Pa. to launch review of its science standards, help students become ‘divergent thinkers’

"Science is increasingly part of our education, work, and lives in a changing economy.”

FILE PHOTO: In this Feb. 15, 2017, photo, Eric Hoover teaches his class of immigrant and refugee students at McCaskey High School in Lancaster, Pa. (Michael Rubinkam/AP Photo)

FILE PHOTO: In this Feb. 15, 2017, photo, Eric Hoover teaches his class of immigrant and refugee students at McCaskey High School in Lancaster, Pa. (Michael Rubinkam/AP Photo)

PennLive and The Patriot-News are partners with PA Post.

Pennsylvania education officials will begin the process of reviewing the framework around how science is to be taught to students and consider whether to incorporate a set of standards embraced by most other states that encourage students to think like scientists.

The State Board of Education directed the state Department of Education to begin preparing to modernize the state’s 17-year-old science standards to bring them into alignment with current research and best practices, including a look at the Next Generation Science Standards.

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The Next Generation Science Standards have been adopted in some form or fashion by 44 states, plus the District of Columbia. These standards, which came out in 2013, establish learning goals and best practices for science instruction and serve as the basis for curriculum development and instruction.

Science educators across Pennsylvania have been urging Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration and state lawmakers to consider building on the state’s commitment to science and technology education by adopting them.

“As technology continues to advance, science is increasingly part of our education, work, and lives in a changing economy,” Wolf said in a news release. “This is an important step forward.”

Palmyra Area School District teacher Jeff Remington along with the Pennsylvania Science Teachers Association has lobbied state officials to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards for several years. Remington applauded the decision to modernize the state’s standards, saying it will help Pennsylvania become “STEM Stronger.”

“The Next Generation Science Standards will promote subject integration, engineering practices, collaboration and authentic problem-solving,” Remington said. Moreover, it will move students away from “convergent thinking” that leads them to believe there is only one solution to a problem to become “divergent thinkers” where multiple solutions can be found to solve one.

“This is what we need for the 21st-century workforce development in Pennsylvania,” Remington said. “Kudos to Governor Wolf, the State Board of Education and Pennsylvania Department of Education for making this a priority.”

Montgomery County environmental science teacher Andy Walton, who is president of the statewide science teachers organization, said he became giddy in class when he heard the news. “We’ve been behind the eight-ball without [updating our] science standards,” he said. “We’ve been pushing for this for a while so I’m excited.”

The process for adopting new academic standards can be a lengthy process but having other states lay the groundwork with their implementation of the New Generation Science Standards and learn from their successes could help to move the process along.

The board heard a presentation from Penn State education professor Carla Zembal-Saul, who specializes in science education, about the research and practice of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at the university and beyond.

Zembal-Saul highlighted Pennsylvania’s progress and national visibility in STEM education, adoption of computer science standards, and workforce development for STEM careers. But she emphasized where the state has been lagging is in providing students with equitable access to high-quality science education, which is where the Next Generation Science Standards comes in.

“The Next Generation Science Standards advances a new vision for students’ equitable access to productive participation in scientific and engineering practices that leverages learners’ curiosity about the natural and designed world, acknowledges that all students, even young children, are capable of learning science in meaningful ways, and disrupts approaches that require students to merely memorize facts and vocabulary without understanding, ” she said.

She added that the field has advanced beyond the previous national standards that came out in 1996 upon which the state’s current science & technology and environment & ecology standards, ratified in 2002, are based.

Zembal-Saul said she would like to see Pennsylvania adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, and was encouraged by the enthusiastic response from the members of the State Board of Education to revisiting science education standards. She said, “Pennsylvania is poised and ready to chart a new course for science education for all learners – to position them for readiness and success in STEM careers and citizenry.”

No doubt it will be costly to launch a new vision for student science learning with the professional development, instructional resources, and new assessments that will be required, but deputy education secretary Matt Stem said the goal is to prepare all students to be productive citizens.

“The Wolf Administration recognizes that expanding access to computer science and STEM education has been critical for preparing our students for an ever-changing workforce,” Stem said. “In line with these efforts, Governor Wolf supports the initiative to update science standards.”

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