Science shift : New state standards change traditional content delivery

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The Los Altos School District is preparing to roll out revamped science instruction this year to align curriculum with the state’s Next Generation Science Standards. District students make discoveries at past school STEM Fairs.

Sixth- through eighth-graders will begin to see a shift in their science instruction this year as teachers in the Los Altos School District move to align with the state’s new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

The standards, adopted in 2013, aim to update science curriculum to incorporate the latest in scientific knowledge and technology.

Sandra McGonagle, the district’s new assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said teachers will introduce the standards to all students over time but will launch the process by targeting middle schoolers.

“I think the concept of NGSS is to really have the kids actively engaged in discovering and inquiring about science,” she said. “The standards are now more about what kids will be able to do as opposed to what they will know.”

McGonagle explained that students previously learned science one topic at a time. The curriculum will now emphasize and equip students with skills required for engineers and scientists to succeed in the workplace.

“The standards are now more about what kids will be able to do as opposed to what they will know,” she said.

McGonagle said that before the state enacted the standards, teachers typically assigned topic-related reading, then lectured on the topic and followed with a lab for hands-on reinforcement.

“There are these cross-cutting concepts, things like patterns or systems thinking,” she said. “All of this is integrated into the core disciplinary ideas, whether its Earth Science, Life Science, Physical Science, Engineering and Technology.”

Sixth- through eighth-grade teachers in the district met at the end of the last school year to integrate the new lessons.

“The way the actual standards are written forces teachers to really rethink what they are teaching and how they are teaching,” McGonagle said. “The teachers are definitely integrating more experiences with the labs they have been doing. How can we turn that into more of an inquiry experience instead of a ‘See, I told you so’?”

According to McGonagle, the new standards encourage students to ask more questions.

“I love that it’s based on kids experiencing science and really thinking like a scientist or like an engineer,” she said. “That has been kind of an afterthought. We have kids writing about their thinking and trying to explain really complex ideas.”

McGonagle said the NGSS and new Common Core curriculum go hand-in-hand.

“They are a different set of standards, but they promote the idea that kids are thinking in complex ways and are able to communicate that thinking,” she said.

There are no official textbooks for the new standards yet, but teachers have turned to technology and each other for ways to integrate them. Students will undergo California Standards Testing for a few more years before officially transitioning to testing designed around the new science standards in 2018-2019.

For more information on NGSS, visit

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