For years, STEM education advocates have wanted to introduce fundamental principles of engineering as early as the elementary grades. Many have embraced the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for aiming to do just that. Are the NGSS living up to their billing so far? In elementary schools, the answer is…yes and no.
As we noted last month, states adopting NGSS are already devoting more attention to engineering and technology in eighth-grade classrooms. In fourth grade, by contrast, the picture is mixed, with most NGSS states surging ahead in those areas but others staying stagnant. Why? Odds are, the answer has to do with time. States where elementary schools spend little time on science will probably not fulfill the promise of NGSS.
We analyzed survey data from the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress in science to see how teachers are spending their instructional time, focusing on states that adopted the standards before 2014.
We found mostly good news, but with a glaring exception:
California started low and ended low, falling well short of the national average for growth.
When we explored how often fourth graders discussed engineering challenges in school, we saw similar patterns:
California and Washington State both saw little change since 2009, and both remained significantly behind the national average for students who frequently discuss the kinds of problems engineers solve.
What do these two states have in common? Elementary schools in both spend little time teaching science in fourth grade:
In 2015, fourth-graders in Washington State and California were much less likely to devote time to science than peers in any other state on the list of NGSS early adopters. Science is almost the only vehicle for engineering in most elementary schools, so if schools don’t attend to science, they won’t attend to engineering.
The relationship between time for science and time for engineering seems to hold for all the states we examined:
Things may still look up for California and Washington State. All NGSS states were just starting to implement the new standards in 2015, when NAEP collected these data. In fact, California remains in the early stages of implementation.
As states build their new science tests and adopt new accountability plans, they may yet create more incentives for elementary teachers to teach science. After all, most elementary teachers don’t decide on their own to give science short shift. They take their cues from states or districts that do not include science in their accountability plans, offer meager professional development in the subject, or skimp on teaching materials.
NGSS can achieve only so much if science—and thus engineering--remains the forgotten stepchild of elementary education.
 Our findings represent correlations (though strong ones) in a relatively small number of states. Three states that adopted NGSS before 2014 were not part of our analysis, because we did not have data on them: Kansas and Vermont (which did not participate in 2009 NAEP science), and Washington, DC (which did not participate in 2015 NAEP science). We examined results for the following survey questions: “In this class, about how much time do you spend on engineering and technology? (teacher-reported)” (None, a little, some, a lot); “In a typical week, how much time do you spend teaching science to the students in the class? (teacher reported)” (<1 hour, 1-1.9 hours, 2-2.9 hours, 3-3.9 hours, 4-4.9 hours, 5-5.9 hours, 6-6.9 hours, 7 hours or more); “About how often do your science students discuss the kinds of problems that engineers can solve? (teacher reported)” (Never or hardly ever, Once or twice a month, Once or twice a week, Every day or almost every day).
 From the evidence at hand, Washington State seemed to do somewhat better in technology than in engineering. The data don’t tell us why, but fourth-grade teachers may have found time for technology content in subjects other than science.
The 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results don’t likely include much you haven’t heard before regarding U.S. students. We are falling behind many developed nations in math—23 points lower than the average of all the nations—and just staying afloat with average scores in science and reading.
In contrast, we rank amongst the biggest spenders on education. So, many nations outsmarting us are doing so while spending less. The state of Massachusetts rises above the fray, however, performing very highly in science (only Singapore outperformed the Bay state), highly in reading, and slightly above average in math. Though relevant, our PISA scorecard is not particularly compelling. The most intriguing thing to come out of the 2015 results is our improvement in socio-economic equity--the largest improvement among all of the countries participating in PISA both in 2006 and 2015. Some have criticized PISA in previous years for failing to take into account the large number of students living in poverty in the U.S. and their consistent low performance on standardized testing. But this year's results tell a different story.
"In 2006, socioeconomic status had explained 17 percent of the variance in Americans’ science scores; in 2015, it explained only 11 percent, which is slightly better than average for the developed world," states the New York Times.
Further PISA analysis shows an increase in performance by our most disadvantaged students. In fact, the 2015 PISA identifies 32 percent of U.S. students as resilient--students that perform among the top quarter of performers in all of the participating countries despite their disadvantaged socio-economic status. This is up 12 percentage points from 2006. At the same time, the data suggests stagnant performance for our most advantaged kids with the boost from the disadvantaged students not significant enough of a bump to raise the overall scores. Parents and educators quick to dismiss PISA results because their individual high-performing students aren't reflected in this data should reconsider. If nothing else is clear, we still have a national problem that will take a unified national effort of educators, parents, advocates, students, and employers targeting student performance at every level.
Photo courtesy of the PISA 2015 Report.
This morning, The Nation's Report Card released good news. Since 2009, the nation's science scores rose in both fourth and eighth grades. Even more encouraging, black and Latino students gained on their peers, narrowing some of the gaps in student performance that have bedeviled education reformers for decades. Yet poor and minority students continue to lag far behind.
