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5 Tech Tools for the Next Generation Science Standards

An education futurist shares his favorite software and hardware to help teach the NGSS.

This article appears in the October 2013 issue of T.H.E. Journal
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Celestia is a 3D space simulator that helps students explore the solar system.

I want to start by saying that, in general, I am not a huge friend of standards. For years I've spoken out against standards that turn our curriculum into a series of disconnected factoids to be regurgitated on tests. The standards of the past few decades have resulted in a curriculum that is a mile wide and an inch deep. Worse yet, contextual understanding seems largely absent from our standards, at least since the time NCLB was implemented.

So why am I writing an article about standards? Quite simply, because the new science standards are a refreshing change. They create the chance to move from instructionism to constructivism--and even to Seymour Papert's idea of "constructionism," about which I will have more to say later.

In his essay On Listening to Lectures, Plutarch wrote: "the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth." Not a bad observation for something written circa 100 AD. And now the time has come to light the fire!

Earlier this year, the country was treated to the release of a new set of standards focused on science and engineering in the K-12 curriculum. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) start with four disciplinary core ideas: Earth and Space Sciences, Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Engineering and Technology. Unlike older content standards, these standards focus on outcomes rather than decontextualized material.

The new standards look at science through the lens of inquiry and engineering through the lens of design--in other words, they reflect the practice of people who work in these fields. This is achieved through three major, integrated components: disciplinary core ideas, the ways that people in these fields think and work, and the concepts that cut across multiple content areas. These crosscutting ideas even reach beyond the realm of science and engineering to address topics in mathematics and language arts (the domain of the Common Core State Standards).

The NGSS represent the biggest shift in the teaching of science since the Physical Science Study Committee curriculum was implemented shortly after the launch of Sputnik in the late 1950s. We live in a world where everyone needs to understand how science and engineering works, even if they never seek employment in these fields. Political debate on topics like global climate change, for example, only make sense with an educated populace.

As schools and districts start to look for ways to implement these standards, it is only logical to explore what role educational technology can play. From the clear intent of the NGSS, tools that support exploration, discovery, and creativity move to the front of the list. Fortunately, there are some great tools available, and most of them are free. The list below offers samples of what is available, but it is in no way intended to be a complete list.

By focusing on free or inexpensive software, schools do not have to worry about their budgets and can spend their scarce technology money on the kinds of programs and other tools for which affordable alternatives do not exist. It is important to note that "free" does not mean "underpowered" and "inexpensive" does not mean "cheap." In fact, some of the titles I will explore go far beyond any commercial software.

So here we go!

NGSS-Friendly Software

Without a doubt, Celestia (available for both OS X and Windows) tops the list of software for exploring the solar system and beyond. This one program can form the core of a complete course, or can be used by students to explore the universe on their own. The image quality is amazing, and a steady team of global volunteers adds fresh material as it becomes available. The user can zoom in or out, rotate the viewing plane, and speed up time (to make moon movement easier to see). Best of all, Celestia has a scripting language that lets people create their own pathways through space. Some years back, I attended the International Space Development Conference, and two of the presenters used Celestia instead of PowerPoint, using a script that took them from one part of their talk to the next.

In the classroom, Celestia can be quite powerful. I was asked to help a teacher who wanted to have the kids tour the solar system. During the exploration, one child asked, "Why is it that the first four planets are rocky and the last four are gaseous?" Instead of answering the question, I had the students explore the topic on their own and then give a report on their findings the next time class met. This kind of activity reflects what the NGSS refer to as inquiry--an essential part of the standards. Teachers should avoid answering questions like this one, and turn the task over to the students as a research topic.

Scientists and engineers often use simulations to try out new ideas or test hypotheses. The PhET project includes simulations that explore the four disciplinary core ideas and beyond. The free software can be run directly from the cloud, or can be downloaded to run on the student's computer. Many of these simulations encourage tinkering, which is one of the powerful pathways to knowledge and understanding. The software is available for both OS X and Windows.

Those interested in building their own simulations need look no further than NetLogo, a programming language designed to model massively parallel systems (flocking birds, for example). Built on the core of the original Logo programming language designed by MIT's Seymour Papert, NetLogo allows users to work in either OS X or Windows environments and create many independent objects that, with a few simple rules, can often produce very complex behavior.

For example, a simulation designed to model how ants forage for food might start with a large number of ants walking randomly around on the screen. Once one of the ants finds food and brings it back to the nest, it leaves a chemical trail that other ants can follow to get to the food supply. Of course, this trail dissipates quickly, so the task of finding the food supply is a little trickier than I described.

While running simulations made by others can be useful, the real power comes when you create your own. This moves us into the realm of "constructionism," a word coined by Papert to describe the creating of artifacts that can be shared with others. This act of creation is where knowledge is truly demonstrated, and this, too, is a goal of the NGSS. (For more on a recent controversy related to constructionism, read this blog post by Cathie Norris and Elliot Soloway.)

What About Hardware?

While programs created by students are constructions, building things that exist in physical space is quite important as well. Two domains that fall squarely into the design aspect of engineering are robotics and 3D fabrication. Both of these domains can fit into a classroom setup using inexpensive hardware connected to computers. Here are two examples to show you how simple it is to get started.

The Arduino is an inexpensive ($30) open-source, programmable controller that lets your computer send signals to lamps and motors, and receive inputs from probes that measure variables such as light, stress, and temperature. While there are lots of places to purchase this device, SparkFun has a great "Inventor's Kit" with everything you need to get started building cool projects. A quick search on the web will show you a huge number of things people have built with this device and encourage your students to make something special of their own.

3D Printers
While they are more expensive than Arduinos, I am convinced that every classroom should have a 3D printer. This device allows students to take their own 3D designs created with free tools such as SketchUp and build their design out of plastic on one of these special printers. I'm hard-pressed to find any domain of the NGSS that can't benefit from student access to one of these amazing tools. While there are several sources for printers that build objects from plastic, the printer made by Afinia has received rave reviews and is fairly inexpensive (about $1,500). Afinia printers are showing up in schools all over the country, and my crystal ball says that this domain of printing is poised to take off, especially when people see how 3D printing supports the NGSS.

All the tools I've written about support the underlying objectives of the NGSS both in the realm of science (inquiry) and engineering (design). As I said near the start, this is far from a comprehensive list. I hope you add to it yourself and keep me posted with your findings.


A Math Mash-up

While the NGSS don't address mathematics standards, I'd be remiss if I didn't add GeoGebra to the list of essential free software available for both OS X and Windows. As its name implies, GeoGebra is a math tool that uses geometry and algebra to represent mathematical ideas. Like Celestia, GeoGebra can be used from the front of the room, but its real power comes when students use it to build mathematical models that provide a tactile experience instead of what is generally a mental exercise. Mathematics is as powerful a topic of inquiry for students as any of the physical sciences. Whether it is a high school student developing a new proof for Thales' Theorem, or a younger learner wanting to find a way to share a pizza equally with a friend if the first cut doesn't go through the center, this tool will get a lot of use.