LOUISVILLE, Ky, (WDRB) – It's mid-morning and the seventh graders in Molly Duffield's third-period class at Newburg Middle School are walking around the room with yardsticks, golf balls and scientific calculators.

"How does the height a ball is dropped from affect how many times it bounces?" asked Duffield, who has been teaching science the last four years. "I want you to make a prediction, conduct an investigation and write down your data. Then we'll discuss what you find."

Duffield's students are ready for this task after spending the past few weeks studying total energy, kinetic energy and potential energy. They divide into small groups and get to work.

Only a few years ago, Duffield might have stood at the front of the room and asked her students to memorize and recite the different forms of energy.

"This is really different from what we used to do in science class," said Tarik Hemrekovic, 12. "We do a lot of experiments during class and we have to explain more – they are making me think more than I used to. It's harder, but I like it."

It's all part of the Next Generation Science Standards – a new set of academic guidelines that teachers across Kentucky are putting into practice this year. To date, 11
other states, as well as Washington, D.C., have implemented the science standards.

Much like the Common Core Standards in math and language arts – which have been adopted by 43 states -- the science standards describe what students need to know before they complete each grade level.

And like the Common Core, the new science standards don't arrive without controversy.
Some conservatives see the standards as another step toward a federal takeover of education.

Karen Kidwell, a director in the division of program
standards with the Kentucky Department of Education, said the new standards will give students a fuller understanding of science.

Instead of being able to recite definitions or explain what a concept is supposed to be, these standards expect students to gather information, construct explanations and then be able to communicate how that all works together," she said.

Or, as Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday put it,
"Students will actually need to do science and exhibit scientific thinking."

Kentucky students should have noticed the change in their science classes this school year, but they will not be tested on the standards until the end of the 2015-16 year.

Holliday said teachers wanted at least two years to implement the standards before students are tested on them.

GE grant helped with rollout

Though it's been less than a month since implementation, state and district officials say they have been pleased with the rollout of the new science standards – in part because of help from the General Electric Foundation to ease the transition.

In 2005, the GE Foundation awarded a $24.5 million grant to JCPS to improve student achievement in math and science. The district used the grant to develop rigorous curriculum and provide training and professional development for teachers.

"The grant…helped us tremendously as we implemented these new standards," said Sabeen Nasim, the former program manager of the GE Developing Futures in Education Grant, who is now a project manager with JCPS. "In many ways, all we had to do was shift content instead of shifting practices."

With the science standards, Nasim said teachers are now more of a "guide and facilitator as opposed to a direct lecturer."

Some see undue influence from feds

Like the Common Core, the science standards were designed and individually adopted by states.

Nonetheless, some conservative groups and other opponents see them as an attempt by the federal government to co-opt education.

"Every 25 years there is some new federal education movement," said Martin Cochran, a veteran teacher and senior policy analyst with the Family Foundation of Kentucky. "It pits things like memorization against critical thinking skills -- as if one detracts from the other -- and it doesn't. The problem with the standards is that they aren't very good standards."

Cochran said the science standards have "little to do with nature" and are very "technology oriented."

"The educational landscape is littered with failed educational reforms, and the science standards are like any other effort by public schools to look like they are really doing something when they really not addressing the fundamental issues of education," he said.

But Kidwell said the science standards are "good for kids."

"The detractors take away from the importance of the standards," she said. "It creates a diversion that shifts the conversation from what it should be -- which is, that there are some basic things that all students show know and be able to do."

More active classroom

Duffield says her classroom is much more dynamic than it used to be. Students often lead the instruction.

"They are the ones discovering the ideas and coming up with the content and the things they need to know," she said. "And they are connecting the things they are learning in the classroom to things in their own lives."

Tarik says he likes this style of learning much better.

"When I used to write notes and I had to read them over, I would forget what I read at the beginning because there was so much to write and remember," he said. "But when I actually do something, I remember it easier."

And just recently, the seventh-grader remembered a science lesson while playing basketball.

"We had learned about elastic energy and when the ball hits the ground, elastic energy helps the ball bounce up again," he said. "I learned that in science class."

Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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