Special Report

The Art of Making Science Accessible and Relevant to All Students

By Catherine Gewertz — March 03, 2020 | Corrected: March 05, 2020 8 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Oklahoma had adopted the Next Generation Science Standards. The state created science standards based on the K-12 Framework for Science Education.

On the island of Oahu in Hawaii, 2nd graders weave mats, baskets, or other objects from the local hala plant. In northeastern Oklahoma, middle schoolers investigate why light makes some surfaces work like windows and others like mirrors.

Thousands of miles apart, those projects have something powerful in common: They were designed with equity in mind. The lesson writers deliberately chose, as anchors for the lessons, natural phenomena that all students know equally and can see in their own lives.

Centering science lessons on phenomena that are universal—like light—or deeply rooted in a region’s culture or location—like the hala plant—can make science more relevant and interesting for students. But they can also have a powerful role in building equity, since all students begin with something they know.

“I’m not going to have students investigate the chemical reaction of the family silver tarnishing, because not all kiddos are going to have that experience in their lives,” said Rebecca Morales, the science-curriculum coordinator in the Broken Arrow, Okla., school district. “I try to get my teachers thinking about choosing phenomena that all students as humans can consider.”

Conversations like these are unfolding across the country, as more than 40 states implement the Next Generation Science Standards, or standards based on their underlying Framework for K-12 Science Education.

Equity is woven through the NGSS and their framework; the documents frame expectations for all students, not just those aiming for science careers. Phenomena-based instruction is central to the standards, which envision moving away from rote facts to questions that spark students’ natural curiosity.

“As a science teacher, I was trained to look at topics and facts,” said Peter McLaren, who co-authored the NGSS and now trains teachers on using them. Starting with questions about natural phenomena “is a big change, and a lot of teachers are having a hard time with it.”

Drawing on Culture, Place

Collaborative projects have been springing up around the country to help teachers create equitable lessons anchored in natural phenomena. The hala lesson, for instance, took shape when several teachers in Hawaii, linked online through state-sponsored professional development, worked with Brett Moulding, another NGSS author, to craft science lessons that drew on local culture and traditions.

Mikioi Wichman, the K-5 science, technology, engineering and math teacher at Manoa Elementary School in Honolulu, was in that group. The teachers wanted to build a lesson for a 2nd grade standard that explores how elements in nature can come apart and reassemble into something with a different function.

Their first thought was to use Legos, Wichman said. But Moulding pressed them to choose something that would add cultural richness and a sense of place to the lesson. They hit on the hala plant, which is common around Hawaii. Native Hawaiian and Polynesian voyagers wove it into sleeping mats, baskets, and canoe sails. Even now, students can see hala hats and baskets in local stores, Wichman said.

Over several class meetings, Wichman introduces her students to hala leaves gathered from the local neighborhood. They study the plant’s features, such as its long, slender leaves, and learn about its history. They weave mats, take them apart, and brainstorm about other ways to weave them. The children have produced many creative solutions, from baskets and bookmarks to bracelets and tiny fish, Wichman said. Then they write in their journals about the principles they learned.

Wichman said the lesson has given all her students, regardless of their race, class, or cultural backgrounds, a way to enter science on equal footing, through something they all share.

“No matter where they come from, they’re all here in the Manoa Valley,” she said.

Starting with something children already know isn’t just smart from an equity perspective, Moulding said. It also helps students learn by giving them a base to which they can “attach” new knowledge, a constructivist idea that runs through the NGSS and their framework, he said.

He encourages teachers to take a scientific phenomenon and adapt it to reflect their students’ local surroundings. To study the ways organisms adapt to where they live, for instance, Hawaiian students could study the feral chickens that are common on the islands and how they’ve changed their color and egg-laying patterns over time in response to local conditions.

In northwestern Nebraska, children could study the Sand Hill deer mouse, whose fur has lightened over time to blend in with the color of the sandy soil, Moulding said.

“Phenomena that are relevant to students, whether it’s because of their culture or their place, are more accessible for all students,” he said.

