Science Methods Update: Earth & Space Science, Engineering Concepts and Design Briefs

The past few weeks have flown by. I cannot believe that it is already the middle of November! Next thing I know, I’ll blink and it will be 2014. Crazy! Anyways, over the course of the last few weeks, we have been digging deeper into the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Specifically, we’ve been focusing our attention on the Earth & Space Science storyline as well as the Engineering Practices. The NGSS has really revamped their emphasis on both Earth & Space Science as well as Engineering Principles. Exposure to content starts in Kindergarten and continues all the way through High School. As is common practice throughout the NGSS, concepts with the Earth & Space storyline consistently build upon one another as well as connect with other concepts in other content areas, within the sciences and beyond!

Teasing away at the new Earth & Space standards, one critical change has risen to the forefront of the curricular focus: the role of human society on our planet. While the previous standards developed in 1996 placed a slight emphasis on human interactions with the Earth’s environments, the NGSS make it known: we, being human beings, are reshaping our planet. To me, this emphasis couldn’t have come at a better time. Our planet is at a critical moment within its history. The future of humanity is teetering on the edge of a cavernous hole we will not be able to dig ourselves out of. Climate change and the role that our species has in the process is the topic of global discussion. There is no longer a debate of whether or not we are changing our global climate.

All of this being said, the timing couldn’t be more perfect to place an emphasis on this topic in our nation’s science curriculums. One of the strongest strategies successful teachers utilize is connecting content and concepts discussed in classrooms to the outside world. Teachers no longer have to stretch as far when they emphasize to their students that their collective actions with respect to climate change shape their future lives. What a powerful statement presented in the Next Generation Science Standards.

In connection with the NGSS’ emphasis on human involvement in Earth & Space Science, the standards also focus on the incorporation of Engineering Principles and Concepts. As our society continues to develop and advance, new technologies are revolutionizing the way humans are living their lives. Most of these revolutions are the result of a critical thinker sitting down and asking themselves, “How am I going to fix this problem?” or, “How can I use what I know to create a possible solution?” These are the exact same types of questions that the NGSS emphasizes by incorporating Engineering Principles.

My previous post on the Makers Movement demonstrates what a self-motivated student can benefit and accomplish from engineering practices. The NGSS focus on Engineering Principles encourages teachers to allow for students to solve complex problems based in real-world scenarios. Again, there is no greater motivator for students than to be able to honestly say, “What I am doing today in school connects with what I experience outside the classroom.” 

While a specific format or medium for addressing the Engineering Principles is not specified, we experimented with one possible option: Design Briefs. Grounded in contextualized real-world scenarios, Design Briefs are an excellent method to incorporate engineering concepts in a classroom. A Design Brief (adapted from Gooding & Metz, 2006) consists of 5 critical components:

  1. Context: The background knowledge that provides students with a broad-based perspective of an issue.
  2. Scenario: A real-life situation that sets the stage for the students’ challenge.
  3. Challenge: The problem students will be responsible for brainstorming and defending potential solutions.
  4. Limitations: Teacher-generated constraints to help narrow students’ focuses.
  5. Rules: Teacher-generated descriptions of the expectations of the design process. How students’ work will be analyzed.

A Design Brief is an ideal opportunity for students to demonstrate their critical thinking skills, creativity, and understanding of engineering concepts. I found the format to be very engaging and I believe my students would benefit and flourish from the reliance on their own critical thinking skills. A perfect match for a curriculum aligned to the NGSS.

Within the next couple of years, districts across the country are going to be adapting their science curricula around the Next Generation Science Standards. Undoubtedly, as districts begin to implement these changes, teacher instruction will have to change. In the multiple articles I have read on the subject, the need for quality professional development was a chief concern. I think this is an extremely valid point. As teachers, we want to be as prepared as possible. We want to master our craft. That being said, novice and veteran teacher alike will go through growing pains while adapting to these new standards. However, it is important that the end result is always kept at the forefront of the discussion: student success. The NGSS will take time to implement. However, the reward will be well worth the wait.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Ronald Patten says:

    Good work, Max!


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