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Students from City As School high school in New York City think like engineers as they construct a water filtration system.
Students from City As School high school in New York City think like engineers as they construct a water filtration system. Credit: Tara García Mathewson/The Hechinger Report

Five groups of high school students worked around tables in Vielca Anglin’s science classroom on a recent afternoon at City-As-School in New York City. They had half-liter water bottles in front of them and a range of materials including pebbles, soil, rice, marbles, scouring pads and gauze. Their task: create a gravity-driven water filtration system that gets dirty water as clean as possible. It was up to them to decide what materials to use and in what order.

The lesson came five days after Hurricane Maria had pummeled Puerto Rico, when residents had started to realize the lack of access to clean water could cause a public health crisis on the island. Anglin was asking students to think and act like scientists and engineers.

“That’s what this class is about,” Anglin said. “Getting students to understand that they’re designers, that they’re engineers, and they can be a part of these real-world issues and real-world problems that are coming up.”

“It makes science so much more dynamic and active. You’re giving them a scenario and they’re getting their hands on materials right away. You say, ‘You guys are going to be the orchestrators of this potential solution.’”

Around the tables, the students began debating what materials should go into the filtration systems and the best order for the materials. Adjua Ayoluwa advocated putting larger stones at the top of the system, layering materials by size from there.

“Usually when I see filtration systems, the bigger things are at the top so the large sediments can be filtered out first and then the smaller sediments are filtered out at the end,” Adjua said.

Another group did the opposite, and a third mixed up the layers, putting rocks on top, then layers of rice, gauze, more rocks and more gauze. They each had their theories about why their designs might work, and at the end of class they poured water through their systems to see whose came out the clearest. (Adjua’s theory seemed to hold up.) The next day, after water had had plenty of time to drain through the systems, the students would test the pH levels for a final determination.

This type of project reflects the best intentions of the Next Generation Science Standards, which encourage teachers to enable students to learn science by doing. Drafted by representatives of K-12 education, higher education, industry and state governments between 2011 and 2013, the standards call for schools to help students build on science knowledge from one year to the next and make connections across disciplines that have historically been approached as completely separate.

Megan Roberts, executive director of Math for America, a master teacher fellowship program for teachers of math and science in New York City, served as an advisor during the creation of the Next Generation Science Standards. A former middle school science teacher herself, Roberts said the standards create much-needed continuity across grades and science disciplines.

“Unlike math, science is disparate,” Roberts said. “There’s no natural continuum.”

The Next Generation Science Standards, adopted so far by 18 states and the District of Columbia, demand a three-dimensional approach to instruction. Each lesson should combine “practices,” or the behaviors of real scientists and engineers; “cross-cutting concepts,” which clarify connections across science disciplines and help students create a coherent view of the world based on science, and “disciplinary core ideas,” or the fundamental ideas students must know to understand a given science discipline.

Anglin, who has led workshops for her MƒA master teacher fellow peers seeking to better understand and implement the Next Generation Science Standards in their own classrooms, sees these three elements as critical to boosting student engagement in her class.

“It makes science so much more dynamic and active,” Anglin said. “You’re giving them a scenario and they’re getting their hands on materials right away. You say, ‘You guys are going to be the orchestrators of this potential solution.’ I feel like they’re fully engaged with the scientific content.”

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