Science Education in WA: Learning with ‘Hands and Minds’

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Walk into a science classroom at Cedarcrest Middle School in Marysville, and you will see hands-on, minds-on learning. Exploring concepts such as gravity, light, and energy happens with investigative projects where students ask questions, experiment, process with their classmates, and iterate.

“My favorite part about teaching science is that moment of authentic learning — students’ eyes widen, their hands shoot up, and they are asking questions,” said Robert Stoddard, a sixth grade science teacher at Cedarcrest.

Stoddard’s classroom is rooted in the Washington State Science Learning Standards (WSSLS), which Washington adopted in 2013 based on the Next Generation Science Standards. These standards are designed to make science education accessible and relevant to all students, engaging them in hands-on technology and engineering practices that help them understand the world and prepare them for future careers.

What do students think about the way they learn with the standards? Angelica and Max, sixth graders at Cedarcrest, say they enjoy the way they use materials to do projects. “You learn a little more when you’re doing it yourself,” Angelica said.

The standards recognize that all students are born investigators. Hands-on learning makes classroom experiences more relevant to students’ lives, enabling them to see themselves as scientists and engineers — particularly for students of color, those from families with low incomes, and girls, who have historically been underrepresented in science fields.

Increasingly, skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are essential for success in the workforce and in life. Students need skills such as communication, critical thinking, and problem solving to be ready for education and training after high school that will prepare them for these jobs. Instruction founded in the WSSLS helps students learn these critical skills.

Stephanie Clark, the principal at Cedarcrest, said her students enjoy science and have become more engaged as a result of the WSSLS. “They are using their hands and minds as they’re working through problems.

“Hopefully we’re opening their minds to different careers in the STEM fields,” Clark said. “I hope all of my students at Cedarcrest will have a lot of choices after high school, a career that they’re going to love.”