Science teaching with elementary students

We’re shifting our practice to help kids be better scientists and better investigators and better engineers.

Tamara Alston

The town of Faraday has a problem.

Its citizens are interested in building a magnetic train to make it easier to connect with other towns, but they need to figure out how to make the technology work.

That’s where the town’s scientists—in this case a group of two dozen Seattle 3rd, 4th and 5th graders enrolled in a summer learning program in the Beacon Hill neighborhood—come in.

It’s their job to collect evidence about how magnets work, determine whether the technology could be used to power a train and then explain their findings to the citizens of Faraday.

Over a few days, students develop their hypotheses, gather evidence about how magnetism works, and explain their consensus findings about magnetism so that Faraday can make an informed decision about building a Maglev (magnetic levitation) train. 

For most students today, particularly in the earlier grades, this way of learning and doing science is a new frontier.

“This is a big shift in practice,” says MaryMargaret Welch, science program manager for Seattle Public Schools (SPS). “We’re giving our students a chance to share and try out their own ideas. We’re asking them to make sense of phenomena and then explain that phenomena. This will let us know if they’re engaging with content in a deep and meaningful way.”

Changing how science has been taught to students in elementary school for decades is no easy task, especially in a large district like Seattle that has 2,000 elementary teachers.

But a new partnership between Seattle Public Schools, University of Washington College of Education researchers and the Teaching Channel is taking on the ambitious task of changing how science teaching is done, and in the end, better prepare the next generation of scientists and scientifically-knowledgeable citizens.

Teaching science with elementary students

Transforming science teaching

Today, science teaching is content-driven, asking students to define terms and memorize concepts. It’s a way of teaching that responds to the pressures of testing, but it largely doesn’t ask students to apply their knowledge in solving problems or making well-reasoned decisions.

Jessica Thompson, an associate professor of education whose work focuses on ambitious science teaching, said the Next Generation Science Standards adopted by Washington state earlier this decade demand much more.

“Under these new standards, we’re expecting students to engage in deep scientific reasoning,” Thompson said. “We’re asking students to construct models explaining scientific phenomena and gather evidence from their investigations.”

However, while the new standards specify what students should learn, they don’t prepare teachers to change their practice to teach in new and more engaging ways.

With students starting to be assessed on the new standards for the first time in 2018, school districts across the country are currently wrestling with how to adapt curriculum, design new formative assessments and help teachers reshape what they do in the classroom.

The UW-Seattle Public Schools-Teaching Channel partnership aims to meet that challenge, not only locally, but also to prototype a model for high quality science teaching and professional learning that districts across the country can use.

Elementary teacher with students teaching science

Leading the way

Tamara Alston, a teacher at Hazel Wolf K-8 STEM School, is helping Seattle launch NGSS adoption. In July, she and 29 colleagues joined the partnership team in kicking off the effort with a week-long workshop that included hands-on practice with the 3rd through 5th grade citizen-scientists of Faraday, working with a unit developed by Amplify Science.

Alston is excited that the new standards give students more opportunity to lead their own learning, rather than simply absorbing information.

“I don’t ever have to just tell a kid, ‘Here’s the answer.’ The kid gets to discover it, and they’re building this knowledge and they’re having questions and wondering.”

The act of doing science gives students a chance to be storytellers, Alston said, and it fuels them to go deeper.

“As their knowledge builds and grows I’m noticing that their excitement and engagement also builds and grows. We could physically see students having this ‘Aha!’ moment and how exciting that is for them.”

While 5th graders tackled how magnetic trains work, Anuska Chorba of Hazel Wolf K-8 worked with another group of younger students investigating how a puddle filled with water in the morning had disappeared by the afternoon.

“When I first started teaching science, I was the scientist and the mindset was I have information that I got from a curriculum and I’m sharing this with the kids,” Chorba said. “The shift is that students now are being taught the practices of being a scientist. They’re being taught how adult scientists go through the process to find this information.”

Following the July workshop, Alston, Chorba and the rest of Seattle’s lead teachers have begun working with more than 480 fellow teachers, planning for the shift to NGSS and what that means for the kind of intellectual work students will be asked to do, as well as experiencing the magnetic train and puddle mini-units. And this fall, the first cohort of Seattle elementary teachers will begin using the mini-units in their classrooms.

Launching NGSS in Seattle

Moving teacher practice forward

Using the mini-units is only the first step for Seattle Public Schools and the UW’s teacher educators, however.

While they provide a launching point for NGSS adoption, the ultimate goal is to put in place structures that enable teachers to incorporate rigorous science instruction throughout the year and keep on improving science teaching in the district. A key way the project will do that is through making collaborative use of the Teaching Channel’s Teams platform to engage teachers in viewing video of one another’s practice.

“We see teachers are eager to learn and excited to learn together,” said postdoctoral researcher Jennifer Richards. “We see an opportunity to create a learning network within Seattle Public Schools for all 2,000 elementary teachers and school and district leaders. That’s the end goal, to bring the combined knowledge of educators together in a community that’s continuously learning and improving instruction for all students.”

Chorba said the new way of teaching she and her colleagues are practicing is more responsive to children’s needs, ideas and existing knowledge, while also fostering their discourse and communication skills.

“What I’m most excited about is thinking about how do I inspire kids? How do I ask them questions that get them to take their thinking to the next level without simply feeding them information? How do I guide them and teach them how to be a learner?”

A focus on equity in the classroom extends throughout the work, Thompson said, with the integration of English learner strategies and equitable talk structures as well as purposeful reflection on how all students are learning. Over the summer, she noted researchers and teachers dedicated a good deal of time thinking about how to support multilingual students and helping students use their home language as an asset.

The intensive research-practice partnership with SPS also has been a valuable opportunity for UW researchers to learn about how to build capacity within districts for improving teaching practice.

“It’s not just a one-shot injection,” Thompson said. “Nationally, we think this could be a model for people to look at in gearing up for the Next Generation Science Standards. We’re unique in our focus on instruction and teacher learning, not just curriculum and standards. We want to support teachers in reflecting on their teaching and working on a core set of science teaching practices they can continue improving."

On the first day with students in the Beacon Hill program, Alston remembers hearing some students claim they weren’t good at science. But just a couple days later, after getting a chance to lead their own investigations, the same students said proudly that they were good at science.

“It renews my own teaching and my own learning when I can see kids’ attitudes shift from ‘I’m not good at something’ to ‘I’m contributing to this important conversation we’ve having about scientific phenomena’.”

And while Alston knows from her own experience that changing one’s teaching can be daunting, being part of a community supporting that move makes a huge difference.

“We’re all in this together. If I have a little something or a little bit of experience or knowledge, I can help [a fellow teacher] get through it. Then we become part of a learning community where I can learn something from them trying to take those activities into their classroom. So we’re shifting our practice to help kids be better scientists and better investigators and better engineers, that’s what I’m hoping will come out of this work.”


Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications