Justin Uhlenhopp and Tyler Wedemeier are science teachers at Forest City Middle School (FCMS). As a first-year teacher at FCMS, Justin was introduced to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which are the basis of the new Iowa Science Standards, by Tyler, who explained how he had used these standards the year before. Now three years later, they have jointly developed a plan of attack for the implementation of the standards. In this blog, they are sharing what they learned over the past three years.
The new Iowa science standards are complicated and even overwhelming at times. They are clearly nothing like the prior Iowa Core standards that most of us were accustomed to using to design instructional units. The complex language is enough to hold back many teachers from full implementation. But there are ways that teachers can dig into the standards to help them create the experiences students need to learn them.
Unwrapping the standards
First, it is important to discover what students actually need to know and be able to do. Starting off with the “Big Book of Standards” can be very intimidating. Take for example, MS-ESS3-3: Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing human impact on the environment. We remember thinking, “Wow, what does that even mean?” It sounded like a ridiculous expectation and we had no idea what students would do to demonstrate understanding of that standard. We quickly realized that we needed to dig deeper and that is when we began the process of unwrapping our standards.
Although it is a long process, in our opinion, unwrapping (also called unpacking) is the most important piece of understanding the standards. The Sample Unit Unwrap document is an example of how we unwrapped a standard and then how we used the unwrapping process to help develop engaging tasks and assessments. While we tackled this unwrapping process on our own, educators undertaking this process today are lucky because Area Education Agency science consultants are currently offering professional learning workshops (called Module 2 in most AEAs) that include bundling and unwrapping/unpacking the standards. If you take a minute to review the process we used you will see all of the legwork that went into pulling this standard apart. In a nutshell, unwrapping will help you:
- Identify the prior knowledge that your students are “supposed” to know when they come into your class;
- Determine what students need to be able to do by looking at the practices/verbs of the standard;
- Select core ideas of content concepts that students will need to know in order to be proficient on the standard;
- Use cross cutting concepts taken directly from the NGSS evidence statements;
- Write essential questions that students will need to be able to answer as a result of your core instruction;
- Create learning targets for your unit; and
- Design instruction, lesson plans, formative assessments, labs, activities, and summative assessments aligned to the standards.
It took us about a year to complete the unwrapping process for all of our standards, but the time was well-spent. Unwrapping all of our grade-level assigned standards has made the rest of the implementation process much smoother. We now know specifically what students are supposed to learn and how they should best demonstrate their learning. As teachers, the process also gave us an idea of what content we might need to brush up on ourselves. I admit, as a new teacher, there were some times of major struggle in having to relearn some of the science content, but fully unwrapping those standards really helped me to focus and understand my content in a new way.
It is hard work, but worth the effort
At Forest City Middle School we take chances. We push the limits and are always looking for new ways to improve our instruction. Implementing these standards was challenging. Many hours went into unwrapping them, and then aligning them with what fit our building and district needs. We made changes as we implemented and found support when we needed it. There were definitely times of struggle, but our science department is no doubt better because of it. We now have better consistency in our science department across sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. Our students are coming into our classrooms with a better ability to be proficient scientists.
As our elementary school begins implementation of the new science standards, we hope to see the content gaps that currently exist start to dissipate. Over time we know that the standards are undoubtedly a major step forward in science education. Our students are asked to do things that they never would have been asked to do with our old standards. When implementing these standards, remember that anytime you try something new, things aren’t going to be perfect. Chances are the new things you are doing will be better than what you did before.
Implementing new standards, especially standards written in a way that focuses on all three dimensions of science learning, is not always easy; actually it is really messy. However, we determined that when we take the time to really unpack and learn our standards, and when we keep a growth mindset, we are successful. Overall, we really like the new standards and the process we have used for implementation. Our science curriculum is now focused on 21st century instruction, there is better alignment in grades 6-8. We teach with a big picture in mind and focus on how the science and engineering practices overlap and build on each other across the grade levels, and we have consistent language to use when talking with our peers and with parents.