Appropriating the Next Generation Science Standards in Secondary Science and Engineering Education Contexts in China

Ruiqi Ying and Todd Campbell
University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut, U.S.
Corresponding author: 


This paper discusses how recent developments related to secondary science education focused on engaging students in both science and engineering in the United States (U.S.) can be appropriated in China. The discussion begins by describing important features of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) related to science and engineering practices and the corresponding appeals of Compulsory Education Middle School Science Curriculum Standards (CEMSSCS) in China. This is followed by the explanation of how the NGSS can be understood and leveraged in interrelated and important ways that are consequential for STEM teaching and learning. Then, an example of how an Earth science teacher in a Chinese high school is provided to help demonstrate how the NGSS could be applied in Chinese classrooms and what further considerations might be given to integrating engineering into Earth science classrooms. Finally, this brief consideration of the NGSS in Chinese contexts concludes as attention is given to some obstacles to this approach.

Keywords: secondary science education, NGSS in China, engineering practices, STEM, talk moves

          Beginning from the publication of A Framework of K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (NRC, 2012) (subsequently referred to as the Framework), the compendium document that supported the development of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (NGSS Lead States, 2013), a new approach to science teaching and learning was proposed. In this, three-dimensional learning was envisioned that involved an integrated focus on engaging students concurrently in science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas. More specifically, three- dimensional learning has been defined as students engaging in science and engineering practices to use disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts to explain phenomena or solve problems (Krajcik, 2014). Subsequently, the NGSS was developed around three- dimensions with the important aim of engaging students in more authentic representations of science that is both more coherent day-to-day in classrooms and year-to-year across their K-12 education. Guided by NGSS, learning is situated in the problem space of explaining events that happen in the world or solving problems of consequence so that knowledge in use is prioritized as students apply science and engineering ideas and practices in meaningful STEM pursuits. Explicit in the Framework, a coherent and consistent approach throughout grades K-12 is key to realizing the vision for science and engineering education embodied in the framework. More specifically, students, over multiple years of school, actively engage in science and engineering practices and apply crosscutting concepts to deepen their understanding of each field’s disciplinary core ideas and knowledge production practices (NRC, 2012).

Desired State of Incorporating the NGSS

          This new vision of teaching and learning in the NGSS not only reimagines how students learn about and use science concepts, while also focusing on integrating engineering experiences for learners in classrooms, it consequently redefines collaborations within teacher groups. More specifically, the NGSS affords educators working collaboratively in professional learning communities an opportunity to reflect on their teaching and curriculum to consider how they might re-design a curriculum that positions them to elicit and build upon student ideas and sensemaking over time. In this, teachers identify phenomena that can be investigated and explained with science practices or problems that can be resolved with engineering practice in ways that will support students in engaging in science and engineering practices to work at knowing through the application of crosscutting concepts and disciplinary core ideas.

          At least with respect to re-envisioning science learning experiences in classrooms, this vision for teaching and learning outlined in the Framework and the NGSS corresponds to educational commitments in China, even as we realize how shifts aligned to the NGSS in China are constrained by, among other things, demands related to high-stakes standardized testing. More specific to the educational commitments in China, in 2011, the Compulsory Education Middle School Science Curriculum Standards (CEMSSCS) was published, which highlighted the importance of developing students’ scientific literacy by engaging students in science curricula that positions them to “[k]eep curiosity and the thirst of knowledge about nature phenomenon, through science inquiry experience, frame a holistic understanding of nature and view the world through a scientific lens” (CME, 2011, pp. 10-12). Researchers in China have previously identified the alignment between NGSS and CEMSSCS in relation to the overall approaches of the standards (Ming-quan, 2011), developing evaluations (Cai & Ma, 2015), and the urgency of demanding for change (CME, 2011, pp. 59-60). However, to date little attention has been paid to integrating engineering into science classrooms. Instead, the discussion has been kept to refining and reintroducing new methods in science learning and teaching.

          Yet, even with some researchers identifying the congruence between the NGSS and the CEMSSCS, many of the particulars related to teaching or the facilitation of sensemaking experiences for learning in science classrooms envisioned by the NGSS are left unexplained, while engineering has not yet been considered as an integrated enterprise in science classrooms in China. Additionally, given this we outline three areas related to teaching and learning environments that we think can serve as either intersections between the commitments found in the NGSS and the CEMSSCS or that can support and extend the CEMSSCS commitments: preparing more connected and coherent instructional materials, engaging students in situational learning, and supporting student sensemaking.

