EE and the Next Generation Science Standards

Next Generation Science Standards: The Environment as a Laboratory for Developing Skills in Science and Engineering Practices

In recent years, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education has gained a place among the most pressing education issues that our nation faces. Recently, science education leaders across the country have come together to develop the new Next Generation Science Standards. These new learning standards emphasize the development of skills students will need in order to contribute solutions to 21st century challenges, including those concerning sustainability and the environment.

Within the new science standards are a set of skills known as Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs), practices that help one to understand an observation or solve a problem. Opportunities abound for students to learn and apply the SEPs while investigating environmental and sustainability issues in their communities. Here are just a few examples.

SEP1: Asking Questions and Defining Problems

A class of 2nd graders visits a local nature center on a field trip. As they meander along a short wooded trail, the students notice that moss tends to grow mainly on one side of the trees. When they return to class the next day, students develop a question that they will investigate: why does moss grow mainly on the north side of the trees?


SEP2: Planning and Carrying Out Investigations

A group of students in the lunchroom debate whether a paper lunch bag should be thrown into the trashcan or the compost bin. Some argue it will take too long to decompose, and others feel the paper will break down quickly along with the food scraps. Back in class after lunch, the students design an investigation to determine how long a paper lunch bag takes to decompose.


SEP3: Analyzing and Interpreting Data

Students monitored the water quality in a stream on their school’s campus once a month for the past 6 months. As the weather warms, they notice dissolved oxygen levels decreasing each month. Concerned for the organisms that depend on the oxygen dissolved in the stream water, the students analyze trends in their data to determine a cause for the decrease.


SEP4: Developing and Using Models

Students in a high school gardening club decide they would like to construct a greenhouse so they can lengthen their growing season. First, they develop a diagram of the proposed greenhouse – including dimensions, building materials, plants to be included, a water source and proposed location – that they then share with their club sponsor as the students make the case for their project.


SEP5: Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions

During recess, fourth grade students complain that one area of the playground remains soggy long after it rains. They are learning about plants, and one student remembers aloud that plants need lots of water to grow. The students work with their teacher and a parent volunteer to design and construct a rain garden in the soggy area of the playground. 


SEP6: Engaging in Argument from Evidence

Each spring students at an elementary school participate in a citizen science project to collect data on when the maple trees in their schoolyard flower. Sam, a fifth grader, remembers that in his first grade year the first flowers were spotted on his birthday, but this year they arrived a full week later. Sam’s teacher helped him to locate the data from the past 20 years that students at the school have participated in the project. Sam spotted a trend in the data: the flowers are blooming slightly later each spring. Led by their teacher, Sam’s class engages in argumentation about the reason behind this trend.


SEP7: Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking

Middle school students would like to install rain barrels on their school’s downspouts to collect water for their vegetable garden. They want to install enough barrels to maximize the amount of rain collected. Using the average rainfall for their town, as well as their calculations of the surface area of the school’s roof, the students are able to determine the volume of water they are likely to collect each month. They then select the size and number of barrels needed to maximize rainwater collected.


SEP8: Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

When learning about the power consumption of electronics, middle school students become concerned about the energy consumed by lights, computers, and other devices that are left on after everyone has left the building each evening. Students develop data tables and collect information by surveying teachers about what is turned off and what is left on each day. They then develop graphs to visually communicate the data. With help from their teacher, they schedule a meeting with the school principal and use their graphs to make the case that a great deal of energy could be conserved if the school implemented a “lights out” policy for the overnight hours.