Going beyond the NGSS: why everyone needs a college education—in elementary school.

Many teachers are compelled to abide by the Next Generation Science Standards when designing their courses of study, so why would someone advocate for a curriculum that is not included in the standards, or that goes well beyond grade level expectations? I support the inclusion of in-depth chemistry and biochemistry learning, starting in elementary school, not just because these are amazing subjects that students deserve to learn, but because I believe they can make teaching to the NGSS much easier.

After years of developing Biochemistry Literacy for Kids, I now have wonderful documentation that elementary school kids can learn concepts in biochemistry that are typically reserved for college. But just because kids can learn biochemistry at an early age, does that mean they should? Yes—because biochemistry gives students knowledge that is required for proper understanding of NGSS-based curricula.

I could demonstrate how chemistry and biochemistry are needed to understand much of the standards, but let’s pick one at random. Here’s one Disciplinary Core Idea from grade 3.

LS3.B: Variation of Traits
Different organisms vary in how they look and function because they have different inherited information. (3-LS3-1)

What exactly is this “inherited information” that students are supposed learn about? The inherited information comprises genes, which are polymerized nucleotide molecules, themselves part of a giant molecule called a chromosome. Connecting the inherited information stored in DNA to how organisms look and function requires knowledge of many complex biochemical and genetic mechanisms. But the NGSS’s assessment boundary for this standard is as follows: “Assessment does not include genetic mechanisms of inheritance.” Luckily, the NGSS clearly states that the assessment boundaries are a limit on assessment, not on learning, so going beyond the assessment boundary is not only permitted, but may have been the intention of the standards designers.

It would be a real challenge for me to teach about “inherited information” without giving students a molecular foundation first. Without an understanding of biochemistry and molecular genetics, this standard will give students a low-resolution and pretty old-fashioned view of genetics. I would worry that my explanations would not be grounded enough in modern science for students to really get it. Even worse, a fuzzy explanation of genetics could encourage students to feel doubt about the importance or even validity of the lesson. In a world where skepticism about science is on the rise (think Flat Earth Theory), omitting chemistry until the final years of K-12 weakens our arguments and leaves us vulnerable to intrusion of anti-scientific and pseudoscientific ideas.

If you asked a 3rd grader, a college student, or an adult what a gene is, you’ll probably get the same kind of answer, no matter who you ask. Here are some answers that I commonly hear. “It’s what gives you blue eyes or brown eyes.” “It’s what makes you who you are.” “It’s the genetic material of a person.” “It’s made of DNA.”

These are all correct, but they are the kind of memorized responses that we pick up from school, when we’re not actually learning anything. These will not cut it in our ever advancing society, where pressing issues of bioethics, environmental sustainability, and medicine require strong scientific literacy from everyone. But more practically for teachers, giving kids, not just a grade-level understanding of science, but a mastery-level command of the subject with a strong molecular foundation, will give kids a huge advantage in standards-based assessments. My Biochemistry Literacy project is all about packaging critical chemical and biochemical knowledge in kid-friendly lessons to make these college-level concepts accessible for any student and teachable by any teacher.

If you still doubt whether a non-traditional subject like biochemistry belongs in elementary school, let’s talk about some curricula for sale that are not explicit in the standards, but have become widely accepted in schools. Lego Robotics and Minecraft seem to be favorites of school STEM programs. The websites of these companies promote their products and accompanying lessons as NGSS-aligned across grade levels, and this marketing strategy works for them. If toys and video games can become established as standards-based curricula, surely an active learning program designed to teach the big concepts in chemistry and biochemistry, could also be accepted by schools. Including biochemistry in school, starting from the elementary level may seem like a radical idea, but like these other programs, biochemistry can enhance learning of the standards and go far beyond traditional elementary school learning.

For most people, biochemistry is probably seen as college-level, but in reality, the NGSS does call for study of biochemical concepts in elementary school. Providing in depth molecular-level learning would clarify what kids are supposed to already be learning; I created Biochemistry Literacy for Kids, in part, as a response to this need. Deeper learning for even very young students is possible, and empowers teachers as well as students. Perhaps in the NEXT generation of science standards, chemistry and biochemistry will be given a clearer place in elementary learning. Writing chemistry into elementary learning benefits kids so much more than writing it off.