Preparing More Connected and Coherent Instrcctional Materials

          Around the world, there is a consistency across disciplines in how instructional materials are designed to connect learners to the disciplinary core ideas of each discipline (e.g., Earth science, chemistry, biology) in ways that are understandable to students. The differentiation that comes in how disciplinary core ideas are made accessible to learners across contexts internationally, nationally, and locally arises from how teachers take into consideration and personalize instruction that is attuned to students’ local, place-based, and globally situated prior experiences and knowledge. This focus on prior experiences and knowledge as an important stepping stone for learning necessitates moving away from traditional lecture-based instruction, since it is recognized that learning involves constructing knowledge by supporting learners to make connections between those ideas previously learned in school and in everyday life to new ideas as attempts are made to apply and refine the connections between ideas and evidence in a meaningful pursuit (e.g., explaining phenomena and solving problems). This focus on recursively trying out and refining the application of ideas over time also more closely aligns with what scientists, engineers, and other STEM professionals (e.g., mathematicians) do as they construct and critique explanations of how things happen in the world (Ford, 2008) and develop solutions to problems (Cunningham & Kelly, 2017).

          Given this reframing of learning, attention has been paid in the U.S. in connection to the NGSS to reconstructing instructional materials. More specifically, science educators create units that position students to explain a complex phenomenon or solve a problem. These phenomenon-based units engage students in answering a central driving question through engaging in a series of sensemaking practices (e.g., planning and carrying out investigations, developing and using models, and designing solutions to problems). The coherence of the instructional materials, where coherence is understood as a set of activities (e.g., investigations or readings) aimed at resolving uncertainty in relation to questions or problems, supports both students’ understanding of science ideas (i.e., disciplinary core ideas, cross cutting concepts) and practices (i.e., science and engineering practices) and how they are used to construct knowledge or solve problems. In this view of teaching and learning, teaching is reframed so that teachers move away from considering how to teach one complex idea in isolation, and instead consider how anchoring a unit of instruction around explaining a phenomenon or solving a problem over multiple days by engaging in sensemaking experiences supports students in learning scientific ideas as they apply them to resolve some uncertainty highlighted by the central driving question of units of instruction. In the end, these types of instructional materials help students build an interconnected web of knowledge that is grounded in a more accurate representation of the scientific and engineering enterprises, especially in relation to how knowledge in science is constructed and refined over time, how engineering problems and solutions are intrinsically and systemically entangled in sociotechnical relationships between people, communities, and the built environment (McGowan & Bell, 2020), and how they might responsibly participate in the enterprises of science and engineering specifically and STEM more broadly.

Engaging Students in Situational Learning

          The Framework emphasizes the importance of a focus on a more engaging learning environment in science classrooms, by explaining how “students cannot fully understand scientific and engineering ideas without engaging in the practices of inquiry and the discourses by which such ideas are developed and refined” (NRC, 2012, p. 218). Closely connected to how we described the importance of coherence in connection to phenomena and problems, since the release of the Framework and the NGSS in the U.S., engaging students in situational learning like explaining phenomena (e.g., why the hurricane season of 2017 was particularly devastating in the U.S. in comparison to years past) or solving problems (e.g., ways to understand and propose solutions to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on racial and ethnic minority populations) has been emphasized. While this may seem like a problematic shift to undertake in China, especially in the context of Chinese science classrooms that are densely concentrated with concepts, such a shift toward emphasizing real-world phenomena or problems to explain or solve is necessary if teachers expect to promote students’ scientific literacy and consider the possibility of a more integrated science and engineering curriculum. Here, situational learning that uses explaining real world phenomena or solving societal problems of consequence as the problem space for learning, are important since it affords students the opportunity to connect their prior knowledge and experiences outside of the classroom to learning inside the classroom. Additionally, the focus on life-connected, naturally occurring phenomena and problems are already well-aligned with approaches of the contemporary standardized exams- based educational system in China. More specifically, numerous science exam questions are based on real-world scenarios or cases that require students to apply science ideas in context. In the end, the situated learning emphasized in the Framework and the NGSS provides a promising approach for supporting educators in China in enhancing their students’ ability to draw connections between classroom learning and their everyday lives, while concurrently preparing them for an exam that is already oriented to real-world scenarios.

Supporting Student Sensemaking

          In Ambitious Science Teaching (AST) (Windschitl et al., 2018), the authors dedicate a large number of chapters to explaining how students’ ideas and thinking can be made explicit as one way of accomplishing the aims of the Framework and the NGSS in the U.S. As part of AST, the importance of students publicly representing and refining their ideas over time is emphasized. Typically, this is accomplished as students develop and revise models (i.e., their pictorial and textual explanations of phenomena), either through the use of posters or digital media (see Figure 1), or by creating public representations summarizing what they have learned across a unit (see Figure 2). Related to AST, when considering engaging students in engineering, researchers like McGowan et al. (2017) propose a reverse-engineering model of instruction consisting of the following five steps:

  1. Introduce the engineering design challenge or project. Before giving direct instruction related to the project, have students reflect on ways that everyday objects have previously solved this design challenge. Group discussions, reflection activities, pictures from home, and internet research can all support this step.

