Mind the Gap: Reimagining Science Education to Build Mastery for All
The United States is the world leader in science, technology, and engineering research and development. But when it comes to K–12 science education, our students lag behind their peers in other parts of the world. One recent study found that only 9% of 15-year-olds in the U.S. are top performers in science. Another revealed that the gap between eighth-graders in the highest and lowest percentiles was larger in the U.S. than in 24 other international education systems.
But this gap isn’t inevitable. One critical step forward is to enhance science learning with solutions that are designed to build three-dimensional mastery: knowledge of science, cross-cutting concepts, and scientific and engineering practices. The good news is that K–12 education in the United States has already begun to move in this direction.
The Changing Landscape of Science Education
Increasingly, classrooms are becoming spaces to engage in the practice of science. Students explore, examine, and explain how and why scientific phenomena occur, and design solutions to real-world problems. They develop a deeper understanding about how to acquire and apply scientific knowledge. Students also discover how all realms of science are connected, which furthers their understanding of the natural world. Take, for example, a lesson on the best conditions for growing plants. Students use information about light waves to decide whether to use green or red grow lights, and geology to determine the best soil.
This changing landscape creates opportunities to engage a new generation of scientific thinkers in more powerful authentic learning experiences.
Designing For Deeper Learning
Building arguments based on evidence is central to scientific inquiry. Students need to know how to evaluate outcomes and create a compelling argument for one explanation over another. And they need to understand how to use data and evidence to support their conclusions.
Current research on science learning focuses on the importance of developing mechanistic reasoning skills — considering the potential cause of a phenomenon. In this instructional model, students make observations based on what may have caused an event, rather than simply describing what they see.
Mechanistic reasoning is critical for explaining events. It’s also an important component of scientific argumentation: It requires students to make the case that one explanation is better than the alternatives and explain why.
Our recent white paper, “Building Science Mastery with BrainPOP®: Three Dimensional Research-Based Learning Unlocked,” provides an overview of the key learning and assessment design principles that guided the development of BrainPOP Science, and supporting evidence from efficacy studies conducted over the years in collaboration with researchers, educators, and students.
The Role of Modeling
Another area of emphasis in science education is technology and engineering, which helps students appreciate how science can solve real-world problems. Educators can introduce these fields in the classroom by teaching students how to build models — a physical representation of one idea about why an event occurred.
Models also require mechanistic reasoning: Students must explain the cause of the event in order to build the model. They also learn that several different models of the same phenomenon can exist. Then students can compare different models to find out which is more accurate, and use the findings to change and update their model.
Because models are so prevalent in all fields of science, modeling is an important cross-cutting skill, which can help students understand and integrate different topics in science.
The Importance of Actionable Diagnostics
Actionable diagnostics are a cornerstone of learning and play a significant role in improving academic outcomes. Educators estimate a student’s mastery of a number of different skills: High mastery suggests that the learner doesn’t need more practice, and low mastery demonstrates the need for intervention.
Evidence-centered design is an effective way of linking instruction with assessments, especially when evaluating complex competencies like scientific argumentation and modeling. It has been used for decades in intelligent tutoring systems and similar learning environments where building mastery is the key objective. A mastery-tracing algorithm pulls evidence from a range of activities, including test questions. Teachers and administrators receive real-time results about the performance of individual students and entire classes, which provides invaluable insights that can inform learning and instruction.
While the reasons for gaps in science education in the U.S. are complex, they have historically been exacerbated by a lack of learning environments that build three-dimensional science mastery.
Integrated science learning and assessment systems like BrainPOP Science — which is designed to build mastery in science — are an essential part of the solution. Such systems help educators identify and address students’ unique needs, which is a prerequisite for closing learning gaps. By personalizing learning in this way, we can make a significant leap forward, ensuring that all students, especially those from underserved backgrounds, receive a rigorous science education that prepares them for success in and out of the classroom.
Above all, when we introduce students to the real work of scientists and engineers, we open their eyes to a new world of possibilities.
Yigal Rosen, Ph.D., is senior vice president of artificial intelligence and data science at BrainPOP. He also leads research and development of innovative assessments of creative thinking for the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment 2022, and science assessment for the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress at ACT. He taught science, robotics, and computer science in grades five through 12 for 10 years.
Learn more about BrainPOP Science, a new solution designed to help 6-8th grade science teachers navigate recent shifts in science, engineering, and technology standards, assessments, and learning environments.