Suppose you wanted to teach children to play baseball or softball. How would you go about doing it? One approach might be to sit them down and start having them memorize the rules of the game, the dimensions of the field, the names and statistics of past players, and a host of other facts. You would stop teaching them periodically to review the material in preparation for multiple-choice assessment tests. The students who showed a great aptitude for memorizing large numbers of facts could go into honors classes where they would memorize even larger numbers of facts. At the end of the process, without ever leaving the classroom, how well do you think the children would be able to play baseball or softball? More important, how many would even want to?

Why have we thought that this process would work with teaching science to children?

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are intended to be a cure for this approach. They are the result of a bipartisan, states-led effort at rewriting K–12 science performance expectations in a way that will not only engage and excite students but also allow them to learn science by doing science, as opposed to memorizing facts about science. Research in science education has shown that letting students participate in the multiple practices that scientists actually do enables the children not only to enjoy and value the science more but to do a better job of retaining the scientific content. As the sports analogy suggests, this shouldn't be surprising—lots of kids know the rules of baseball and softball, and even statistics about their favorite players, but it isn't because they memorized them in a classroom.

The Next Generation Science Standards were completed in 2013, and so far about half of American students are committed to learning science aligned with these principles. At press time, 12 states and the District of Columbia have formally adopted them, several other states have settled on slight variations and many school districts in other states have also begun to adopt them.

It is tempting to suppose that things really won't change much: schools that used to teach to one set of standards will just be teaching to a new one. But that is not the case. The standards are an entirely new approach toward assessing student learning in science. There are no lists of facts that students will be required to memorize; the emphasis is on a higher level of understanding.

Here is an example of one performance expectation, taken from high school Earth and space science courses:

Students who demonstrate understanding can analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems.

This example suggests several things about the next standards. First, aside from the content's being aimed at a higher level of understanding, action (in this case, analyzing and interpreting data) is the key here. Students are required to do something rather than to rely on memorization, categorization or classification. A typical assessment for this particular performance expectation might involve presenting students with a new data set and having them demonstrate their skills in constructing evidence-based forecasts and explanations.

Next, the standards contain substantial high school Earth and space science content—about a full year's worth; in contrast, most high schools today don't require any. According to a 2009 report by the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education, only a ninth of American students take advanced geoscience courses in high school, and most of those are environmental science courses. With the NGSS, there are 15 middle school Earth and space science performance expectations and 19 high school ones. This is in recognition not only of the legitimacy of the geosciences as a scientific field, on par with life and physical sciences, but of the relevance of the geosciences to modern human society. For both middle school and high school, science content would roughly consist of a year each of physical science (about a semester of both chemistry and physics), life science and geoscience. This is a departure from past curricula. As of 2013, only one state, North Carolina, required a year of high school geoscience (an environmental studies course), and only six states (Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, New York and Utah) required the study of any high school Earth and space science concepts.

Third, climate science plays a significant role in the new standards. This is because of the dramatic global climate changes currently occurring on our planet, largely driven by human activities, and the recognition of the enormous influences that past climate changes have had on human history, including the migrations of peoples across continents and the rise and fall of civilizations.

The new standards face challenges. As we saw with the Common Core for math and English language arts, a project unrelated to the NGSS, any new way of teaching requires financial resources. We will need to develop educational materials (curricula, textbooks, assessments) and carry out research to assess them and improve their efficacy. We will need to provide professional development to current and future teachers to allow them to embrace the new emphasis on science and engineering practices and to align with shifts in science content. States and school districts will need to figure out how to best implement new curricula.

All of this needs to take place despite a political climate of distrust and cynicism toward some areas of science—such as, for example, the current attempts by the U.S. House of Representatives to micromanage the National Science Foundation and cut funding for the geosciences, especially climate science, at the same time that the U.S. Senate voted 98–1 that global warming is real.

Over the next few years, as the new standards are implemented state by state, children will be grabbing their gloves and heading out onto the field, so to speak, like the springtime start to the baseball and softball seasons. And once students see what science and engineering are really like, with the joys of discovery into how the universe operates, the camaraderie of teamwork, the sharing and debating of ideas, and the hands-on approach of designing and refining solutions to real problems with their own hands, there is a good chance they will stay more engaged and interested in science throughout their K–12 education and into adulthood. This increased engagement could lead to a stronger pipeline into STEM-related jobs, a better-informed voting citizenry and an enrichment of the personal lives of Americans. Perhaps science could even become the new national pastime?