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Black Holes Into Darkness (Zach Quinto not included) http://t.co/FxvsiGY3kf posted about 7 hours ago

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[Teaching to] The Standards… And Beyond!

If school weren’t already out for the summer (at least it is here in Edwardsville, IL), I bet there would be more than a few teachers thinking hard about plans to incorporate the upcoming Transit of Venus event into their classrooms. Now, of course, public outreach is always in season—no need to have the school year in full swing or be in a formal classroom to share the wonders of astronomy! But for this post, I’m thinking more formally because the first draft of the new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) just ended its first public comment period, and I spent way too much time this past week trying to digest and evaluate the finer points of a really complicated document. So just for fun, I thought I’d see where (or if) the Venus Transit fits into NGSS’s three dimensions of Disciplinary Core Ideas, Crosscutting Concepts, and Science & Engineering Practices. How hard could it be?

On one level, it’s not hard at all. The Venus Transit is chock-full of science—of course it fits into the science standards! But the truth is that nowhere in the NGSS does it say, “Students will observe and discuss the transit of Venus (or any other transit event),” and there will be those who say that valuable classroom time should not be used for things not explicitly stated in the standards. Not being judgmental here… the pressure (felt by teachers and admins) to “teach to the standards” is HUGE—and the topic for another post.

But although the word transit is not mentioned, the NGSS science content (Disciplinary Core Ideas) and the accompanying testable objectives (Performance Expectations) do provide a few ways to justify the observation of our sister planet as it makes its way between us and the sun.  Here are just a few examples [keep in mind that these are written for grade levels in the United States educational system]….

Performance Expectations

Students who demonstrate understanding can:

Grade 1:

  • Investigate and compare how some natural events occur quickly and other natural events occur slowly.
  • Record and share observations about how some events have cycles; whereas, other events have a clear beginning and end.
  • Obtain information and communicate that there are tools that allow people to see more objects in the sky and in greater detail.

Grade 5:

  • Gather evidence to investigate how lenses bend light and obtain information about the ways technology has used lenses to improve our ability to see objects.

Middle School (Grades 6-8):

  • Construct explanations for the occurrences of day/night cycles, seasons, tides, eclipses, and lunar phases based on patterns of the observed motions of celestial bodies.
  • Develop a simple model using given data that represents the relationship of gravitational interactions and the motion of objects in space.

High School (Grades 9-12):

  • Use mathematical representations of the positions of objects in the Solar System to predict their motions and gravitational effects on each other.

All of these expectations can be related to the Venus transit. The specifics of how would make for some interesting forum discussions!

So, are Grades 2-4 out of luck? Officially, no! In the words of the kind member of the NGSS team who answered my email:  “The standards are not meant to limit instruction.  Classroom instruction and curriculum can and should go beyond the standards.” As teaching professionals, we should not be bound by the standards but should strive to go beyond when we judge that it is best for our students. Let’s hope more and more people see it that way.

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