  2. Allow students to design solutions to the engineering project based on their everyday observations and experiences. Encourage students to test their designs early and often, so they can identify design weaknesses and work toward better solutions.

  3. After students have tested their designs, bring the class together as a whole group and ask students to identify what worked in their solutions. Engineering discussions often focus on learning from failure, but we found that project-related science principles also emerged from the working parts of students’ designs. Scaffold a whole-group discussion to help students connect their solutions to related science concepts.

  4. If there is time, allow students one more opportunity to redesign and test their engineering projects using the newly defined science principles. We found that students improved their projects when they were able to combine their everyday knowledge with more general science concepts.

  5. Have students share their engineering solutions through a final design challenge or gallery walk. During this time, ask students to explain how they used both everyday and scientific knowledge to meet their engineering design goals (pp. 68-69).

          In this model, like in AST, it is apparent that learning is envisioned as a recursive or iterative process that supports students both in learning science and in engineering disciplinary concepts and practices. In addition, as with AST, a public representation (see Figure 3), can support learners by eliciting students’ prior knowledge before starting design challenges, while also supporting learners to make connections between their everyday experiences and science concepts as they are engaged in engineering design. While this is possible in many U.S. classrooms, especially with class sizes that range from an average of 15-25 students, this might prove to be problematic in classrooms in China where in middle or high schools the class sizes are between 30 to 50 students. To address these challenges, we believe one approach could be to initially focus on eliciting and supporting students to share and refine their ideas and proposed designs verbally using teacher “talk moves.” In the U.S., researchers like Michaels and O’Connor (2012) have introduced the following talk moves to support sensemaking in both science and engineering tasks:

  • Individual students share, expand, and clarify their own thinking.
    • Can you say more about that?
  • Students listen carefully to one another.
    • Who can rephrase or repeat that?
  • Students deepen their reasoning.
    • Why do you think that?
  • Students think with others.
    • Can anyone take that idea and build on it?

          Through the use of talk moves like these proposed by Michaels and O’Connor, students’ ideas are elicited, connected to those of other classmates, and refined in a classroom environment where students feel comfortable expressing themselves. Strategies like these elevate the importance of student sensemaking and can help transform science classroom learning experiences in China where limited space has traditionally been afforded for collective sensemaking.

Figure 1

An example of a model created to explain why there are different rock layers across the canyons of the Grand Staircase in the Colorado Plateau in the U.S.

Note: This example model was used with permission from Model Based Inquiry (MBI): 

Figure 2
An example of a public representation summarizing what students learned across a unit of instruction

Note: This summary table example was used with permission from Model Based Inquiry (MBI): 

Figure 3
An example of student responses on the reverse engineering chart (McGowan et al., 2017, p. 70)

An Example and Extension of an Earth Science Teacher in China

          From the personal experience of the first author, a focus on strategies outlined above and aligned with the Framework and the NGSS could enhance the traditional way science and engineering is experienced in classrooms in China. An Earth science teacher in the Hangzhou First High School, who has been teaching Earth science for over 20 years, has in many ways accomplished the goals of the Framework and NGSS in her classroom in ways that can provide an example of how others might support students to develop and critique explanations of how things happen in the world. Students who have graduated from her class maintain a profound interest in Earth science even as they pursue different university majors outside of Earth science. Moreover, students from her class still remember what she taught about Earth science during their three years of high school. From the author’s perspective, through a few main approaches, she provided opportunities for her students to find success in Earth science. She provided stories and details when explaining Earth science concepts and linked them to natural phenomena that were happening or had historically happened in the world. For instance, when the temperature decreased suddenly in winter and students in her class complained about the chilliness outside, she took advantage of the chance to enhance students’ understanding of how a cold front followed by a warm front created a phenomenon of temperature rising at the beginning initially, before dramatically decreasing. She also incorporated other potential weather conditions in these situations, when she helped students think about what might happen when different amounts of humidity were in the air at the time. She engaged students in sensemaking discussions with questions. As an example, she asked students to predict what would happen when the air contained more water or less water vapor as the cold front proceeded to the warmer front. Through this, students recognized how increased humidity during warmer temperatures would lead to precipitation in the form of rain or possibly hail, while increased humidity in colder temperatures would lead to sleet or snow. The entire sensemaking experience was facilitated through verbal interactions similar to the talk moves described by Michaels and O’Connor (2012). In these sensemaking sessions the teacher helped students make connections between what students previously experienced and knew to new Earth science concepts introduced in classes (e.g., cold and warm fronts) to explain weather events. This example indicates that it is possible to integrate NGSS into secondary science education in China.

