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Today's science ain't what it used to be


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Hall High School juniors Simon Burcham (center) and Christopher Enriquez trouble-shoot a fix for a replica wind turbine during teacher Troy Bauer’s Intro to Vocational Technology II class in the school’s STEM Lab.

NewsTribune photo/Chris Yucus

Brett Herrmann
NewsTribune Reporter

Times are changing for science education as more  teachers are trading in worksheets for workstations where students can get hands on training.

“They (teachers) are emphasizing more problem solving and less memorization,” said Hall High School superintendent Mike Struna.

Every school in the area, whether it’s an elementary or high school, is upgrading to the new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). This involves a complete overhaul in the science curriculum and Hall High School provides a snapshot of the changing nature. Hall even designed the floor plan in the new building to better accommodate push for the new standards with a shared STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) lab.

What are the Next Generation Science Standards?
NGSS is a set research-based learning standards created by different states that all local schools are changing over to. And the teaching style is a little different than it used to be.  

“There isn’t a textbook that exists for NGSS. You design your unit around a problem,” said Hall science teacher Nicki Barto.

The students are given a problem and expected to test it in different ways through experimentation.

Why is there a push for STEM and NGSS?
The American job landscape is very dominant in science and technology, and the main reason for the big push for the new standards is to give students a chance to apply real world problems they might encounter in future careers.

“Life isn’t a jeopardy show where you can memorize all the facts,” Barto said.

She added that the new lesson plans are designed around real world problems. One example used in class is a prediction where in 50 years that there will not be enough farmland to sustain world hunger.

“This is real. What are you going to do when there is not enough land? This is not a pretend scenario. This is the science they need to know,” Barto said.

And solving world hunger might not be in everyone’s ballpark but the classes can give students a better idea of their career paths.

The Introduction to Vocational Technology program, which was started last year, has really taken off and has inspired a few students to choose a careers. The class allows students to take part in a variety of different hands-on experiments such as robotics, designing a CO2 car, 3D printing, small engine design, and many more.

“What we’re basically doing is sparking interest and seeing if they like it,” said Hall technology teacher Troy Bauer. “They get their feet wet in a ton of different things.”
One student, who is now taking an electrical class at IVCC, told Bauer he never would have imagined pursuing the class if it were not for Hall’s new technology program.

How is science different from five or 10 years ago?
Students and teachers both have had to change their expectations of what to expect in the classroom. The lesson plan is not going to be a standard lecture anymore.

“It used to be you would sit in class, the teacher did his lectures, then you did a lab; and it’s chapter by chapter,” said Hall science teacher Rob Malerk. “Now it’s ‘Here’s a lab, here’s a phenomenon, what experiments can you do with it?’”

“We facilitate; we organize the things they need to solve the problem,” Barto said.
“The kids have to be the thinkers. There is no more ‘Memorize this fact.’
“The old standards it was just ‘The students will learn the material.’ Now it’s ‘Students will, understand, apply, manipulate, create.’ They have concepts they have learned but they have to apply it.”

How are the students
In most instances, students are really enjoying the chance to have personally involved work.

“There is a lot of interest. It’s almost overflowing with the kids signing up for it,” Bauer said.

A surprising observation from some of the science teachers was that students in the lower level science track were responding better than the higher level students.  
“The lower academic kids love the problem solving. They get to be a little more creative and they’re having a great time applying the science,” Barto said.
“They see their failures and they develop them in better ways,” Bauer said. “You see a lot of growth and a lot of development. It’s a very controlled but chaotic experience; but it’s awesome.”

But for some students the new standards are a bit of a learning curve.

“The upper level kids are used to looking at a book and memorizing. They’re better at getting the facts and then trying to apply them,” Malerk said.

“They are used to the lab that is handed to them and they just do this and this.”
But everyone is making progress to get acquainted with the new standards, which Illinois put into effect in February of 2014.

Brett Herrmann can be reached at (815) 220-6933 or svreporter