoors in manual labor” (Fralick et al., 2009, p. 60). Other perceptions held by elementary and middle students are that the engineering process includes making or working on vehicles or building structures (Cunningham, 2018; Fralick et al., 2009). However, other studies suggest that middle school students view engineers as creative, future-oriented, and artistic problem finders and solvers (English, Dawes, and Hudson, 2011).
Incomplete or inaccurate perceptions of the practitioners and practices of science and engineering can preclude students from making informed determinations about their interest and competencies in these fields. A better understanding of what scientists and engineers do—gained in part through science and engineering investigation—might help middle and high school students to see these fields as relevant to them.
Student Perceptions of Themselves as Scientists and Engineers
Views of science and mathematics as difficult, only for smart students, or more appropriate for males can pose a barrier to the pursuit and enjoyment of science and engineering as early as elementary school; these views arise from many sources and can inadvertently be reinforced by teacher anxieties (Beilock et al., 2010). Considerable research has been conducted to understand the development of confidence and interest in science, as well as young people’s science experiences and career interests (Aschbacher, Li, and Roth, 2010; some of this research is described in greater detail in Chapter 3 of this volume). Given persistent gender imbalances in the STEM workforce, much of this attention has focused on gender differences, including factors that influence females’ choices to pursue—or not—majors and careers in these fields (Maltese and Cooper, 2017).
Broadly speaking, there is a science “identity gap” between males and females, especially for females from groups that are underrepresented in science and engineering (Tan et al., 2013). Regardless of test scores or performance, in general, high school and college females do not identify with science or enjoy science and mathematics as much as their male peers (Riegele-Crumb, Moore, and Ramos-Wada, 2011). One study of ACT test takers did show that similar proportions of females (47%) and males (50%) expressed interest in STEM, but noted that gender gaps in STEM-related attainment remain (ACT, 2017). More specifically, “girls often perceive science as difficult, uninteresting, or leading to an unattractive lifestyle” (Brotman and Moore, 2008, p. 978). Some studies have shown that even when girls do enjoy science and mathematics, they are less confident in their abilities in those subjects than males (Brotman and Moore, 2008; Riegele-Crumb, Moore, and Ramos-Wada, 2011).
In addition to these broad differences, females and males also identify with different disciplines because of the social importance placed on the field or because of differences in self-efficacy (Maltese and Cooper, 2017). Males are typically more interested in physics, engineering, and technology; females are more interested in biology, health, and medicine; and both sexes express similar degrees of interest in chemistry (Baram-Tasbari and Yarden, 2011; Sadler et al., 2012). The courses students take and activities they engage in during middle and high school can both reflect and reinforce these preferences and identities.
Less research has examined other groups that are underrepresented in science and engineering, such as African Americans and Hispanics. Moreover, the relationship between students’ interest and their ongoing participation in science and engineering is less clear. For example, despite the marked underrepresentation of African Americans and Hispanics in the science and engineering workforce, some research suggests that high school students from these groups are as interested or more interested in pursuing STEM majors in college than their white peers (Anderson and Kim, 2006; Hanson, 2004). Research on attitudes toward science and mathematics has similarly revealed that African American and Hispanic students expressed views of these subjects that were as positive or more positive than those of white students (Muller, Stage, and Kinzie, 2001).
Student Interest in Science and Engineering
Many of the changes students experience during early adolescence and adolescence directly or indirectly affect their overall interest in school, and their specific interest in science and engineering. Indeed, research has documented general losses of interest and engagement in school during transitions to middle and high school, with especially pronounced effects for boys, students from lower socioeconomic groups, and historically underrepresented groups (Wigfield et al., 2006). Studies of public schools in New York and Florida also have revealed overall declines in test scores at these same transition points (Rockoff and Lockwood, 2010; West and Schwerdt, 2012).
