By Marcel Harmon
Astrophysicist and well-known science advocate Neil deGrasse Tyson once said that “science literacy is the artery through which the solutions of tomorrow’s problems flow.” From the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer (the main source of water in the western third of our state) to maximizing Kansas’ renewable energy potential, our state has a long list of complex challenges and opportunities to address over the coming years. And this will require a combination of well prepared engineers and scientists working with policy makers, government officials and citizens with a grasp of science and engineering.
The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a set of K-12 benchmarks establishing what students should know and be able to do in science and engineering at each grade, were developed with this in mind – to increase the depth of science and engineering understanding, not just for future scientists and engineers, but for every student. The Kansas State Board of Education adopted these standards in 2013 and renamed them the Kansas College and Career Ready Standards for Science (KCCRSS).
Much has already been written about the need for more technical professionals, how a strong K-12 science and engineering curriculum forms the base of a strong Kansas economy and how greater science and engineering literacy is needed among the general population. However, another key benefit of these science standards is the interdisciplinary nature that has been built into them.
Scientists and engineers, whether in academia, government or the private sector, commonly work in integrated, interdisciplinary teams that blur traditional boundaries to provide the most creative and effective solutions. For example, keeping people thermally comfortable within a building, while also maximizing other aspects of building and occupant performance, is a complex problem involving an understanding of principles ranging from heat and sound transfer to organizational development.
To do this, mechanical engineers must work closely with architects, daylighting specialists, energy modelers, electrical engineers, structural engineers, acoustical engineers, contractors, facility managers and controls specialists. And increasingly, with the recognition that a deeper understanding of occupant wants/needs is critical for a successful built environment(i.e., social/cultural factors often have a larger influence on clothing choice than maintaining thermal comfort), anthropologists and other behavioral experts are also being consulted.
The NGSS/KCCRSS recognizes this blurring of traditional boundaries and seeks to provide students a deeper understanding of core scientific and engineering concepts that cross-cut disciplines. It’s also intended to expose students to locally relevant, real world applications that extend outward to include the arts, history, agriculture, etc. This is necessary preparation for high school graduates who are ready to take the next step in becoming engineers and scientists capable of effectively working in interdisciplinary teams to solve 21st century problems. Just as important, the standards intend to equip students with the foundational scientific and engineering literacy needed to be citizens in our 21st century democracy.
However, adequate public education funding is required for successful implementation as well as the development of assessments that don’t compromise the primary goals of the standards, including their interdisciplinary focus. It will take dedicated personnel allowed to devote the necessary time, from the state level down to our individual school districts.
But Kansas’ current inadequate levels of education spending—confirmed by the recent court ruling in the Gannon case — with potential additional cuts as a result of the state’s looming budget crisis, is a significant threat to successful implementation of the KCCRSS. In several ways, Kansas public education is at a crossroads this legislative session, and the choices made will either open up or further clog the artery through which the solutions of our state’s future problems flow.
— Marcel Harmon has an interdisciplinary background in anthropology and engineering, was a member of the Kansas NGSS Review Committee and is a Lawrence school board member.