Science Education Goals for the 21st Century: National Standards and Benchmarks
In contemporary reform, the configuration of goals for science education should relate to the overall purpose of achieving scientific literacy. Thus, any review of national standards should assess the degree to which the standards incorporate the acquisition of scientific knowledge, development of inquiry abilities and understandings, and understanding of the applications of science (especially personal and social aspects of science, and the history and nature of science and technology). Further, those implementing the Standards, Benchmarks, and state and local frameworks should review the priorities and emphases suggested for the different goals.
The science content presented in the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) describes major concepts as well as fundamental concepts and abilities for all students. Content only represents one component of a comprehensive view of science education expressed by the national standards. This comprehensive view includes teaching and assessment. The National Science Education Standards organize science content into eight categories:
- Science as Inquiry
- Physical Science
- Life Science
- Earth and Space Science
- Science and Technology
- Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
- History and Nature of Science
- Unifying Concepts and Processes
The standard Science as Inquiry has two features, the ability to do inquiry and the development of understandings about scientific inquiry. The inquiry standard emphasizes the students’ ability to ask scientific questions; plan and conduct investigations; use appropriate tools, techniques, and educational technologies; think critically and logically about the relationship between evidences and explanations; construct and analyze alternative explanations; and communicate scientific investigations and explanations.
Understandings about scientific inquiry generally parallel abilities. For example, the national standards encourage the students’ development of knowledge about the types of questions scientists ask, the various reasons for conducting investigations, technology’s role in inquiry, criteria for acceptable scientific explanations, and the results and use of scientific inquiry.
The inquiry standard emphasizes the students’ ability to think critically and to use observations and knowledge to construct scientific explanations. The Standards have moved science education a step beyond the traditional processes of science, which centered on students engaging in activities emphasizing skills such as observing, inferring, hypothesizing, experimenting, and controlling variables. These processes of science are obviously included in Science as Inquiry, but the Standards require students to use the processes, combined with existing knowledge, as a means to gather evidence used in their analysis, reasoning, and construction of other scientific understanding.
The Standards include Science and Technology, in which students would develop abilities of technological design as well as greater understanding of science and technology. The standard intentionally parallels the abilities outlined in Science as Inquiry. The difference between the standards is based on the difference between scientific inquiry and technological design. The latter includes identifying a problem, proposing designs and selecting from alternative solutions, implementing a solution, evaluating the solution, and communicating the problem, process, and solution.
In the National Science Education Standards, inquiry and design serve to (1) assist students in the development of their understanding of scientific concepts, (2) help students answer the question, “How do we know what we know in science?” (3) introduce one aspect of the nature of science, (4) develop abilities of critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and critical analysis, and (5) acquire the habits of mind associated with science and technology.
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