Scientists Take on New Roles in K-12 Classrooms

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 07, 2017 5 min read
Shawn Jordan, right, an engineering researcher at Arizona State University, takes part in a teacher-training event in Flagstaff.
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As schools work to implement the Next Generation Science Standards, practicing scientists are also rethinking how they work with schools to advance understanding of their field.

The National Board on Science Education, part of the National Academies of Science, brought together science educators and members of professional science groups like the American Chemical Society last month to discuss guidance for developing partnerships between scientists and teachers.

“Almost all practicing scientists were trained in a system designed to keep people out,” said David Evans, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, noting that during the first week of class, college science lectures often include grim predictions of how many students will drop out. “Now we know [science education] is much more important than just who will get a job in a STEM field. Everyone needs to know how to look at evidence and engage in the practices of science,” he said. “The encouraging thing is there has been a real movement in recent years among young scientists to really participate more and give back to the community in K-12.”

The discussion comes as several winners of this year’s Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers plan projects to draft curriculum and materials for the science standards, which were developed by 26 states based on a framework by the National Research Council. The awards are the highest federal honor for scientists at the start of their careers, and they have recently given particular weight to researchers who partner with educators to improve STEM education.

Physical-Science Progression

The next-generation standards widen opportunities for science-educator partnerships because they represent new approaches to scientists working with schools.

They call, for instance, for better integration of teaching scientific concepts with the daily procedures and practices of science.

Teachers in the Flagstaff teacher training facility work on design projects, like this portable livestock corral model.

Alicia Alonzo, an associate professor of physics education at Michigan State University and a 2017 early-career-award winner, has been working with teachers to reimagine learning progressions for a traditional 9th grade physical-science course.

“In general, the teachers [I work with] are wrestling with how to incorporate practices into what they are teaching,” she said. “They are used to teaching content, with labs happening on a separate day to demonstrate content that has already been taught.”

Instead, Alonzo and a group of seven teachers are reshuffling the progression for learning about force and motion, so that students will explore the concepts on their own and then build on their findings. As the teachers work through their lessons, Alonzo interviews their students and assesses them every other week, passing feedback to the teachers on how students are thinking about the concepts and what they do in class.

In the process, Alonzo said she has also moved from prescribing how teachers use learning progressions in class to helping teachers use them explore student learning.

Cultural Connection

Shawn Jordan, an engineering researcher at Arizona State University and a director of the STEAM Labs Center for K-12 Research and Engagement, is working with teachers in a local Navajo community to develop a curriculum for tribal middle schools that ties science and engineering to students’ cultural history and community problem-solving. (STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.)

The curriculum has evolved out of summer camps in which students wrote epic stories about simple tasks and then worked as a class to create Rube Goldberg-style machines to act them out. “It’s trying to flip and put culture on the front end and make that the design constraint for the product, rather than having the technical side drive the lesson,” Jordan said.

One unit to be piloted in schools this spring, for example, teaches size and scale by exploring four sacred mountains and finding ways to measure and model them. From there, students design and test scale models to solve community problems, such as creating portable corrals for managing livestock.

“It lets students learn content related spiritually to their culture and use engineering to improve their quality of life at home,” Jordan said. The first units of the middle school curriculum will be tested in three schools next month, then evaluated and eventually built out into a full physical science and engineering course.

Working with Navajo educators and students has made Jordan “reflect deeply on what my role should be ethically and morally as a researcher,” he said. “Often, researchers and engineers will approach working with communities as a helicopter-drop model. We will come in and think we can make a huge difference by bringing in our knowledge and giving them all the answers. But that is a cultural disrespect. At the end of the day, this is a partnership, exploring the intersection of Navajo culture and engineering design.”

Though there’s a long tradition of scientists reaching out to schools before these newer pushes, “it’s not always been a happy history,” the NSTA’s Evans said. Scientists are often enthusiastic about their fields, but many are not skilled at communicating to a nonscientific audience, particularly young students, he said. And scientists working with schools can go astray if they try to make the new standards fit the areas they want to teach, rather than working with teachers to craft lessons systematically.

Growing a Partnership

Inviting a teacher to be part of her lab has helped Andrea Sweigart, an assistant professor of genetics at the University of Georgia in Athens, become a better teacher herself, she said.

Mary Bradley-Bailey, a veteran biology and physical-science teacher at the nearby Cedar Shoals High School, has worked for the past two summers at Sweigart’s genetics lab as part of Georgia’s science internship program for teachers. The lab lesson was designed to study a genus of wildflower capable of growing in harsh environments, including salty beach sand and soil contaminated by heavy metals.

Sweigart and Bradley-Bailey are writing a curriculum to use hybrid lines of the flowers to teach high school students about both botany and plants’ adaptation to environmental pressures.

Teachers and scientists need to lay out clear expectations for what each wants students to learn, and how those relate to the larger science framework, Sweigart said. “The reality is a lot of students have never really looked at a plant before, don’t know what a control group is,” she recalled. “My original plan for activities was more like something for an advanced-biology class. I’ve learned a lot more about what students need to learn basic scientific design.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2017 edition of Education Week as Scientists Playing New Roles in K-12 Learning


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