Education professor to assist state with revision of science standards

The state Department of Education (PDE) is about to embark on updating its Pennsylvania Science and Technology/Environment and Ecology standards, and Penn State is positioned to play a leadership role in that process.

Carla Zembal-Saul Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Those standards were last ratified in 2002, according to Carla Zembal-Saul, professor of education (science education) and Kahn-endowed Professor in STEM Education within Penn State’s College of Education. Zembal-Saul will serve on the steering committee that will interface between the standards writing team and the state board.

“The governor (Tom Wolf) is very interested in STEM workforce development; my priority is ensuring that every student has equitable access to rigorous, responsive and just opportunities to engage in meaningful science learning,” Zembal-Saul said.

“(The state is) looking at adopting the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which are informed by the vision for students’ science learning articulated in the Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012),” Zembal-Saul said. 

The existing standards were opened for review in September and the board is trying to put its finger on the pulse of community members, educators and industry. 

Judd Pittman, special consultant to the Secretary of Education for STEM and Computer Science, said the state is on an aggressive timetable to review the standards. Stakeholder sessions are being held statewide through March 12, including from 9 a.m. to noon March 2 at Mount Nittany Middle School. Click here to view the remaining statewide schedule and here to register.

“Following the sessions, we will develop a Landscape of Science Education: Pennsylvania Report. That report will be used to guide the content writing and steering committees which will launch their work in June,” Pittman said. “We need to have a series of recommendations to the State Board for vote in September 2020. Then things go to the legislature for the regulatory cycle. It is then in the legislature’s hands. 

“This could take up to a year or more for the legislature to take all its action. We have a timetable that is accelerated; however, it is really in their hands.  We are hopeful to have the first round of legislative review completed by November and going for the second stage in February 2021,” he said.

The content and steering committees will make recommendations based on the evidence and data collected through stakeholder engagement sessions, Pittman said. 

“That is why turnout and honest conversations are so critical. Regardless of the evidence we collect, we will need to account for providing recommendations to address the entire package of standards as required,” he said. “It is going to be an interesting and complicated process. PDE is committed to keeping our recommendations rooted in academic research and best practice; one of our key anchors is the Framework for K-12 Science Education.”

Zembal-Saul said 44 states plus the District of Columbia already have adopted NGSS or standards based on the aforementioned Framework.

“My guess is that there will be some ‘Pennsylvania-izing’ of the national standards, but my recommendation will be to go with NGSS because they're based on the best of what we know about how people learn, contemporary scientific advances, and empirical studies of NGSS-aligned curriculum and instruction,” she said.

“There's also a very strong emphasis on not just doing science activities or verification labs, but engaging in scientific discourse and practices, integrated with learning and using science content. It's more than just the content, it's being engaged in figuring out real world phenomena using evidence from which scientific models and explanations can be constructed, interrogated, and refined,” Zembal-Saul said.

Standards are not a curriculum to be followed or a prescription for teaching. They represent what students should know and be able to do by the end of instruction. “We can't just hand new standards to districts and teachers and say now you have to do these new things and you're going to be tested on them; it requires intentional shifts in instructional practices and systems of assessment,” Zembal-Saul said.

“I think that's a shared commitment among science education faculty at Penn State,” she said, citing colleagues Scott McDonald, Julia Plummer and Amy Farris. “The whole group is deeply committed to science teacher preparation and teacher professional learning across the career continuum toward understanding and enacting this vision of students’ science learning, whether or not there are new standards.”

Two ways in which NGSS is distinct from prior reform in science is the attention to young children’s science learning and the inclusion of engineering practices. She said an opportunity has been missed because young children are naturally curious about the world and how it works. “They come with lots of questions and they want to figure it out. Children’s interests and willingness to ask are not inhibited like older learners and adults,” Zembal-Saul said. 

She also explained that STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics – and science education are not the same thing. “In and of itself, STEM is not a discipline in the way that science and mathematics are,” Zembal-Saul said. “STEM education does serve an important role, however, and can create pathways to higher paying, more stable, and abundant career opportunities.”

Pittman believes that children should be exposed to STEM topics as early as possible.

“I would argue that engagement in STEM experiences needs to start before kindergarten in our Pre-K sessions,” he said. “We need to make sure that are earliest educators have a core foundation in providing high-quality STEM experiences to all learners.”

Pittman also said that Zembal-Saul is a “strong asset and thought partner” in the DOE’s STEM work, and that the College of Education specifically and Penn State overall are outstanding allies.

“Penn State as an entity plays a tremendously important role from making sure to engage in the stakeholder sessions and informing the initial conversations – for example, having a crystalized understanding of the pre-service experience, along with helping to better understand the post-review and update rollout on the implementation end,” Pittman said.

“It will be critical that we engage and stay connected with our institutes for higher education.”

Last Updated February 26, 2020