Interest in the STEM subjects also declines in middle and high school (George, 2006; Sadler et al., 2012). Some research points to high school as an especially important time for the development of science and engineering-related career intentions (Riegle-Crumb, Moore, and Ramos-Wada, 2011; Sadler et al., 2012). Others argue the process of shaping opinions about science occupations begins much earlier (Bandura et al., 2001). Indeed, the work of Tai and Maltese (Maltese and Tai, 2010; Tai et al., 2006) suggests that students in grade 8 who express an interest in STEM are three times as likely to pursue STEM degrees than their peers who do not express an interest.
There are also gender-related differences in interest over time. One review, for example, found that “. . . girls’ overall attitudes toward science are either less positive than boys’ or decline more significantly with age” (Brotman and Moore, 2008, p. 978). Another study similarly revealed that the proportion of females interested in STEM careers declined during high school, with no such decrease for males (Sadler et al., 2012).
Loss of interest in science, mathematics, and engineering during middle and high school has important longer-term implications because the choices students begin to make about science and engineering course-taking in high
school and in college, as well as choices of science and engineering-related activities, could affect their future options. Interests and motivations in science and engineering are shaped by a complex and socially constructed interaction of individual, family, community, peer, and school-related factors (see Aschbacher, Li, and Roth, 2010, for a discussion of these factors). Chapter 3 further discusses learning and motivation as it applies to adolescent students and their engagement with investigation and design.
As mentioned, a notable change from the 2006 context to the present is an explicit recognition of the need for science and engineering to be more inclusive, and to ensure that students from groups that have been excluded or marginalized in the past have equal and equitable access to quality K–12 science and engineering learning opportunities. For example, very few students had access to learning about engineering unless they had a family member or other close contact who was an engineer or if they had access to an afterschool/summer/weekend engineering outreach program (National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council, 2009). Significant changes inside (inclusive pedagogies; see Chapter 5) and outside the classroom (e.g., policies, facilities, resources; see Chapter 8) could increase the inclusion of traditionally excluded groups in these opportunities. Such opportunities provide a base for making life and community decisions that depend on scientific and technological understanding. Furthermore, they allow students to develop skills and interests that greatly broaden their perspectives on career opportunities and possibilities and that open the doors to make those opportunities real.
This explicit focus on broadening these opportunities to include all students is especially timely because of demographic changes in the United States since the 2006 report. In 2014, the percentage of students of color (i.e., Hispanic, African American, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native) enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools was 50.5 percent, reflecting the first time that the percentage of students who were white was less than 50 percent. Additionally, it is projected that the number of white students will continue to decrease, falling to 45 percent in 2026, while enrollments of Hispanic students and Asian/Pacific Islander students, in particular, will continue to increase (McFarland et al., 2017). Although the current goals for science education are more inclusive and responsive to current conditions, inequities persist in several important areas: participation in the STEM workforce, opportunities to learn science and mathematics, and achievement.
While Hispanic, African American, and American Indian/Alaska Native people together make up 27 percent of the U.S. population (looking at
people ages 21 and older), they comprise only 11 percent of those employed in STEM occupations (National Science Board, 2018a). Asians account for 21 percent of employed STEM workers, despite comprising only 6 percent of the U.S. population ages 21 and older; however, the majority are employed in engineering fields and less so in other science disciplines. Gender representation in the STEM workforce is also important, and while an increase in the representation of women in the STEM workforce has been observed, as with Asians, disparities remain, particularly by discipline. In 2015, women were highly employed within the social sciences (60%) and life sciences (48%) fields, but largely underrepresented in engineering (15%), computer and mathematical sciences (26%), and physical sciences (28%) occupations (National Science Board, 2018a).
