LINCOLN — Fourth-graders are taking aim at a perpetrator that occasionally muddies their playground at Wheeler Elementary School in Omaha.

This week, about 50 of them scrambled over a dirt bank adjacent to the playground, stretching tape measures and jotting figures. Their mission: devise a way to control storm runoff and protect the playground.

“We’re thinking about doing a terrace,” said student Annalise Pfeifer.

The pilot science program at Wheeler is the kind of hands-on, problem-based learning that state educators want to see in science classrooms.

New draft science standards unveiled Thursday call upon students to think and act like scientists, gathering data, analyzing it and communicating their results.

“We’re testing this out,” said Ellen Kramer, a Millard Public Schools educator who served on the writing team for the Nebraska Department of Education. “We want to be ahead of the curve when the standards come out.”

The draft standards list what officials believe students should know and be able to do from kindergarten to high school.

The Big Bang theory, climate change, evolution and genetically modified organisms are among the topics addressed. On these weighty topics, the standards push students to draw their own conclusions after analyzing data.

For instance, the standards would prompt students to analyze global climate models to forecast the rate and scale of global or regional climate changes. The phrase “climate change” is not in the current standards.

“There’s plenty of evidence that supports that climate change is happening,” said Sara Cooper, science education specialist for the Nebraska Department of Education. “That’s part of the beauty of this, that it’s the unsettled science. We know that it’s happening, but we don’t necessarily know why or what’s causing it. So engaging kids, and digging into that evidence ... they can come to conclusions about causes.”

Likewise, students would explore evidence supporting the Big Bang theory for how the universe began, drawing their own conclusions. Students would learn to explain the theory based on astronomical evidence of light spectra, motion of distant galaxies and composition of matter in the universe. Neither the draft standards nor the current ones mention intelligent design, a theory that living things and the universe were created by an intelligent being.

Under the standards, students would be expected to understand the factors causing natural selection and the process of evolution of species over time, including “how multiple lines of evidence contribute to the strength of scientific theories of natural selection and evolution.” In the current standards, students do explore biological evolution as a theory.

Genetically modified organisms would be new to the standards. Students would learn why structural changes to genes may result in harmful, beneficial or neutral effects to organisms.

The standards borrow from the Next Generation Science Standards. Those standards were developed by the National Research Council with states and other partners, including the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As of last year, 18 states and the District of Columbia had adopted the Next Generation Science Standards. Iowa adopted a modified version.

Cory Epler, chief academic officer in the Nebraska Department of Education, said the writing team of about 50 educators drew from a variety of sources.

“I think at the end of the day, we’ve got a set of standards written by Nebraska educators for Nebraska students,” he said.

Kramer, who facilitates K-5 curriculum and instruction in the Millard Public Schools, said the new standards would advance science education beyond the current standards.

“We’re going from ‘knowing about’ to ‘figuring out,’ ” she said.

If adopted by the State Board of Education next fall, the standards would replace standards adopted in 2010. School districts must, within a year, adopt state standards or their own standards of equal or greater rigor.

The current elementary standards were a step in the right direction, Kramer said. The approach to learning went from reading about science to doing science, she said. But the current standards still reflect a more passive approach to learning: asking kids to identify, recognize or describe, she said.

“We’re raising the bar, and we’re making it a much more active learning process for the kids,” she said.

Kids will gather the information, and teachers will facilitate, rather than recite facts. The idea is to make the kids “self-directed” learners, rather than teachers pouring all the knowledge into their heads, she said.

At Wheeler, the driving question in the playground project is what can students do to eliminate the negative effects of storm water — how to slow the water, get it to settle and to spread out, she said.

The fourth-graders are prompted to think even more broadly about the problem, for instance, how the problem and solution would affect plants and animals, she said.

Involving the playground hits home for kids, she said.

“When it rains of snows, there are times when it gets so muddy they can’t go out there and play,” she said. “So it is a relevant issue for them.”

Officials say the standards reflect the content knowledge and skills needed for success in college and the workforce.

Under the standards, kindergartners would have to learn fewer standards than older students. Some examples would be to develop an understanding of weather variations and patterns, and where animals live and why.

One standard says kindergartners will “make observations to determine the effect of sunlight on the Earth’s surface.”

High school standards cover much more. They would study forces and interactions, waves and electromagnetic radiation, structure and properties of matter, DNA, cells, heredity, biological evolution, space systems, weather and climate, Earth history and sustainability.

The standards give Nebraska-specific examples to make the concepts relevant for kids. For instance, the standards point to eastern and western coyote hybrids when discussing the variation and distribution of traits in a population.

The standards note that lessons on radioactive dating and evolution could make use of Nebraska sites such as Ashfall Fossil Beds, Agate Fossil National Monument and Hudson-Meng Bison Bone Bed.

The draft of standards can be viewed at www.education.ne.gov. The board expects to add a link from the website to a survey for people to comment.

Adoption by the State Board of Education is anticipated in September.

joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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