There we were four artists (two visual, one theatre, one dance), amongst a galaxy of elementary teachers, middle and high school science teachers, science specialists, district administrators and more, at the California Science Teachers Association’s (CSTA) Science Education Conference in Palm Springs, October 2016. We, and other attendees, were on a quest for a greater understanding of the, as yet perplexingly alien, ‘CA-NGSS’, aka ‘California - Next Generation Science Standards’.
There was a multitude of workshops to select from, like plucking an atom from a star. Yes it was confusing to navigate the choices, with the occasional wish to split the atom and be able to attend two at once. But, ultimately, it was about jumping in there, getting your hands dirty (in some cases, literally), firing up the brain cells, and putting together pieces of the NGSS puzzle. Some workshops illuminated the importance of starting the learning journey with the ‘observation of phenomena’ which, simply put, means that when we witness something of interest we innately wonder why and how it is so, which spurs us on to investigate. Others wove together the three-dimensional strands of ‘Science and Engineering Practices’ with ‘Disciplinary Core Ideas’ and ‘Cross-Cutting Concepts’ into a comprehensive learning journey. And others focused on how a teacher, or a school, or a whole district, worked diligently and cooperatively to use OLD resources and OLD standards to re-envision them and align them with the NEW.
As artist-educators working alongside mainstream teachers, CoTA artists want and need to understand the huge conceptual and pedagogical shifts occurring in science education. We also want to know where we ‘fit’ and what we can offer in this new paradigm. Art cannot replace specific Science Practices; it cannot take the place of investigation or become an act of pure data analysis. Neither can it replace the meticulous researching of Disciplinary Core Ideas (content). But, whether or not Spock may declare it highly illogical, art practices do align with several of the Science and Engineering Practices and, as CoTA has discovered year after year, art can help students access, understand and demonstrate their learning of content.
This is why two CoTA artists, April McBride (theatre) and myself (dance), also led workshops at the conference, providing examples of where and how the arts can be in tune with scientific learning. In an energized and collaborative interactive setting, our intrepid participants took risks and creatively problem solved their way to new discoveries. They boldly embodied Disciplinary Core Ideas connected with the Earth Sciences, such as how our planet changes over time. They also experienced four crucial Science Practices of asking questions, constructing answers, communicating information and developing models. Luckily our participants engaged with the activities enthusiastically and we did not have to declare that resistance is futile, so we hope this means that our workshops achieved their purpose.
All science educators strive to inspire students to TRY; to WANT to practice science, to be CURIOUS enough to ask questions, to be BRAVE enough to risk failure in the pursuit of learning, and to INTUIT the connections between the big and small events that occur in our universe. But, educators are human too, and we also need a fresh injection of ideas to inspire us to keep trying, to keep wanting to improve our teaching practices. This is what makes conferences such as this one so important, especially when the stakes are so high; there is a new frontier in science education, and in classic Star Trek style, we have to boldly go where we may not have been before and ENGAGE.