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How These Teachers Center Student Voice in Science Class

By Sarah Schwartz — December 27, 2022 6 min read
New Mexico educator Christopher Nunez receives a Milken Educator Award on Oct. 21, 2022 in Las Cruces, NM.
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At Shaina Brenner’s school, recycling “audits” are serious business.

The auditors visit the classrooms, spot-check the contents of recycling bins, and leave feedback notes about what can and can’t go in the containers. The audits are a “whole system,” said Brenner, who teaches 2nd grade at Elms Elementary School, in Jackson, N.J.

They’re also run by her elementary students.

When children can put what they learn in science class into practice, Brenner said, “they’re so much more involved and taking ownership and responsibility. They’re so much more passionate about it.”

Brenner is one of the 2022 recipients of the Milken Educator Award, an annual prize for outstanding educators run by the Milken Family Foundation. Winners receive unrestricted $25,000 awards. Along with Brenner, several of this year’s awardees are being honored for their work in elementary science education.

Like the New Jersey teacher, these Milken winners emphasized the importance of drawing connections between curriculum and students’ lives, teaching students science practices, and helping them see themselves as scientists.

These priorities reflect a shift in the focus of science education that’s taken place over the past decade.

The Next Generation Science Standards, released in 2014, aimed to make science something that kids did—rather than a subject where they merely memorized facts and formulas and learned about the discoveries of others.

Since then, 20 states and the District of Columbia have adopted these standards, and 24 states have developed their own standards based on this framework. But teachers still say it’s hard to find materials and professional learning aligned to this approach. And for many elementary teachers, finding time in the school day for science itself is a struggle, as schools prioritize more frequently tested subjects like English/language arts and math.

Education Week spoke with three Milken winners about how they tackle these challenges in elementary science education and how the subject is changing. Their perspectives have been edited for length and clarity.

Shaina Brenner, 2nd grade teacher, Elms Elementary School, Jackson, N.J.

New Jersey educator Shaina Brenner receives a Milken Educator Award on Oct. 7, 2022 in Jackson, NJ.

Brenner and two of her colleagues started a student Green Team at their school, which leads a recycling program and works on the school garden. Elementary students go to different classrooms to give presentations on what can be recycled and what can’t in their county. The program has helped students see connections between science and civic engagement, Brenner said.

[The Green Team program] began establishing that culture here in our school. And it’s wonderful because if one student notices that another student may not know something that goes into recycling, they help each other out. Not even just the recycling—also, we focused on conserving energy. All the classrooms turn off their lights when they leave. The kids are passionate about those things now, and they’ll remind each other, they’ll remind the teachers, and it’s really establishing that culture.

My effort this past summer was to go back and make those stronger connections to the real world [in the curriculum]. I did a lot of research on who is out there in the world that has made positive change on these different problems.

In the Pacific Ocean, there’s what’s called the Pacific Garbage Patch. There was a gentleman who was only 17 years old, when he was out scuba diving, [and] he was like, “Whoa, there’s way too much garbage out here. And I need to do something about it.” And he did. And it’s called The Ocean Cleanup. And so he now runs this nonprofit, and they’re out there cleaning the ocean. I incorporated that so the kids could see there was somebody that saw this same problem. And they did something about it; they didn’t just wait for an adult to fix it.

I really try, when I’m teaching or when I’m with the Green Team, I always want to be passionate, because then they pick up on that. I’ve never really had a kid say to me, “Well, Ms. Brenner, we’re not going to be able to fix it.” I really haven’t. They always are like, “We can do this. What else can we change?”

Christopher Nunez, 4th grade teacher, Sonoma Elementary School, Las Cruces, N.M.

New Mexico educator Christopher Nunez receives a Milken Educator Award on Oct. 21, 2022 in Las Cruces, NM.

Nunez focuses on hands-on projects in class, integrating science with English/language arts and math. Over his time teaching, he’s seen a shift in students’ attitudes—more see themselves as scientists now than when he first started out. It’s a change he attributes in part to the growing number of partnerships between schools and scientific institutions.

There’s one particular assignment that I’ve done, in all the years I’ve taught, [which] I got from a professor of mine in college. You have the students draw a scientist, a vision of what they think a scientist is and what they look like.

When I first started out—I’ve been teaching about 14 years—a lot of the visuals would be that Einstein look. The hair, you know, the male figure with the beakers and the chemicals inside. Very few kids being drawn, very few girls being drawn.

A positive that I’ve seen as the years went on that I’ve been doing that project: The drawings have changed. It seems like this generation is realizing that anyone can be a scientist. This year, matter of fact, I had three that drew themselves.

Here in New Mexico, and Las Cruces, specifically, we partner with New Mexico State University. They do a very big STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) outreach program. The awareness that that’s going on, the people that are wanting to partner up with schools, that’s causing the change.

You’ll get people from Sandia Labs in Albuquerque [a research and development lab focused on U.S. security] now being involved with certain after-school programs, coming in and talking about what they do in their field. I think that just the exposure of it all, and really letting this generation know that anyone can do what they really want to—it’s a big deal.

Sarah Collins, 4th grade science teacher, Patricia A. Duran School, Hermon, Maine

Maine educator Sarah Collins receives a Milken Educator Award on Nov. 1, 2022 in Hermon, Maine.

With a background in English/language arts, Collins remembers feeling daunted when she started teaching science. One of the most challenging pieces was facilitating scientific discussions—helping students develop hypotheses, analyze evidence, and weigh claims. Professional development through her district’s partnership with the University of Maine equipped Collins with strategies for structuring science talk. And it led her to reflect on the connections between science and literacy.

When we’re having a discussion on a concept, I will ask students even [to just] restate what another student said. It can show me, are they understanding the concepts? They’re clarifying that process for themselves and for those around them. I’m kind of doing an assessment of them myself: “OK, does this group, does this individual get it? Do I need to clarify something more?”

We’re trying to build toward using the format of claim, evidence, and reasoning. We try to get that kind of phrasing in there and in discussions as well. So, “what’s your evidence for thinking that?” And rather than just, “I think it because my mom told me,” it’s, “What have we done in class that [gives us] evidence for that?” We’re getting toward the formality of making a claim, making a statement. What is the evidence for it and the reasoning behind it?

I have that background in literacy, so I’d be like, “Say more!” And they’d say, “What do you mean, ‘say more’?” I try to push the thinking, build up stamina. They will say to me, “We’re writing. Why are we writing so much?” We are integrating those skills, and it is an expectation that we have strong writing and communication skills as well in science.


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