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Lopez helping shape national science education standards
Ramon Lopez, professor of physics, has been honored nationally for his role in elevating science education. So, it's a natural that he would be involved in the Next Generation Science Standards, an ongoing effort to create a new set of standards for science education for the United States.

In 2010, Lopez was asked to serve on the leadership team that would guide the work of a 41-member writing team composed of educators from numerous states. The process began with the development of "A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas," a document that was produced by a committee of the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences. The writing team's first public draft of the Standards based on the Framework was released in late May.

"Our goal is to provide educators with a roadmap for achieving the ambitious objectives of the Framework for K-12 Education, which outlines what the National Academies think is important for all students to know in science and engineering," Lopez said. "The NGSS will flesh out the Framework and provide educators with a vision of what students who meet the goals of the Framework can do, and how the practices, cross-cutting concepts, and core ideas weave together."

Lopez is a fellow of the American Physical Society and he also is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, a worldwide organization and publisher of the journal Science. Here, he answers some questions about the Next Generation Science Standards:

Q. Why is there a need for a new set of standards?

A. The last time that national scientific organizations produced science standards was in the 1980s and 1990s when the American Association for the Advancement of Science published Benchmarks for Science Literacy and the National Research Council published the National Science Education Standards. It is not a bad idea to redo such documents periodically so that they reflect our most modern understanding of what big ideas of science we believe that all students should learn.

One of the new things NGSS is trying to capture is the practice of science, like understanding what is a scientifically testable question or being able to plan and conduct an investigation. These practices are an essential part of science and engineering. Another new element in the Framework is the explicit inclusion of crosscutting concepts - like energy or cause and effect - that weave their way through all of the scientific disciplines, along with engineering as a discipline distinct from science.

Q. Doesn't Texas already have its own standards for K-12 education?
A. Texas has its own K-12 science standards, as do all states. And it will be up to the individual states to decide if they want to adopt the NGSS as their own. We have had considerable interaction with teams of educators from states that have indicated that they might well adopt the NGSS, so this effort really is a state-led effort. I expect that Texas will continue to develop its own standards, but I am certain that future iterations of those standards will pay attention to the Framework and the NGSS, just as previous Texas standards were cognizant of the AAAS Benchmarks and the NRC National Science Education Standards.

Q. Are you telling teachers how to teach?

A. The NGSS itself makes considerable effort to avoid being prescriptive and not tell a teacher that he or she needs to do a specific thing in the classroom. What are specified are outcomes for students that are manifested in specific performance expectations. For example, in the high school standards on nuclear processes, we expect that students will be able to "analyze and interpret data sets to determine the age of samples (rocks, organic material) using the mathematical model of radioactive decay." We do not tell the teacher what specific instruction to give students so that they can succeed in this performance expectation. Figuring that out will be the job of teachers, curriculum developers, and school systems. I expect that a number of ways will be developed through which students can learn this content.

Q. What is your role on the writing team? Are you finished now that the first draft has been published?

A. The first public draft is out and was available for comment, and our job now is to incorporate those comments into the next draft. We have been doing that with the lead state partners for some months now, and it has been a huge amount of work, but well worth it since we received many excellent comments that led to revisions of the drafts.

Now our job will be even bigger since we need to digest all of the comments that will be coming in and produce another draft. This will go back out to the state partners and selected other groups, be revised, and then released again for another round of public comment. Then we have to revise in response to those comments. We will have one more round with the lead states, and then release the final document, probably in the fall of 2012.

Posted July 16, 2012
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