The Challenges of Meeting Next Generation Science Standards in Informal Education

As the newest member of the SSEC team, I bring a unique perspective to our curriculum and publications department--that of informal science education. I've taught in informal science and environmental education programs for over twelve years, including managing park naturalist programs in Delaware, and starting up and running the Education and Outreach Program at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). I've worked with schools, clubs, senior centers, scouting organizations, pre-K groups, birding and environmental clubs, boating and yacht clubs, home schoolers, special needs groups, and more. Currently the focus of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is on formal education (public schools and classrooms), but informal educators are also struggling with adapting to the NGSS.

What exactly is "informal education"? It refers to any education program that is outside of the normal school setting. These programs can range from home schooling and Montessori education to outdoor classroom schools, schools abroad, or education centers that offer programs to schools and groups. In many states, such as Maryland, students in K-12 schools are mandated to have a meaningful outdoor education experience in an informal education setting every year. The nice thing about informal education is that it shakes up how children learn, from sitting in rows of desks to being outside or in a museum--touching, feeling, interacting, or even getting muddy.

The challenge that NGSS adoption poses to informal science education centers is similar to that faced by classroom teachers. You might think that informal educators wouldn't have the same pressures to meet standards, but  informal educators must align their teaching materials and content to meet the same standards that school teachers must meet. This is because teachers must justify the time, effort, and money invested in field trips (especially busses), when presenting their proposals to their school boards, principals, or PTAs. This justification is most often provided by the education centers through the program types they offer, which are designed to fill a need by teachers for a specific type of lesson or hands-on activity. If informal education centers can't provide this justification and align their programs with the standards teachers need to meet, then they risk not meeting the needs of their school audiences--often their largest source of funding.

As schools struggle to integrate and adapt to NGSS, so do informal education centers. Luckily, the NGSS match well with what most informal science education venues offer because most of them are already experience based.  The active nature of this type of learning naturally leads to engagement with the practices and crosscutting concepts in the NGSS. While the details may differ, the NGSS and informal education are based on the idea that students should do science, not learn "about" science.

How should informal education centers work towards strengthening alignment with the NGSS? There isn't much specific guidance for informal educators yet, but it is coming. At this point most of what is being shared is that everyone should be using the same suggestions developed for school teachers  and curriculum developers in formal venues. The National Science Teacher's Association (NSTA) recently published the NGSS EQuIP rubric  for evaluating education program content. It offers a structure for evaluating teaching materials and their alignment with the practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts, as well as how these elements are synthesized. It's worth taking some time to ponder the criteria. For example, what do you think is truly meant by phrases like, "engaging students in authentic and meaningful scenarios" or "uses scientifically accurate and grade-appropriate scientific information, phenomena, and representations to support student's three-dimensional learning"?

A warning to school teachers and others who wish to use informal education venues: be cautious if your venue claims that they "already align" with the NGSS. The NGSS are still new, and curriculum development centers are just now working their way through the steps necessary to integrate the changes called for in the NGSS. Unless an informal venue has a large team spending extensive time working specifically on the standards, there's a good chance that the venue just looked at some of the NGSS standards and said, "Ok, we meet those," without really doing the hard conceptual work behind making sure that they do, or modifying their lessons to ensure full alignment. For the most part, the NGSS are so different from the traditional state standards that most informal education venues haven't had time to adapt or change yet. While there are natural parallels between the integrated learning promoted by the NGSS and the active, hands-on approach already taken by many informal venues, it's highly likely that many lessons and classes may need to be rewritten or redesigned. Work with the informal venues that you truly love to visit, and be sure they know what your school's needs are so they can help you move forward into this new realm of NGSS.

Karen McDonald is also the author of the science blog, for naturalists and educators, called the Infinite Spider. Click here to visit the blog

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About the Author

Karen McDonald

Karen has been teaching informal science and environmental education programs for over twelve years, including managing park naturalist programs in Delaware, and starting up and running the Education and Outreach Program at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC).