Next Generation Science Curriculum Development and Implementation

Side by Side deploys school mission to enhance teaching and learning in middle school science

Side by Side charter school logoThe curricular program of any contemporary, public, K-12 school might best be described as a complex apparatus comprised of many moving parts. As a small, independent charter school, the adoption of new curriculum can be both an exciting and challenging endeavor. After extensive research spanning the spring of 2014 and the fall of 2015, Side By Side Charter School officially launched the introduction of the “Investigating and Questioning Our World Through Science and Technology” (IQWST) science curriculum. This core curriculum not only meets Marzano’s criteria of a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” (2003), but was also chosen for its research base, National Science Foundation support, Next Generation Science Standards alignment, literacy focus, and emphasis on student directed learning.

As with any curriculum implementation, however, this was only the beginning. While the formal curriculum was designed to help students gain knowledge of the Disciplinary Core Ideas, Science and Engineering Practices, and Crosscutting Concepts, we found it necessary to develop supplementary, STEAM based units that would provide students with extended, real world applications that connected to students’ life experiences and local context. In keeping with our school mission which embraces both constructivist and social justice pedagogies as core elements of our overall school program, these units we have subsequently developed were designed to enhance students understandings of the crucial relationships amongst sometimes instructionally distinct focus areas.  These focus and content areas include civic responsibility, social emotional learning, innovative and entrepreneurial thinking, problem solving, science, math, literacy and “soft” skill competencies, all crucial components of a comprehensive program designed to provide students the opportunity to truly demonstrate mastery of the Next Generation Science Standards. What follows are descriptions of three key strategies we deployed as we embarked on this endeavor.

1. Maintain fidelity to the school mission: Successful curriculum development and implementation requires dedication from teachers and school leaders and support from stakeholders to be successful. A key component of our school mission is a commitment to community and parent involvement, as well as social justice issues such as equity, access, participation and rights. Once we transitioned to a formal, pre-packaged curriculum aligned to both the Common Core State Standards (Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects and Standards for Mathematical Practice) and the Next Generation Science Standards, it was crucial that we continued to teach mission informed units. The team aspired for these units to be local, highly interdisciplinary, and attentive to supporting our students as they learn about the social justice issues of their generation. As a result, efforts were made to highlight environmental and conservation issues, as well as to enhance students’ understanding of relationships between health and poverty, and the ways empathy is often the driving force behind great human discoveries. Sample essential questions include: Do we have a right to clean water? How do the ways we get our energy impact our environment? What are innovative ways to get energy that are less harmful to our environment? What is considered a basic need and how are needs different from wants? What are the basic needs to survive AND how much do those cost in our community? How do we calculate poverty? Crucially, units culminate with student-designed solutions to real, socially conscious, contemporary problems.

2. Leverage community/RESC partnerships: As a small, stand-alone charter district, we rely heavily on our community partnerships to help us provide high quality, innovative learning experiences for our students. Examples include local, community-based agencies that provide food and shelter for Norwalk’s homeless population and community experts, such as a civil engineer to talk about building techniques in earthquake prone regions. A key partner has also been Cooperative Educational Services (CES), whose year-long professional development series entitled “Making to Learn: Creating an Entrepreneurial Mindset” enabled school leadership and our middle school math and science teachers affordable access to the quality professional development necessary for implementing truly interdisciplinary STEAM curriculum. Some topics explored were augmented reality, entrepreneurial mindset, maker pedagogy, coding and design-based thinking.

A wall with a wooden frame in front of it and a few cardboard signs attached to it

A wall covered in signs made from cardboard

A primary partner has been The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, and the collaborative projects we have worked on over the last six years have been integral to our middle school Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) unit’s implementation. The Aldrich has provided high quality professional development for our teachers around visual thinking strategies and STEAM pedagogies and has provided free busing for our students to participate in a wide array of programs at the museum. Additionally, this partnership was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which focused on school/museum/community partnerships.  A highlight of the middle school partnership has been the Common Ground artist residency, which has placed an artist in our seventh-grade class for a full week for the past five years. During this residency, students and an exhibiting or alumni artist from the Aldrich conceptualize and design a project around a concept, topic or theme that resonates with the artists’ work, current events, and/or student interests. These projects have included an exploration of neighborhood renewal projects going on in the school community, interviewing community residents, and designing a utopic block, as well as installing a major exhibit on the outside of the Aldrich for a full show season. Many of our STEAM units have been influenced by the open-ended design of this residency.

3. Incorporates design-based thinking: Design based thinking as conceptualized by Stanford University’s “d. school” ( lends itself particularly well to Next Generation Science Standards teaching and learning. Teachers and administration explored this model as part of the CES “Making to Learn: Creating an Entrepreneurial Mindset” professional development series. Below is the model:

A five-step design process. Step 1, empathize. Step 2, define. Step 3, ideate. Step 4, prototype. Step 5, test. Source:

From this perspective, units of inquiry begin with empathy. For example, eighth grade students study plate tectonics and principles of engineering and architecture that work toward stabilizing buildings in earthquake-prone regions of the world, but not until after they talk with a guest speaker who survived the earthquake in Haiti and collaboratively research the economic, historical and geopolitical factors that contributed to the extreme effects of the 2010 earthquake. They then engage with a presentation with a local civil engineer and begin to conceptualize their own design for an earthquake-proof building. They collaborate, develop a prototype, make improvements, and the culminating activity is a parent night where parents come in and help students test their buildings on a shaker table. Last year we had 100% parental involvement.

Key to this approach is an emphasis on “soft” skills. These skills are not easily measured or taught in traditional ways, but rather emerge as students engage in real world problem solving. Examples include perseverance, risk-taking, flexibility, team-work and time management. As we prepare our learners for college and career readiness, these skills will be crucial as they enter an increasingly complex and always changing job market.


Sketch of plans for a building designed to withstand an earthquake.


Small prototype of a building designed to withstand an earthquake.


Topic: Next Generation Science Standards Curriculum Adoption and Implementation


  • Maintain fidelity to the school mission/culture
  • Leverage community/RESC partnerships:
  • Incorporate design based thinking

District: Side By Side Charter School

District Snapshot: Single school, charter district; 236 Students; Serve students in grades Pre-K through 8th grade; 59.3% eligible for free/reduced price meals; 10.6% students with disabilities; 9.3% English learners; 17.5 Full Time Equivalent Educators; $12,265 per pupil

District contact: Matthew Nittoly, Executive Director

Mary Newbery, Assistant Director


Marzano, R. (2003). What works in schools : Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.