Science revolution heading to Illinois schools

As early as kindergarten, all students in Illinois could be engaged in science and engineering practices, from analyzing data to defining problems and designing solutions.

By high school they'd be deep into engineering design and investigating solutions to global challenges, such as maintaining the biodiversity of ecosystems.


Science education is undergoing a revolution that could hit Illinois classrooms as early as next school year, the Tribune has found. It's a transformation designed to bolster science achievement and better engage students, though the reforms will face challenges and resistance, educators agree.

The so-called Next Generation Science Standards, expected to be adopted by the state this summer, would drive dramatic and sometimes controversial changes in science courses, textbooks and testing, and possibly increase the number of high school science credits needed to graduate. Illinois now requires two.


The science course lineup familiar to generations of students — biology, chemistry and physics — might not even exist, to the possible chagrin of parents, kids and college admissions officials.

Engineering practices and data analysis would be infused in courses from grade school to high school, the proposed standards show, and investigation and problem-solving would be emphasized over listening to lectures and taking notes.

"We live in a Google and Wikipedia society, and if kids need to know something, they can look it up,'' said Carol Baker, president of the Illinois Science Teachers Association. "We need to teach kids how to think, analyze, conceptualize, problem-solve, argue the science and defend their ideas."

The new standards would ensure "students know how to do science as opposed to learn about science," said Baker, who is helping draft the new science standards. A former physics teacher, she oversees science curriculum in Oak Lawn-based Community High School District 218.


Illinois and 25 other states are part of an effort to overhaul science education in public schools, with a goal of better educating students and better preparing them to compete for jobs of the future in science, technology, engineering and math.

In a recent poll by Achieve Inc., the nonprofit overseeing the standards overhaul, the majority of respondents rated the quality of science education at a C or below, both in local schools and nationally, and agreed that improving science education "is important to the United States' ability to compete globally."

The standards are still being revised — a final draft is due this month — but they've already put science education in a state of flux.

For example, there may not be separate courses called physics, chemistry or biology that would appear on high school transcripts. Instead, classes could be a blend of science subjects, labeled science Course 1, 2 and 3, according to the proposed standards. Another suggestion would be to name courses after the key science domains: physical science, life science, and earth and space science.

"Unless our colleges start recognizing Science 1, 2 and 3, I don't think we will do that," said Karen Frank, science department chair at Waukegan High School.

On the other hand, science content could be revamped but courses still could retain their names and traditional order in the curriculum — biology, chemistry and physics.

But in that scenario, some educators believe ninth-grade physics may have to be shelved — a disappointment to high schools, such as Waukegan, that have experimented with putting physics before biology and chemistry in the science course sequence.

In Lake County, Deerfield High School rejiggered its science course sequence more than five years ago and began offering physics to hundreds of ninth-graders.


"We do not want to redo all of our curriculum, but it's probably going to be driven by assessment," said science chair Judi Luepke.

So if there's a new ninth-grade science assessment that tests topics other than physics, "We'll have to change things around again, and that makes me sad," Luepke said. "We may have to take a hit for the greater good."

At the very least, Illinois plans to revise state science exams for fourth-, seventh- and 11th-graders to reflect the new standards, records show, and it's likely additional assessments are on the way.

While states will be adopting the broad standards, decisions on how science courses will be named and ordered will vary by state, said Gil Downey, an Illinois State Board of Education consultant who has been monitoring the new science standards for the state.

He emphasized that the standards are written so that students at all academic levels will have an understanding of key science concepts. But more advanced kids still can go on to higher-level courses, such as Advanced Placement physics courses, Downey said.

Many familiar science topics would remain in the new standards, from motion and energy to Earth and space. But students would have to dig deeply and think critically in fewer areas rather than try to cover a broad range of concepts superficially.

Experiments are still part of the mix and probably will be popular with students.

In a recent ninth-grade physics class at Tinley Park High School, students were using colorful plastic tubes and whirling tennis balls to understand sound waves and other fundamentals.

Freshman Ramy Betouni said his middle-school science experience wasn't nearly as fun.

"All it was was note-taking and looking at the board," he said. "It was boring.''

The remaking of science education has met with some resistance too.

The American Association of Physics Teachers has been critical, with reviewers saying they were "profoundly disappointed" by the most recent January draft. They pointed out that the wording of many student performance expectations "is confusing to the point that it is not clear what students are actually supposed to do."

Science educators across the country have been chiming in as well.

Dan Fullerton is an upstate New York physics teacher who created the APlusPhysics website to help students with tutorials, videos and other resources. He called the proposed standards "kind of a mess" — full of buzzwords and somewhat vague. "Mostly it looks like they're trying to push the same things we've been doing," he said.

"Why are we spending all this money other than to let textbook manufacturers make a whole lot of money to create new editions?" Fullerton asked.

Meanwhile, the National Science Teachers Association, in written comments, praised the standards as representing "the best opportunity to significantly move science education forward."

David Evans, the group's executive director, told the Tribune: "This is something that is really coming out of the science teaching community. I think there will be a strong push to make this happen."

Baker, president of the Illinois science teachers association, said she's heard mostly positive reviews about the new standards, though she's gotten some push-back from educators in "very high socioeconomic areas" where students ace state exams. Those educators said they don't teach to the current Illinois science standards now, and don't expect to change what they do.


There's wide agreement that putting the standards in place would take some work.

Teachers, particularly in elementary schools, would need more training across science subjects, and educator licensing requirements might have to be revised to ensure that teachers are qualified to teach revamped science courses.

"The education system is a complex system and the pieces are connected. So if you change standards, you have to change assessments, and you have to change demands on teachers, and you have to change what parents expect," said Michael Lach, Director of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Policy and Strategic Initiatives at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.

Lach cautioned that the new science standards alone would not be a "silver bullet" — but they're a start.

"The system has been broken for a while," he said, "and this is an opportunity to rethink what we do."