Previous blogs on this series have focused on describing the Science and Engineering for Grades 6-12: Investigation and Design at the Center report’s conclusions and recommendations on the importance and role of investigation and engineering design in students learning science. Those blogs have highlighted the changes that must take place in the teacher-student interaction to better place investigations and engineering design at the center of the instructional process. However, those changes cannot happen in isolation inside each teacher’s classroom. Moving instruction from traditional teaching methods to practices that engage students in learning science and engineering using natural phenomena and engineering design challenges requires an adjustment in the way that the education system supports teachers.
This describes the report’s findings about how the system can support those changes in instructional practices that are called forth in the report. The report defines the system as made off human components as well as instructional resources, physical space, technology and time for instruction. Other important parts of the system are the school, district, regional, state, and national policies and practices that support teacher’s work as well as the perspectives and priorities of the local community. Consideration of all these key factors of this very complex system (see Figure 1) is critical to guarantee a safe and effective teaching and learning environment.
Figure 1 Committee’s representation of some interactions within the U.S. education system. NOTE: These interactions occur within and are influenced by social, political, economic and cultural milieu of the United States.
Overlaying the system described in figure 1 is a sociocultural system that strongly interacts with several of the factors described in the model and should also be considered to guarantee an equitable learning environment. The recommendations provided by the report highlight the point that changing classroom instruction is not an easy task. What happens in classrooms is influenced and affected by a variety of factors including prior experiences of teachers and the professional preparation that they may have received, and decisions made by different individuals and organizations that influence instructional time, availability of resources, course sequences, etc.
America’s Lab Report (National Research Council, 2006) already concluded that school facilities matter for science teaching and learning, and the evidence linking physical spaces and overall school experience has continued to grow. However, and despite this evidence, the report indicates that a recent review of district school plans shows that while there is an increase in the inclusion of science labs in middle/junior high school buildings there is a slight reduction in their inclusion in the plans for new high schools. The introduction of the three-dimensional instructional model and the role that investigation and design play on it requires to think in a more flexible understanding of a laboratory space. New elements in the design of laboratory spaces should include space for students to carry out investigations and design projects that are open-ended, adjustable-height
workstations to allow access to all students, including students with disabilities, displayed wall space to capture student thinking and allow them to share their ideas, and flexible to facilitate work in small groups as well as other group settings.
Investigation and design projects can occur outside the traditional laboratory classroom setting. Therefore, the report expands on the characteristics of laboratory spaces described in America’s Lab Report (National Research Council, 2006) to include outdoor learning spaces, maker spaces, and spaces that allow students to access different tools, technologies, and materials separate from those used in traditional science classrooms. This understanding of what is considered a “laboratory space” brings with it a new awareness on decisions that will ensure that investigations and design projects are conducted in a safe environment. Therefore, careful planning and attention to possible safety risks before engaging students on this type of learning should be an upfront consideration for teachers, school administrators and curriculum developers. Despite of the urgency of having a teacher work force knowledgeable about safety, the report points out that there is very little guidance provided to science teachers on sound safety practices.
Availability and types of instructional spaces have direct impact on and are impacted by decisions about instructional time, resources, course sequences and teacher expertise. To reach the goals set forth by the K-12 Framework for Science Education (National Research Council, 2012) it has become evident that innovative ways to organize course-taking patterns and schedules are needed. The report points out that longer class periods like those that happen in a block-scheduling model offer better opportunities to conduct investigations and design. However, to be successful, implementation of different scheduling models should be accompanied by professional development on how instructional practices must also change to better utilize the time allowed by the new model. The report suggests that decisions on these areas should be made in collaboration between teachers, school administrators, and community members and should based on district policies that set expectations of good instructional practices.
The cost of newly constructed or renovated science lab spaces in an existing public school building is more expensive than other types of school spaces (National Research Council, 2006). It also warns that efforts to bring science investigation and engineering design to all students must be cognizant of the constraints and opportunities coming from many directions. A thoughtful analysis of instructional strategies that have shown the greatest promise when making decisions about courses and teacher expertise should be conducted to guarantee equity. In its recommendations, the report stresses the point that as state, district, and school policies are revised to support investigations and design care must be taken not to exacerbate existing inequities. It also recommends that to better support teachers, it is imperative that those who oversee science instruction have a deep knowledge of the Framework-aligned approaches to this new way of teaching and learning.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). Science and Engineering for Grades 6-12: Investigation and Design at the Center. Washington, D.C. The National Academies Press www.nap.edu/25216
National Research Council. (2007). America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
National Research Council. (2012). Framework for K-12 Science Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Juan-Carlos Aguilar is the Director for Innovative Programs and Research at the Georgia Department of Education. He worked for nine years as the state liaison for science, engineering, and STEM professional organizations. He taught science and mathematics in the Spanish Immersion Program with in the Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington, KY. He moved to Georgia in 2005 and worked as a Science Implementation Specialist Regional Coordinator.