Professional Development

Educators Want to Rethink the Way Students Learn Science

By Madeline Will — October 13, 2017 3 min read
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Researchers and educators are trying to transform the way students learn science. Forget sit-and-get lessons, they say—students should be active participants in their learning, which should be inquiry-based. Students should be encouraged to vocalize their understanding throughout the learning process, educators say.

This work is taking place in pockets across the country. For example, the University of Missouri has received a $1.25 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to provide professional development to middle school teachers across the state, so that they can better provide standards-aligned, inquiry-based experiences to their students. The goal is that this program will motivate students with different backgrounds to pursue science in high school and college.

And in Louisville, Ky., 25 high school biology teachers are undergoing research-backed professional development from the nonprofit group Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), called STeLLA: Science Teachers Learning From Lesson Analysis. STeLLA has been used with elementary and middle school teachers, but this is the first time the program, which is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, has been used for high school teachers.

Past studies have shown that students whose teachers went through STeLLA performed better than students whose teachers went through traditional PD, said Paul Numedahl, a senior science educator at BSCS.

The program consists of 88 hours of PD. Teachers start with a two-week summer institute, where they learn the content (in Louisville, it’s centered around natural selection and genetics) from the perspective of a learner. They do lesson analysis and watch videos of exemplar teachers, Numedahl said.

Teachers were seeing sound instructional strategies in action, he said: “What sort of student thinking is resulting? ... We have to get student voices in the room. Part of STeLLA is all about student discourse: make sure they’re saying it out loud.”

This fall, the Louisville teachers have been teaching the lessons, which are aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards, that they developed on natural selection. BSCS tapes certain lessons, and during monthly study group sessions, a group of about eight teachers analyze each other’s lesson plans, video clips, and student artifacts.

During the fall, the program focuses on student thinking—how teachers can support and challenge students to make connections to the material, rather than repeat memorized answers, Numedahl said. In the spring, the focus will be on lesson planning. At the study group’s last meeting, they will discuss how their teaching has progressed from the beginning of year to the end.

See also: Advice From the Science Classroom (Opinion)

For elementary teachers, STeLLA training focuses on deepening their content knowledge, since teachers at that grade level probably have a general education certification, Numedahl said, and did not specialize in science. (This is also an issue that the national nonprofit 100Kin10 is tackling as well, arguing that there are too few elementary teacher prep programs with a STEM focus and too few instructional resources targeted to the lower grade levels, resulting in many elementary teachers feeling anxious about teaching STEM subjects.)

“High school teachers know their content pretty well, but what they haven’t done is thought deeply about their content in light of student thinking,” Numedahl said. “They have to think about, ‘How do I teach this content effectively to kids?’ and it’s not just opening up their brains and pouring out their knowledge.”

Kelly Risinger, a high school biology teacher in Louisville, said she has been working on this approach as she goes through STeLLA’s training.

“When I was in school, the teacher talked, we wrote down what she said, there was a right answer and a wrong answer,” she said. Now, “I must elicit what students know first and identify what they know before I teach them something. There’s no consequence for being wrong.”

Students are more engaged with this new approach, but it’s harder to teach, Risinger said. Teachers have to really know their content to be able to address all types of student questions. And they have to make sure all students are talking, not just the chatty ones, she said.

Risinger, who is in her 14th year of teaching, said she is learning to make student thinking visible. She charts their ideas throughout the year, so that prior to assessments, she can tell whether the students are on track, and whether she needs to revise her lesson.

But all this work has sparked much more lively class discussions, she said: “I think I’ve had the most fun teaching this year.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.