UW researchers, Highline schools aim to make science more engaging
Traditionally, many junior high and high school students have seen the prospect of going to science classes as a dim one: a gauntlet of numbers, formulas and memorization.
University of Washington professors and researchers Elham Kazemi and Jessica Thompson are continuing their work and teaming up with Cascade Middle School and Evergreen high schools teachers, administrators and students to buck that trend, thanks to a $450,000 grant from Washington STEM, a non-profit dedicated to “advancing innovation, equity, and excellence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education in Washington state.”
Thompson said they are jumping in on “great things going on in these schools already … trying to capitalize on that and understand what is going on and help the work move forward.”
Specifically, their work will include further development of four core science teaching principles that make learning more engaging (Thompson’s area of expertise), along with Kazemi’s focus on developing school-wide professional development through an instructional focus. In other words, how to make science and math fun while getting the kids ready to land good jobs and make an impact in world. They also hope the research will help define a way for administrators – from school to school and district to district – share their models of success.
“We know … that the quality of instruction in American classrooms is by and large not as intellectually demanding as it could be,” the researchers wrote in their grant request to Washington STEM. “Large-scale observational studies have documented that in American classrooms there is a general focus on activity rather than sense-making discourse and that questioning in general is among the weakest elements of instruction. Only a small fraction of lessons take into account students’ prior knowledge and teachers seldom press for explanations.”
A new model
Based on that trend, Thompson and others have researched four principles of “model-based inquiry” over the past seven years to get away from those “weaker elements” of science education.
“The idea really is that with our next generation we are going to expect a lot more out of our kids, that they are able to do really rigorous kinds of scientific thinking in their jobs, and we know that is really important in the Pacific Northwest,” Thompson said.
Three of the four principles are discourse related (quotes are Thompson’s):
1)Identifying big ideas and relevance. “So the idea is you help get kids knowledge out on the table. What their experiences already are, what they already know, how they might explain why a particular scientific phenomenon is happening.” “The problems they solve are really authentic problems: you can’t look up the answers in a textbook or on the internet.”
2)Make meaning out of scientific phenomenon. “Making sense of the lab so it’s not just talking about procedures, it really becomes what is the science behind the activity we are doing right now.”
3)Pressing for evidence based explanations – “How do you support your explanations with evidence from different investigations that you’ve done?” Part of this step includes tracking the different conclusions made over the course of the study – from those knee-jerk explanations on day one to an evidence-backed discussion at the end.
The fourth element focuses on teacher planning and how they transform a given scientific phenomenon into an authentic investigative experience, or a big idea, for their students.
Here are a few examples of that process in action:
Instead of memorizing the cellular structure of plants, why not ask (as one Highline teacher did) “Why is the ivy that is crawling all around our school so successful and why does it seem to grow a lot in certain areas, but not other areas?”
Or, instead of just memorizing the different earthquake fault types, how about asking, “Should our schools buy earthquake insurance?”
Thompson said these big questions are usually investigated over the course of two to three weeks. “Instead of just doing a routine set of activities that are all related to a topic, you use the activities to solve the problem.”
“You can imagine after five years of having these experiences in classrooms, we will really be able to shift what kids are capable of,” she said. “It is sort of an unknown for us. I love being surprised what kids are capable of and I think we don’t yet know. We know … they are way more capable than what our (traditional) curriculum asks them to do.”
“They have a really great team of teachers (at Evergreen and Cascade) who are really devoted to working with their kids and I’m just thrilled that I get the opportunity to work with them more,” Thompson said.
For more information on the four principles of "ambitious science teaching," please click here.