Even though courts acted to dismantle formerly lawful segregation, segregation has persisted in ways that did not reach the legal threshold for intervention and in the legally permissible form of segregation resulting from factors such as housing restrictions and local zoning ordinances. Consequently, racially segregated schools, separate and unequal, still exist today. A report issued by the Government Accountability Office (2016) showed an increase from 9 percent in 2000–2001 to 16 percent in 2013–2014 in schools classified as high-minority enrollment schools, defined as 75 percent or greater black and Hispanic student enrollments. In contrast, the percentage of schools comprised of fewer black and Hispanic students decreased by one-half during the same period. Schools with large proportions of black and Hispanic students, English learners, and/or students in poverty are often under-resourced (see Box 2-1) (Morgan and Amerikaner, 2018; Ushomirsky and Williams, 2015). Consequently, they typically offer fewer math and science courses and course sequences and fewer certified
teachers in science content areas—particularly in physics and chemistry—than schools serving predominantly white and higher-income students (U.S. Department of Education, 2014). Moreover, because science classrooms and related equipment are expensive to establish and maintain, these schools also are less likely to have high-grade space and equipment for science (Banilower et al., 2013, p. 105 [Table 6.21], and p. 108 [Table 6.26]; Filardo, 2016, pp. 6–7). Tracking of students into fewer and less rigorous science and mathematics courses has excluded or marginalized many low-income and historically underrepresented students (Burris, Welner, and Bezoza, 2009; Oakes, 2005).
In the United States, student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in science is slowly increasing across all ethnic groups, though gaps in opportunities to learn and achievement among various groups remain. As shown in Figure 2-1, NAEP results reveal
significant racial and ethnic disparities, with persistent 34–36 point gaps between white and black students at both 8th and 12th grades, and 24–26 point gaps between white and Hispanic students at both grade levels. The most significant narrowing of the gap was in 8th grade between white and Hispanic students, from 30 points in 2009 to 26 points in 2015 (U.S. Department of Education, 2016).
Socioeconomic status continues to be one of the leading causes of variation in student performance, as illustrated in Table 2-1, which shows differences in NAEP science scores between 8th- and 12th-grade students who are eligible for the school lunch program and those who are not.
The 2015 NAEP results show a 13-point to 27-point difference in performance between students eligible and not eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program. For both 8th and 12th grade, the largest gaps between eligible and non-eligible students were seen within the Asian and Pacific Islander race/ethnic group (National Science Board, 2018a).
Current reform efforts in K–12 science and engineering education are largely based on the Framework and focus on engaging all students in the understanding of how science and engineering work; these reform efforts represent a departure from previous ones. Centering science instruction around investigation and design can improve instruction in middle and high schools and help students to learn to make sense of phenomena and develop solutions. However, structures and approaches of earlier eras still constrain the opportunities afforded to today’s students. Through the use of an integrative framework for learning, teachers are able to leverage the assets that students bring to the classroom through engaging with phenomenon and engineering design. This is primarily because science investigation and engineering design offer a promising vehicle for anchoring student learning in meaningful contexts.
Moreover, adolescence represents a period of adjustment in students’ lives. They are navigating rapid physical growth, cognitive development, and social change. It is a time in which engaging students in science investigation and engineering design might shape their identity and their future identity as a potential scientist or engineer. This is particularly crucial for females and other students from traditionally underrepresented populations. Leveraging science investigation and engineering design could allow students to develop skills and interests that greatly broaden their perspectives on career opportunities and possibilities as well as provide a base for making life and community decisions that depend on scientific and technological understanding.
TABLE 2-1 2015 NAEP Science Scores of 8th and 12th Graders by Socioeconomic Status within Race or Ethnicity
|Race or Ethnicity||Eligible for Free or Reduced-Price Lunch||Not Eligible for Free or Reduced-Price Lunch||Numerical Gap (not eligible – eligible)|
|Asian or Pacific Islander||148||174||26|
|American Indian or Alaska Native||134||155||21|
|More than one race||146||170||24|
|Asian or Pacific Islander||150||177||27|
|American Indian or Alaska Native||suppressed for reasons of confidentiality and/or reliability||suppressed for reasons of confidentiality and/or reliability||--|
|More than one race||145||162||17|
SOURCE: National Science Board (2018b).
NOTES: NAEP uses eligibility for the federal National School Lunch Program (NSLP) as a measure of socioeconomic status. NSLP is a federally assisted meal program that provides low-cost or free lunches to eligible students. It is sometimes referred to as the free or reduced-price lunch program. The overall scale for the assessments is 0 to 300, the effective score range of these tests is about 90 points: 80 percent of 8th graders scored between 109 and 195, and 80 percent of 12th graders scored between 103 and 196.
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