Through no plan of my own, I find myself looking back on a career teaching science, doing scientific research, and training others to teach science. It all started in 1994 when, as a middle school humanities teacher, I was given the opportunity to attend the National Science Teachers Association regional conference. Why? Who knows! At that time, I just thought, “Sweet, a free trip to Las Vegas.” Who would have thought attending one session at that conference would change the way I educated students forever?
The session was an introduction to the GEMS Mystery Festival, a weeklong investigation of a crime scene, suspects and their stories, forensic testing, and engaging in arguments from evidence (I didn’t know that last term until way later when I became an NSTA member). I was so excited about the prospect of sharing this activity with my students that I bought the guide and brought it back to school to present to my sixth graders (ignoring the fact that I was not actually their science teacher). The results were I witnessed increased engagement and critical thinking from my students. It was then that I knew this was the kind of thing I wanted to do all the time
Fast forward a couple of decades - about 15 Mystery Festivals, a dissertation on parent involvement in third-grade physical science mastery, and a relocation to Las Vegas (bringing this story full circle) - and I am now an “expert” in science education (or so they keep telling me), and my main takeaway is teaching science allows me to regularly do all of the things that I learned are best practices for teaching in general.
In 2012, the National Research Council developed their Framework for science teaching and learning, described as a “vision of science proficiency” that rests on “a view of science as a body of knowledge and an evidence-based model and theory-building enterprise that continually extends and revises knowledge.” In layman’s terms, science is something you do, not something about which you read. From this framework came what is now known as three-dimensional learning: Science is divided evenly among crosscutting concepts (connections across the topics of science and other subject content); science and engineering practices (what scientists do to investigate the natural world, and what engineers do to design and build systems); and disciplinary core ideas (key ideas in science that have broad importance within or across multiple science or engineering disciplines). Three-dimensional learning encourages depth of learning overbreadth, and inquiry and investigation take the place of memorization of facts and formulas. In this world, where information is readily available through just about any device, teaching students how to think and solve problems is much more important than having them memorize what some other scientist learned 1,000 years ago.
A year after the NRC Framework was published, most states adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a roadmap educators could follow to teach in accordance with the framework shift from teaching science ideas to leading students to figure out phenomena and design solutions to problems.
Even before Nevada adopted the standards and embraced the framework, I was on board. I like the ideas of engaging students in science and engineering with collaborative tasks that are relevant to their lives and challenging students to ask their own questions, find their own answers, and defend their claims with evidence and reasoning. In other words, DOING science.
Which brings us back to the Mystery Festival: The last time I facilitated one was two years ago at another school. But now, at Dawson, I have had the opportunity to teach forensics as a semester elective. It’s like a mystery festival that lasts 16 weeks! During the course, we investigate concepts in life and physical science (disciplinary core ideas); what it means to actually do
forensic science across multiple concentrations, from planning and investigating to analyzing and interpreting data to engaging in arguments from evidence (science and engineering practices); and address essential questions that challenge students to consider cause and effect relationships, patterns, systems and system models (cross-cutting concepts). Students are engaged, interested, and excited (some, a little too excited and not sure what they’re planning to do with these forensic countermeasures they’ve investigated). Whether or not there are any forensic document examiners or ballistics specialists amongst the Dawson alumni in the next few years, if any student comes through my class and has a greater interest in or appreciation for science or engineering I will feel as though I’ve done my job well.By Kelly Gooden, Ph.D.Dawson Science Faculty