Approaching the Next Generation of Science with VHS Science Courses
Category: Online Teaching Best Practices
The statistics on science education in the United States are staggering. Less than 30% of high school graduates are ready to pursue college level education in science.* Yet, the US Department of Commerce indicates that STEM jobs have grown at a rate three times that of non-STEM jobs over the last ten years and projects that the field will see an additional 17% growth by 2018, a rate nearly twice as fast as that predicted in non-related STEM fields. Meanwhile, students from 18 international education systems earned higher average scores than US students for scientific literacy.** This data suggests a dire need for change in our approach to science education in this country, not only to support healthy domestic and global economies, but also to foster scientifically literate, responsible and globally aware citizens.
These statistics have prompted a nationwide focus on improving STEM education in the United States. The National Research Council (NRC) has released a new “Framework for K-12 Science Education” and individual states are now working together to establish the Next Generation Science Standards that speak to this new framework. The shift in approach to science education requires greater accessibility to science content from kindergarten through high school, with an emphasis on “cross cutting concepts” and a shift from memorization to deeper understanding and application of these concepts across grade levels. This demands new opportunities to engage students in science, calling for partnerships between corporations and public educational institutions and requiring new modes of delivering science education to all students.
At Virtual High School (www.govhs.org), we are collaborating with schools across the world to deliver high quality science education to students. Our courses are designed to engage students in course content, develop 21st century skills like online collaboration, digital literacy and research skills, and foster student interest in pursuing careers in STEM. Some of the unique qualities of VHS science courses that address these goals include:
- The co-synchronous learning environment in VHS courses (which is collaborative and cohort-based even though students are separated by time and space) teaches students valuable 21st century skills, including time management, communication, collaboration, self advocacy and independent learning skills. While these are critical skills for any career, they are especially important in science where people often work independently to address specific questions or goals and then join efforts to address larger scientific needs.
- The VHS course design promotes scientific literacy. High quality open educational resources are often used to guide students through course content. The variety of digital resources including text, videos, animations, simulations and podcasts allows students of various learning styles to acquire a deeper understanding of content. Students then develop a better appreciation for how to use open educational resources to investigate related scientific issues. For example, students blog about the latest research news in Biology, while they participate in a series of debates on current topics in Bioethics and explore the latest in cancer genetics in Genes and Disease. These types of lessons are found throughout our science courses; they require students to identify, interpret and discuss the relevance of current scientific issues, while exposing them to the larger scientific community through credible science news, government and foundation sites.
- Students engage in valuable labs and activities in VHS science courses. Students use NIH Image J software in Anatomy to examine histology, Stellarium software in Astronomy to observe local and distant skies and VDNA software in Biotechnology for DNA Fingerprinting. Students in Engineering Principles design bridges and work in teams to construct models for community shelters. In Meteorology, students form civil defense committees to establish disaster plans for severe weather events, while in Chemistry they research nuclear chemistry applications. In Forensic Science students perform a blood splatter lab activity to better understand how blood splatter analysis provides valuable clues to a crime, and in Physics students design roller coasters that demonstrate key physics principles. In Preveterinary Medicine students collaborate on case studies where they diagnose and propose treatment for sick animals, while in Honors and AP Environmental Science they design and conduct their own experiments to complete long-term research projects on local environmental issues. These activities require students to use critical thinking skills, serve to make the content more meaningful and are “hands on” in many cases.
- Students gain a global perspective on scientific issues in VHS science courses. Whether it’s a discussion in Nuclear Physics around the nuclear reactor situation in Japan resulting from the earthquake, group projects on how environmental conditions are endangering sea turtles around the world in Oceanography or a weekly blog in Environmental Science where students collect and share data on their local environments, students are communicating with one another, sharing observations specific to their environment and recognizing diverse approaches to and opinions on scientific issues. Our courses provide unique opportunities for students to interact with talented and experienced teachers, as well as peers who share their enthusiasm for science, from around the world. Through these interactions students begin to appreciate how the choices they make not only affect those who are close but also those halfway across the world and recognize the importance of becoming responsible citizens.
- VHS courses increase accessibility to science education for students in some of the most rural areas around the world. While in some cases, the most remote school districts may have one science teacher to teach all required science content within a school, through VHS these same students now have access to over 40 different science offerings, as well as to the knowledge and experience of the teachers and students within these courses. We are exposing students who are extremely limited based on their geographic location to new opportunities in science, as well as to the larger scientific community.
- VHS courses provide all students with opportunities to investigate interests in science beyond what’s offered in their local school districts. Courses like Animal Behavior, Preveterinary Medicine, Epidemics, Chemicals of Civilization, Evolution, Nuclear Physics, Engineering for Sustainability, and Environmental Chemistry provide opportunities for students to study specific topics that may otherwise not be available to them, while our AP and advanced offerings in Biology, Chemistry, Environmental Science and Physics allow students access to rigorous college level coursework in these subjects. Our growing catalog of science course offerings is creating new avenues for students to acquire advanced knowledge in certain fields of science. For example, a student interested in the Biotechnology field could enroll in courses such as Biotechnology, Bioethics, Genes and Disease and Forensics, all before they enter college or pursue a career in that field.
The National Research Council has identified “two major goals for K-12 Science Education: (1) educating all students in science and engineering and (2) providing the foundational knowledge for those who will become the scientists, engineers, technologists and technicians of the future”. This calls for new types of educational opportunities to engage students in science, encouraging them to explore their interests and identify their talents. It also requires science education to be accessible to students regardless of location and demands diversity in course offerings beyond what any individual school or district can offer. Through the diverse catalog of Virtual High School science courses, students gain access to talented, experienced science teachers around the world while investigating core disciplinary ideas and gaining a deeper understanding of cross cutting concepts outlined in the Framework for K-12 Science Education. VirtualHigh School provides a unique opportunity to bring science education beyond the walls of the traditional classroom and the local STEM community, allowing students to explore, investigate, share, collaborate and uncover their interests and talents in science while becoming scientifically literate and responsible citizens.
** US Department of Education: Highlights from PISA 2009 (PDF 7.32MB)