Moulding and other science educators have assembled more than 300 free equity-focused science lessons for the NGSS on a website called #Going 3D with GRC.

Access to well-designed lessons, even paired with good professional development, isn’t enough to build equitable science instruction at scale, some experts say.

A research project called ACESSE, funded by the National Science Foundation, has been exploring systems and practices that bring all aspects of the education system—from the classroom teacher to district and state curriculum leaders, and even an interstate brain trust—into play to produce equitable science instruction.

At the classroom level, that work can look like Stacy Beausoleil’s lessons at Sequoyah Middle School in Broken Arrow. Working closely with Morales, her science coordinator, Beausoleil has been thinking about how to make her science instruction more equitable.

That thinking plays out in her lessons, with the natural phenomena she chooses as anchors. Using free resources from OpenSciEd, Beausoleil recently taught a unit on light, an NGSS standard for 7th grade. Starting with a video clip of the TV character Mr. Bean goofing around in a two-way mirror, students theorized about the behavior of light on various surfaces. They created a scale model and re-enacted the scenario. She assigned students to find examples in their own lives of how different surfaces affect light.

“They came back full of stories,” Beausoleil said. One girl reported that when she passed a restaurant at night, the window was so reflective that she used it to fix her hair, forgetting that customers inside could see her. Another noticed how she could see her reflection in a pond, but she could also see the sand at the bottom.

That assignment shows how equity has affected not just the natural processes Beausoleil chooses, but the way she assigns out-of-school work. She tries to create assignments that put no child at a disadvantage.

Using light as an instructional anchor, and sending students home to investigate it works because it “deals with an everyday thing that all kids have the privilege of accessing, in their houses, their mobile homes, or even in the cars they’re living in temporarily.”

Beausoleil has changed the way she carries out formative assessment. Instead of using multiple-choice quizzes, she asks students to model their thinking in illustrations and then discusses them. At first, they’re one-on-one conversations. That lets students use their own words, without worrying about “correct” vocabulary. It offers Beausoleil a valuable window into their understanding of the concepts.

Then she organizes the class into small groups to discuss their models and their thinking, while she walks around and listens to their conversations. They do the same thing as a whole class, trying to reach a consensus in understanding the concept. Beausoleil said “you have no idea how much” this has changed what she can learn about her students’ learning.

A Role for States

As the Broken Arrow district works with teachers on strategies like those, Oklahoma leaders are playing a powerful role to shape science instruction statewide. That kind of big-system change is a key concept in the four-year-old ACESSE project. Oklahoma and 12 other states are participating, and they’re sharing ideas with all the other states.

Tiffany Neill, Oklahoma’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, is overseeing several lines of work on equitable science instruction as part of the ACESSE project. She and her team conducted surveys and focus groups to see where Oklahoma teachers most needed support in implementing the state’s science standards.

She coordinates district and regional trainings to help teachers shift to new ways of thinking about instructional and classroom assessment practices. And she has convened key players in the state’ to identify programs or policies that aren’t well aligned to its science standards.

The state replaced its science test to better reflect the phenomenon-centered aims of the standards.

“Instead of questions that ask students to just explain condensation, we now have things like, ‘There’s liquid on the outside of a glass. What causes that to happen?’ ” Neill said.

The project has enabled science leaders to brainstorm across state and district lines. And it’s built dozens of new, free science education resources designed to help teachers with equitable science practices.

One of the leaders of the ACESSE Project, William Penuel of the University of Colorado-Boulder, said that all parts of the K-12 system, from the classroom to state offices, must be involved in building equity into science instruction. Just getting new materials isn’t enough, he said.

Michael Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education research group, applauded the effort to make science relevant for students. But he cautioned that tying lessons exclusively to what children already know can be limiting.

“In moderation, some of this makes sense,” he said. “But the worst thing to do when someone comes from a limited life experience is to just stay inside that box.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2020 edition of Education Week as The Art of Making Science Equitable


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