State wants a more hands-on approach to science

The State Department of Education wants students to get a jumpstart on science, in kindergarten.

The department also envisions science classes that emphasize research, not rote memorization.

And the changes could begin to come by 2016-17.

The department has rewritten its science standards — a proposal that comes as Idaho is taking the early steps to establish an “action center” focusing on the “STEM” disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math. But the proposed standards have been five years in the making.

“Now, finally we’re getting some work done,” said Scott Smith, the department’s science and STEM coordinator. “It’s a good time.”

Idaho’s existing science standards were written to comply with the No Child Left Behind federal education overhaul, passed in 2002. The state standards were watered-down and generic, Smith said — and some of the state’s larger districts went beyond the state guidelines to establish more rigorous local standards.

For these larger districts, such as West Ada or Boise, the new science standards wouldn’t have much of an effect on the classrooms. But in some districts, the standards could foster a hands-on approach to science.

In high school, students will be expected to run more of their own research — and that, said Smith, ties in to student’s senior projects, which are also research-based.

The lower grades will set the groundwork, he said. As early as kindergarten, students would learn that science is based in measurement and observation; for example, students would learn to record daily weather readings.

The new standards are just part of the effort to modernize Idaho’s approach to science education. Idaho’s statewide science exams — now administered in fifth, seventh and 10th grades — would also get a makeover in two years.

But first, the proposed science standards have to survive a review process. If the State Board of Education signs on, the standards would go before the public for comment. Then the standards would go before the 2016 Legislature as an administrative rule, and would have to pass either the Senate or House education committee.

If legislators give the final go-ahead, the standards could go into effect in 2016-17.