Watershed Matters: Science Education is a National Priority

    from Executive Director, Jim Waltman

Educating the next generation of scientists more vital than ever as our national government dismisses science, rejects evidence-based decision-making, removes data from government computers and is poised to make drastic cuts to funding for research.

Students in the United States have consistently received mediocre ratings in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) compared to their counterparts in other nations, which has led to fears of declining global economic competitiveness. In response to these fears, new approaches to teaching science have emerged.

The Watershed Association has made it a high priority to work with New Jersey schools to improve science education by helping them implement a new strategy called the “Next Generation Science Standards” (NGSS).

NGSS places a greater emphasis on scientific inquiry and hands-on learning, and much less focus on simply memorizing facts and terms. NGSS was created by the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and an organization called Achieve, in collaboration with more than two dozen states and other stakeholders in science, science education, higher education, and industry.

The program represents a shift in how we think about education from the traditional model of teaching students factual information to a new approach that challenges them to think critically and attempt to address real world issues. The goal is for students to “actively engage in scientific and engineering practices and apply crosscutting concepts to deepen their understanding of the core ideas in these fields.”

Organizations like the Watershed can play a critical role in implementing NGSS

The new standards entail the teaching of eight scientific “practices,” which include asking questions and defining problems, planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, engaging in argument from evidence, designing solutions and communicating information.

A recent column in Education Week by researcher Kirsten Daehler suggests that organizations like the Watershed can play a critical role in implementing NGSS. Daehler writes that “many districts and schools lack the in-house expertise to ensure teachers are thoroughly grounded in life, earth, and physical science. To make up for this deficit, many local education agencies have successfully partnered with outside organizations to provide content expertise that complements in house support from district instructional coaches, lead teachers, and staff developers.”

Watershed education staff have steeped themselves in NGSS, participating in several training seminars over the past two years on the new standards. This past fall, our staff teamed with teachers from John Witherspoon Middle School in Princeton, Timberlane Middle School in Hopewell and New Brunswick Middle School to develop and deliver NGSS-aligned, full-day programs.

Princeton teacher Connie Escher was extremely enthusiastic about the experience her school had at the Watershed Center, saying, “We have a diversity of learners that were all engaged. It was the best field trip I’ve experienced as a teacher. It was clear that Watershed naturalists had a huge impact in designing the curriculum. It not only matched New Jersey core curriculum standards, but the way students learn on different levels was very carefully thought out.”

Later this month, we are pleased to be delivering another two-day program for John Witherspoon School students.

The issues of water pollution, flooding and drought—the heart of the Watershed’s mission—lend themselves to NGSS investigation and instruction, for either a single day program or sustained focus over a full school year. We are eager to engage area students in our work to address these pressing water issues.

This summer, our Watershed Science & Stewardship Academy will apply the same NGSS principles in working with high school students to address several different environmental challenges. We are also working in partnership with Princeton University and Rider University to present the Watershed Science Teachers Academy this summer to help area teachers understand and prepare for the NGSS.

The Watershed endorses the advocacy for science and evidence-based policy-making as well as remaining committed to improving the way that science is taught in our schools.

Jim Waltman is the Executive Director of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, a member-supported non-profit organization that works to keep water clean, safe and healthy in central New Jersey. Jim has worked at the National Audubon Society and Wilderness Society in Washington D.C. He is a member of the State Agriculture Development Committee, which oversees New Jersey’s farmland preservation program and also serves on the board of ReThink Energy NJ, a non-profit that seeks a rapid transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.  Jim has a biology degree from Princeton University and a Master of Environmental Studies from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.