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UW Researchers Lead Charge for Change in Science Education

As Washington State makes plans for adopting rigorous new Next Generation Science Standards, researchers at the University of Washington’s College of Education are already in the field working with partner districts to prepare educators for the coming sea-change in science education.

The new K-12 standards will be as demanding for teachers as they are challenging for students, say College of Education experts. Science educators will be expected to not only teach sophisticated scientific practices such as evidence-based reasoning and causal modeling, but to provide supports that ensure all students, regardless of language or background, master these complex scientific skills.

 “We will be asking students to synthesize and theorize about scientific ideas. Instead of stating what Newton’s Laws are, they will have to describe how ideas about forces and motion can explain a phenomenon such as a ‘wall flip,’ in which a gymnast defies gravity by running up a wall and flipping backward. Then they will have to generalize these ideas to a new phenomenon. That deep intellectual thinking is not what most students are currently being asked to do,” says COE researcher Jessica Thompson, who is helping lead the charge for substantive change in our state’s science education.
 
Studies show that in America, most science instruction focuses on isolated activities rather than sense-making and on topics rather than the scientific principles underlying them. And few teachers have the curricular or collegial support they need to “scaffold” learning for diverse populations. “How do you support all of your learners in a classroom and how do you differentiate instruction for them? These are critical factors in equitable science instruction,” says Thompson.

Thompson is working with funding from Washington STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math education) to build a job-embedded professional development model in four high-needs upper-grade schools in the Highline Public School district south of Seattle. The job-embedded work -- based on a highly effective elementary mathematics model developed by UW researcher Elham Kazemi -- brings educators together to work collectively on “ambitious” science instruction aligned with NGSS goals.

This evidence-based “ambitious” instruction helps students of all backgrounds understand science deeply, engage in authentic inquiry, and solve complex problems.

In Thompson’s target schools, Cascade Middle School and three high schools comprising the “Evergreen Campus,” she has built professional learning communities of teachers, teacher leaders, coaches, and administrators who together visit classrooms, examine student work, study instructional moves, and investigate real-time student understanding of scientific principles. In intensive “studio days” sessions, they co-plan lessons, co-teach them in classrooms, refine them on the spot, film one another in action, and debrief the work.

Collectively studying successful classroom techniques helps teachers examine their own practice, says Thompson. “Job-embedded professional development focuses everyone on the same kind of teaching, develops common language around it, and allows them to share productive innovations on the tasks, talk, and tools used in teaching,” she says. “The system gets smarter faster.”

Teachers, anticipating the hard work ahead with NGSS, have been extremely receptive to the collaborative UW model, says Sandi Everlove, chief learning officer at Washington STEM.  “Getting students to reach the new standards will require a significant shift in how science is currently taught to most students.  Dr. Thompson’s work shows us it can be done, and that teachers are hungry for this type of professional development.”

The NGSS, first released in April this year, were developed from a framework created by a team of National Research Council experts that included Philip Bell, director of the UW Institute of Science + Math Instruction. The Washington State Board of Education voted to recommend NGSS adoption on July 10, and the State Governor and Superintendent of Instruction made an official announcement on adoption Oct. 4.

Thompson comes to the NGSS challenge with deep background. Over more than half a decade, she and her UW science education colleague, Mark Windschitl, have helped develop ambitious, equitable science instruction tools and strategies – documented in the user-friendly website http://tools4teachingscience.org – by studying science educators in classrooms and documenting the types of teaching that stimulate the greatest learning gains for a diversity of science students, including the growing population of English Language Learners.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, her team continues to build on and refine the tools and techniques, incorporating “productive variations” that emerge in effective on-the-ground science practices. The tools include equity-driven strategies such as “Rapid Surveys of Student Thinking” – a tool that helps teachers assess students’ comprehension, analyze their responses, and adjust curriculum and instruction to boost individual understanding The key, says the researcher, is “What works? For Whom? Under what conditions?”

Thompson and other members of her Advancing Ambitious Science Teaching team, which partners UW researchers and classroom educators, are rapidly expanding their learning community prototype to other upper-grade and elementary schools in the region, developing a model that can be replicated nationally as more and more states adopt NGSS.

In addition to school-based learning communities, the team is also building cross-school and cross-district networks – called a Networked Improvement Community – that can draw on the collective power of UW researchers, science coaches, co-operating teachers, principals, teacher leaders, and district administrators to tackle critical problems in science education. “It’s a new way of forming partnerships,” says Thompson. “It allows a multitude of schools to learn from one another and do so quickly.”

She is looking forward to coming changes that will bring more rigor and equity to America’s science classrooms. In her years of research, she has witnessed what high expectations and high-quality teaching can do. “I am constantly amazed at what students are capable of – as well as what teachers are capable of. That is what keeps our practice moving forward. And the best is yet to come.”
 

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