          Conversely, the first author could not recall experiences engaging in engineering-related practices as a student in high school in China. Given this and connected to our proposed consideration of integrating science and engineering instruction, one possible extension to engage students in engineering design are considerations of the complex and significant interdependencies between humans and the Earth’s systems. As an example, this could involve learners exploring pollution data locally or across the globe and proposing solutions for mitigating the disproportionate impact of pollution on more vulnerable populations. An introduction to the immediate issues of air pollution in India and a small example data set for starting such discussions could come from reviewing public media articles like the following:

  • Polluted Air Cuts Years Off Lives of Millions in India, Study Finds
    ( millions-in-india-study-finds.html)  
  • Who Gets to Breathe Clean Air in New Delhi

          Here, it is envisioned that students in Earth science classrooms might consider designs or proposed policies that can be considered based on their personal experiences they may have encountered trying to mitigate exposure to pollution in their community, propose or explore existing designs locally, and then work to connect what they learned might be effective in mitigating pollution to explanatory science ideas like their understanding of the Earth’s atmosphere, which can help to explain the soundness of proposed approaches. In the end, we recognize that there are some foreseeable obstacles that we consider next to the kind of teaching and learning outlined in the Framework and the NGSS when contemplating whether these shifts are attainable in Chinese classrooms.

Current Challenges and Obstacles to Implementing Visions from the NGSS in China

          The lack of professional development and high-quality resources or curricula are foreseeable obstacles for appropriating the NGSS in the secondary education context in China. Secondary science teachers in China are not familiar with NGSS. They, like their students, are under strict pressure from the standardized exams, which might prohibit them from investing time and resources in learning more about the NGSS in the U.S. or other trends in science or STEM education across the globe. In the U.S., researchers like Penuel and Reiser (2018) recognize that ambitious aims of transforming science (and engineering) instruction in classrooms will likely fall short if professional learning opportunities for teachers are not coupled with high-quality curricula designed specifically for supporting NGSS implementation. We believe the same case can be made about the prospect of shifts in science and engineering teaching and learning in China. Specifically, limited time combined with a lack of professional learning anchored in curricula that can be subsequently used in classrooms will likely stymie any similar ambitions in secondary education contexts in China. In the end, while researchers have compared curriculum and education standards in science between the U.S. and China (e.g., Cai & Ma, 2015; Ming-quan, 2011), none have unpacked what it might take in terms of teacher professional development and high-quality curricula.

Conclusion and Implications

          Many of the compelling shifts called for in the Framework and the NGSS correspond to educational appeals in China. The Compulsory Education Middle School Science Curriculum Standards (CEMSSCS) highlighted how when aiming at developing students’ scientific literacy, science curricula should allow students to “[k]eep curiosity and the thirst of knowledge about a natural phenomenon, through science inquiry experience, frame a holistic understanding of nature and view the world through a scientific lens.” (CME, 2011, pp. 10-12) Research studies in China have compared and discussed the urgency of drawing on the commitments found within the NGSS to consider changes that might be beneficial in the educational system in China (Cai & Ma, 2015; Ming-quan, 2011). This paper further examined nuanced details previously not discussed including an integrated approach to teaching science and engineering in science classrooms and how to appropriate the following three important commitments of the NGSS in the context of China: preparing more connected and coherent instructional materials, engaging students in situational learning, and supporting student sensemaking. This was followed by an example by an Earth science teacher in a Chinese high school who related it to what the NGSS might look like in the Chinese secondary education context. Ultimately, although there are foreseeable obstacles, we believe the potential of appropriating the NGSS to the secondary science education context in China is promising and has the potential to better support a more engaging experience for students in science in Chinese classrooms.

Ruiqi Ying has a Bachelor of Science degree from the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut where she studied Earth science education. Her research focuses on supportive teaching approaches for students’ idea generation processes in a group setting. This may change as her educational trajectory continues in her graduate studies. Her education background provides her the opportunity to compare and contrast educational phenomena in China and the United States.

Todd Campbell is the Department Head of Curriculum and Instruction and a Professor of Science Education in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut. Dr. Campbell’s research focuses on cultivating imaginative and equitable representations of STEM activity. This is accomplished in formal science learning environments through partnering with pre-service and in-service science teachers and leaders to collaboratively focus on supporting student use of modeling as an anchoring epistemic practice to reason about events that happen in the natural world.


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