Maine picked to help develop new science standards

Posted Sept. 14, 2011, at 5:31 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 03, 2011, at 2:59 p.m.
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.

ORONO, Maine — Maine was one of a handful of states selected recently to help change how science is taught in schools, with the goal of placing more emphasis on practical applications of sometimes complicated facts and concepts.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen made the announcement at the University of Maine on Wednesday that the state will play a role in developing the Next Generation Science Standards.

Bowen said setting better, more practicable standards is important, but he also stressed the importance of getting those standards into the hands of educators and, ultimately, students.

“We’re constantly fighting a relevance battle, and that’s something we need to think about for all subjects,” he said in an interview after the event. “Students need to feel like what they’re learning will help them down the road.”

Laurette Darling, president of the Maine Science Teachers Association, a 2010 Presidential Awardee for Science and an elementary teacher at Albert S. Hall School in Waterville, agreed that facts are not enough.

“These standards take us the next step down a path toward more effective science education,” she said. “They will lead us beyond the instruction of science facts to science instruction that actively engages students in the investigation and exploration of the world around them to learn core science concepts.”

As a partner in the national initiative, Maine not only will play a key role in defining content and concepts that will allow students to be successful in the work force, the state also will receive technical assistance to implement those standards.

“That we’ve been asked to be a lead state is testimony to the great work that you and we are doing in Maine.” Bowen told a group of 80 teachers, curriculum directors and others gathered at UMaine for Wednesday’s announcement. “It’s proof of your commitment to science education and to equal opportunities for all students to be challenged and to succeed.”

The push for more practical applications of science curricula coincides directly with the mismatch of job openings and the skills of the employed who are looking for jobs. Gov. Paul LePage gathered about two dozen business heads last week at the Blaine House to talk about that same phenomenon, and Bowen was among those listening.

Other business leaders, including Everett Deschenes at Old Town Fuel and Fiber, shared similar needs on Wednesday.

“We need the best and the brightest,” he said. “We need people with a lot of technical skills, even in the traditional side of our business, not to even mention the biofuels. We need people with problem-solving skills.”

Dana Humphrey, dean of engineering at UMaine, said his department has not been turning out enough engineers to meet work force demands, but he can’t force students to major in engineering. That interest needs to be cultivated earlier.

“For Maine, it’s great to be in the driver’s seat for the development of these standards,” he said. “We at the university really look forward to being part of the effort.”

The new science standards are expected to be completed by the end of 2012. Other partner states will be announced next week, according to Bowen.

The process is twofold and the first part — identifying core ideas and practices in natural sciences and engineering — already has begun. The second part is the development of grade-by-grade science standards based on that framework, and that’s where Maine educational leaders come in.

“I think it says ‘we have a seat at the table,’ and that’s important,” Bowen said of Maine’s inclusion.

Maine already has pushed for emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, learning opportunities for students.

Bowen credited Department of Education staff member Anita Bernhardt for writing Maine’s successful application. She said she looks forward to the work.

“We have 12-15 months to learn about and embrace science education as envisioned in the framework,” she said. “It’s critical that we are prepared to implement the standards when they become available.”

Gov. Paul LePage recently signed legislation to establish a STEM Council that joins higher education representatives with those in business and industry.

Over the next decade, 1 in 7 new Maine jobs will be in science-, math- or technology-based fields, and those jobs are growing at nearly double the rate on all other jobs.

Bowen said as a small state, Maine will benefit greatly from the opportunities provided by developing and then sharing these new standards among many states.

“We could never afford to create the kind of materials and professional development opportunities we’ll now be able to access,” he said.

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