CTEq took a closer look at the new data, and what we found was unfortunately all too familiar. In 2015, the schools and teachers that serve the nation's poor and minority students still have have the least access to the materials and equipment students need to succeed in science.
They are more likely to attend classes with teachers who say they lack resources to succeed:
Poor and minority students are also most likely to attend schools that lack supplies and equipment for science labs:
These data are new, but the story they tell is not. Poor and minority students have long been last in line for opportunities to learn, and the new data show that we have yet to solve this problem. We can certainly take heart from the fact that test scores have risen somewhat over the past six years, but it is hard to imagine closing achievement gaps entirely without addressing these gaps in opportunity.
Fortunately, there are at least glimmers of hope. Top-flight science education programs CTEq has vetted through its STEMworks honor roll are already giving teachers the professional development and hands-on materials they need to succeed. (For two examples of STEMworks programs that have expanded to new communities in recent years, see ASSET STEM Education and the Science for Public Education Project). In addition, some schools are testing innovative approaches like virtual reality science labs that give students hands-on exposure to cutting-edge science, all without expensive equipment.
Programs and initiatives like these might contain the seeds of a new breakthrough for the nation's most disadvantaged children. it's time for the country to rally around them.
If you’re looking for ways to celebrate World Space Week in the classroom and beyond, why not have a bit of fun with Google Earth? In case you’ve been living under a rock, Google Earth is a digital globe simulation program that you can download for free. Take virtual tours of almost anywhere on Earth and even a few places that are out of this world. Google Earth includes maps of the sky, the moon, and Mars. And since there’s so much to see, we’ve taken the liberty of including the top 5 places your Google Earth adventures should take you during World Space Week.
(1) Take a Mars Tour with Bill Nye The Science Guy
Ever stepped foot on Mars? We’re willing to betting you haven’t. But with Google Earth, touching down on Mars is just a mouse click away. Bill Nye guides you through every important hill and crater with a brief history lesson on Mars landings and attempts from the 1970s to the present. Learn about the Bonneville Crater and how Columbia Hills got its name. Get up close and personal with the red planet like never before.
(2) Visit the Rocket Launch Pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida
There’s no better way to honor World Space Week then tuning into where all the rocket magic happens. Check out one of NASA’s rocket launch pads in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Change the Equation member United Launch Alliance (ULA) makes it possible for you to have 360 degree footage of the launch pad from Google Earth all year-round—even during actual launches! Make sure to watch on November 6 for even more rocket power as ULA launches a weather satellite on Atlas V.
(3) Explore The Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral
Right next to NASA’s launch pad is the Kennedy Space Center where visitors can meet an astronaut and have their own space flight experience. If you don’t live in Florida, use Google Earth to tour the magnificent Rocket Garden from the comfort of your chair. View pictures from actual tourist that bring the simulation to life. Discover space shuttle Atlantis inside and out through the Atlantis Shuttle Experience.
(4) Chase Storms
Many rocket launches house weather satellites since the ability to view cloud formations from space have really changed the field of meteorology. Use Google Earth’s weather modes to see temperatures, analyze cloud patterns, and chase large storms all across the globe. Also, NOAA buoys provide accessible information on ocean conditions. And all data is close to real time.
(5) Hunt Constellations
Google Earth features a fun map of the constellations that’s sure to get you star struck. Locate your backyard favorites like ursa minor and major or find the constellation inspiring your zodiac sign. Spend hours stargazing while simultaneously learning about the life span of a star on Google Earth’s Sky mode.
Photographs courtesy of Google Earth and Google Earth users.
What could be more fitting for World Space Week (10/4-10/10) than to celebrate the successful touchdown on September 30th of the Rosetta spacecraft on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko! This accomplishment represented an enormous worldwide collaboration of 2,000 people, and it will continue over several decades through groundbreaking analyses on information collected during the mission.
During a 12-year space odyssey spearheaded by the European Space Agency (ESA), and supported by NASA, Rosetta did a close flyby of Mars and took a good look at asteroids Steins and Lutetia, deepening scientific knowledge about all three. But Rosetta’s real goal was to catch up with Comet 67P and collect detailed data about the comet as it traveled into the interior solar system.
Launched on March 2, 2004, Rosetta finally reached Comet 67P on August 6, 2014 and adroitly maneuvered into orbit—a space first!—while sending back a treasure trove of information like this selfie taken about 30 miles from the comet. This information is leading to eye-popping findings, such as the discovery that water vapor on the comet is substantially different than that found on Earth. See Rosetta’s extensive scrapbook of findings here. The final entry in the scrapbook—an amazing photo taken just about 22 yards from the surface of the comet—adds to the storehouse of data.
Is this the end of Rosetta? Not likely. Even though she has finished her mission, she has sparked ample scientific work that is already underway, and will surely inspire new insights work for years to come. Still, the ESA control room fell nearly silent with Rosetta’s final transmission. The loss of a ‘friend,’ as the anthropomorphized Rosetta came to represent, must have been poignant after so many years. But future generations will likely circle back to Comet 67P and Rosetta, who signed off from her remarkable adventure with a rousing Mission Complete!