The work that’s happening here in Seattle will play a significant role informing efforts by other districts across the country to improve ambitious and equitable instruction at scale, so we better prepare the next generation of scientists and scientifically-knowledgeable citizens.
Now in her 28th year as a teacher, Lisa Boveng of Olympic View Elementary is excited to take part in one of the most profound changes she’s experienced during her tenure in Seattle Public Schools.
Boveng is helping the district adopt a new approach to science instruction that will fundamentally change how science is taught and learned at the elementary level. Rather than being driven by a focus on asking students to define terms and memorize concepts, the district will place students in the role of scientists engaging in the exploration of real-world phenomena.
“With this phenomenon-based learning, kids are listing their own ideas and revising them based on their investigations, reading and talking to each other,” said Boveng. “It’s changing how students think and communicate.”
“The work is important because it’s our job to help develop critical thinkers and every student should have that opportunity.”
Supported by a nearly $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation the Equitable Elementary Ambitious Science Teaching (E2AST) partnership will begin this year by working with approximately 250 K-5 teachers at 17 elementary schools. By the end of the three-year grant, every elementary science teacher in the district — approximately 1,450 teachers — will have participated in the professional learning effort.
“Our aim is to do more than provide high-quality professional development, the grant will help cultivate a district-wide networked improvement community of teachers, administrators, district specialists and researchers who engage in sustained work to improve ambitious and equitable elementary science teaching, says Professor Jessica Thompson, principal investigator on the grant and co-lead of the University of Washington College of Education’s Ambitious Science Teaching group.
This year Seattle Public Schools adopted new instructional materials which provided basic professional development for teachers to learn to use the materials. But to really shift the way science is taught to include culturally and linguistically diverse students, Thompson said that the partnership of Seattle and UW College of Education in developing a network of teachers will be essential.
MaryMargaret Welch, SPS science program manager and co-investigator on the grant, said that providing science instruction across the district that is equitable and rigorous ensures all students have access to current, relevant quality science instruction.
“We know that we need to better serve our students who have been historically underserved by science and who are culturally and linguistically diverse. Our new standards are based on over a decade of brain research and point to the importance of shifting teachers’ pedagogical practices,” said Welch. That includes noticing students’ cultural resources and experiences, soliciting their feedback, and planning for culturally relevant, place-based phenomena that are meaningful to children’s lives.
The partnership’s effort responds to the Next Generation Science Standards adopted by Washington state earlier this decade. Elementary students were assessed on the new standards for the first time in 2019, with the expectation that they will be able to engage in deep scientific reasoning, gather evidence and construct models explaining scientific phenomena.
To build a networked improvement community, the E2AST partnership will draw on the expertise of elementary and secondary teachers. AJ Katzaroff, a 10th grade biology and AP Environmental Science teacher at Franklin High School, is supporting the elementary science effort as a content specialist. As a parent with two young children in the district who holds a PhD in a STEM discipline, she’s particularly energized to make elementary science more relevant and engaging for students.
“With my science background, what I love about the new way of teaching science is that it’s so authentic to the way science is done,” Katzaroff said. “The science and engineering practices we’re teaching now move from memorizing stuff to having students figure it out for themselves.”
“Building the capacity of the entire district to continually improve science instruction is essential,” Thompson said. “We will design for sustainability by developing practical classroom tools that support student learning and building infrastructure that helps the system continually learn.”
Seattle is one of the largest and most diverse school districts in the nation to begin shifting its elementary science instruction to align with the Next Generation Science Standards, positioning it as a leader as other districts embark on similar efforts.
“The work that’s happening here in Seattle will play a significant role informing efforts by other districts across the country to improve ambitious and equitable instruction at scale, so we better prepare the next generation of scientists and scientifically-knowledgeable citizens,” Thompson said.
Part of that work — led by Professor Elizabeth Sanders, co-primary investigator for the project — will include observing and analyzing how the networked improvement community of Seattle teachers changes over time.
“Seattle science is honored to partner with the University of Washington on this prestigious grant to serve all of our students, especially those who are currently underrepresented in STEM. We are fortunate to partner with a leader in the country who is deeply involved in the research around how to teach in ways that make learning more empowering to every student,” Welch said. “One of our pillars is to help every student see themselves as a capable scientist or engineer. We hope to empower students to believe they can make a difference in their world by collecting and studying evidence to help solve local and global problems.”
Jessica Thompson, Associate Professor of Education
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications