California’s New Science Standards are a Good Fit for Distance Learning

In a recent survey, California State PTA asked parents their opinions about science education.  Almost all those who responded agreed with the statement “learning science is equally important as reading, writing and math.” Most also agreed that “it’s important for my child to have science-related learning experiences outside of the classroom.”

Now that the COVID-19-related school closures have radically changed the way that students are learning for the foreseeable future, California’s new approach to science instruction, called the Next Generation Science Standards or NGSS, is well-positioned to take hold. It turns out that the experiential and phenomenon-based approach of NGSS dovetails nicely with the new reality of distance learning.

What’s different in how children learn science under NGSS?

The basic idea behind NGSS is that students will learn about science and engineering by doing science and engineering. A typical lesson starts with a question about something students can observe. Teachers then build a variety of strategies, depending on students’ grade levels, to take students from that simple question into serious scientific inquiry.

Instead of being told about the properties of matter, for example, students might use water and butter to investigate how heating and cooling affects each differently.  Students observe real events in their everyday experience and then are taught how to use scientific methods to understand what is happening and why. This is called “phenomenon-driven” instruction.

When science learning starts by observing the world around you, it can happen wherever you are.  And parents can learn to be scientists along with their kids because it’s the questions – and the process of answering those questions – that matter the most.

NGSS calls for teachers to do, in a deeper and more disciplined way, what parents often do naturally. Educators are calling it “three dimensional learning.” It boils down to three types of learning experiences:

  • Doing what scientists and engineers do (called science and engineering practices).  Examples include asking questions, planning investigations, analyzing data, and providing explanations.  For a kindergartener this might be asking about seemingly simple experiences, like why some days they need a jacket on the playground and some days they don’t.
  • Thinking in the ways that scientists and engineers think (called cross-cutting concepts).  Scientists look for patterns, for example. They measure things, look at how whole systems work, and identify what is stable and what is changing. In that weather example, older students might keep a log of various aspects of the weather such as wind, clouds, and temperature, in order to make some predictions about when they’ll need that jacket.
  • Developing scientific and engineering knowledge (called core disciplinary ideas).  Under NGSS, the ideas are organized into three main categories: physical science, life science, and earth and space science.  Under each, topics are introduced in the early grades and then expanded and deepened as kids get older. The weather falls under the topic of earth and space science, with ideas like the relationship between geographical features and weather.

Resources for doing science at home

During this pandemic, teachers who are implementing NGSS have had to figure out how to present phenomenon-based science experiences that work at home. And there are an incredible number of online resources helping them to do that.

The good news for parents who are interested is that the same experts who have put those teaching resources together have also been creating more parent-oriented ones as well.

California State PTA recently introduced a Resource Library that makes it easy to find age-appropriate science experiences that you and your child can do together. Just go to and use the simple search process to find what you’re looking for.