The question for curricula and educational product developers is how can we best support educators and students to meet the rigorous demands of today’s classrooms? The answer: provide student-driven, hands-on experiences that engage learners to ask questions, develop explanations, and design solutions.

A five-year study by the Smithsonian Science Education Center demonstrates that inquiry-based, hands-on learning improves student achievement in science, reading, and math. Additionally, this approach to teaching and learning narrows the gap for at-risk students, such as English language learners and economically disadvantaged students.

It’s findings like these that have led many states to adopt or adapt the Next Generation Science Standards® (NGSS) — developed by leaders in science, education, and industry — replacing standards that rely on memorization of facts with standards that are experiential in nature and blend science content, practices, and overarching concepts.

Materials to help

To assist teachers implementing NGSS or NGSS-like standards, science curricula and products need to encompass three-dimensional learning—combining what scientists and engineers do with what students need to know and with the concepts students need to understand. These materials should be developed by experienced science educators who have studied the standards and can guide classroom teachers as they assume roles as facilitators of learning. They need to provide the hands-on, engaging experiences that invite students to do science in the classroom instead of simply learning about science. And they need to lead to evidence of learning — artifacts that demonstrate that students have mastered the concepts.

New to many teachers, particularly those in elementary schools, is the need to incorporate engineering skills in students’ learning experiences. Engineers design solutions to problems. They develop prototypes that undergo testing and then make modifications until they determine they’ve created an acceptable solution. It’s exciting to develop classroom materials that aid teachers in drawing the connection for their students between the knowledge of science and application of engineering.

It’s vital to support teachers and students as schools focus on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math). Providing hands-on investigations — such as the Smithsonian’s STCMSTM units, Carolina Kits 3DTM and distance-based learning opportunities — assists teachers as they address these new standards and engages students in learning. With the right resources, both teachers and students can succeed.