by Penny Noyce
With time travel and mystery missions doled out by Dudes from the Future, Tumblehome’s Galactic Academy of Science series may seem to edge toward the fantasy end of science fiction. But in fact, each adventure aims to get kids identifying with and thinking like scientists.
Thinking like scientists: What does that mean? One place to look is in the process standards of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), developed by the National Science Teachers Association, the National Research Council, and Achieve. The eight science and engineering process standards distill what scientists and engineers consider the key thinking and working habits of their profession. Scientists and engineers in the G.A.S. books exhibit these thinking habits, and increasingly, over time, so do the middle school protagonists.
What are these process standards?
1. Asking questions and defining problems. At the middle grades, questions arise from careful observation, and they’re meant to determine relationships between variables, to clarify models, and to require empirical evidence for their solution. A science example from The Desperate Case of the Diamond Chip has the kids wondering how elements absorb and emit spectra made up of specific wavelengths of light. An engineering example is the question of how to fit thousands of circuit components on one piece of silicon.
2. Developing and using models. Models include everything from diagrams and 3-D representations to mathematical models and computer simulations. Even a simple analogy can be a model if it help guides scientific thinking. Models appear throughout the book, from models of sedimentary layering over time in The Furious Case of the Fraudulent Fossil to the simulation of a computer hack at the end of The Harrowing Case of the Hackensack Hacker. Even in the upcoming Baffling Case of the Battered Brain, Clinton and Mae learn to think about what happens during concussion by examining the model created by a French military surgeon.
3. Planning and carrying out investigations. By middle school, students should be able to work with independent and dependent variables and controls. This classical experimental structure shows up clearly in the animal and human vaccine trials explored in The Vicious Case of the Viral Vaccine, as well as in designing an experiment to look at nerve growth factor in The Battered Brain.
4. Analyzing and interpreting data.
5. Using mathematics and computational thinking. Math and data analysis can both be difficult to portray in fiction, but our upcoming book The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair has the kid protagonists doing frequency analysis and computer programming to make and break codes.
6. Constructing explanations and designing solutions. Constructing explanations that incorporate many sources of evidence is an appropriate challenge for middle school students. This process of synthesizing evidence into a coherent whole is fundamental in understanding the fossil record in Fraudulent Fossil. But it’s also key to solving the mysteries in Fraudulent Fossil, Viral Vaccine, and Diamond Chip. And in many of the books, including Diamond Chip, Hackensack Hacker, and Coded Fair, designing an engineering solution to a problem becomes a key plot point.
7. Engaging in argument from evidence. Students need to understand how to critique arguments with respect and how to marshal the evidence to support their own conclusions. Viral Vaccine centers on an argument about vaccine safety: two kids with opposing viewpoints gather, sift, and debate evidence before acting on their shared conclusion.
We didn’t write the Galactic Academy of Science series to serve as a showcase for the Next Generation Standards. What we set out to do was to expose our characters to a set of scientific problems and an array of seminal scientists who had worked on these problems. In doing so, we found ourselves addressing the same key processes of science and engineering described in the Next Generation Science Standards. Maybe both the NGSS and the Galactic Academy of Science are onto something about what young scientists need.
Oh, but we almost forgot.
8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information. This standard refers to students’ need to read and write scientific text. The G.A.S. series is well-situated to provide a transition to reading specialized non-fiction material. Each book contains scientific explanations couched in dialogue, with modeling of how a student can interrogate a spoken or written text. Each also includes inset one-page biographies written at a more demanding reading level than the surrounding text. Our hope is that in joining these scientific adventures, readers will find their curiosity aroused. Some of them will be motivated to read further, and they’ll find the scientific text they read more accessible because of what they’ve already encountered.