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Columbia schools at the forefront of implementing science standards

Thursday, May 8, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:50 p.m. CDT, Thursday, May 8, 2014
Gentry Middle School is one of many Columbia Public Schools that has started to implement the New Generation Science Standards, a set of standards developed under a rubric similar to the Common Core State Standards.

COLUMBIA — Seventh-graders at Oakland Middle School had an oil spill to clean up. It was vegetable oil, not petroleum, and they had straws, cotton balls and duct tape, not booms and chemical dispersants.

But the goal was the same: Get rid of as much of the spreading oil as quickly as possible. Science teacher Michelle Dobrowolski incorporated the oil spill simulation in her unit on chemistry so students could explore how oil interacts with water.

The task, a STEM-based project — which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — is aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards. The standards were developed by national organizations, science professionals and teachers under a rubric similar to the Common Core State Standards.

The Next Generation standards are meant to increase students’ engagement in science and to help them understand the relevance science and technology have in everyday life, said Mike Szydlowski, the science curriculum coordinator for Columbia Public Schools.

The district is weaving more engineering projects and real-world applications into science lessons at all grade levels, he said.

"The new standards are much more about problem-solving, inquiry and discovery," Szydlowski said. "We’re not teaching the kids something that is Google-able — if it’s Google-able, Google it."

Looking at the larger picture

Szydlowski said a big change in the new science standards is that they bring engineering into the curriculum. Whether the students are learning about chemistry or earth science, engineering labs are incorporated to provide students with complex problem-solving skills.

"No matter what career you’re going to be in, that’s what you’re going to have to do," Szydlowski said.

Dobrowolski said the goal is to have a STEM lab or engineering project, such as the oil spill simulation, for each unit. "It’s been challenging to find engineering projects that tie in and are really interesting to the kids," she said.

Dobrowolski said the labs give students the ability to think critically and design on their own. This can be a challenge for some students.

"When students haven’t had the ability to design on their own, sometimes they freeze," she said.

"I thought it was really difficult to come up with a way to get all the oil cleaned up," said 13-year-old Anel Castro, a student in Dobrowolski’s class.

Another focus of the standards is to have students think critically about how to apply what they are learning to real-world situations or societal concerns, said Dobrowolski.

Dobrowolski said she has enjoyed observing her students’ reactions to current events that she ties into her lessons. Another component of the oil spill project required students to research the BP spill and draw conclusions about how it was handled. They were asked to look at it from the point of view of an environmental engineer and an oil executive.

"It made us think about how we impact nature and that we need to think about our actions more thoroughly," said 13-year-old Isaiah DeShon, pointing to a picture in his PowerPoint presentation of a bird covered in oil.

Getting crazy with genetics

In a classroom across town, eighth-grade teacher Mandi Coe at West Middle School was teaching her students about inheritance and genetics in a lesson called "Crazy Trait Genetics."

In the lesson, the students wrote out traditional Punnett squares — diagrams used to determine the probability an offspring will inherit a trait from its parents  — then built models of "crazy creatures" based on the Punnett squares.

The students' creatures might have a certain eye color, a beak, wings, an antenna or tail depending on the traits inherited from their "creature parents." Students determined their creature’s traits by flipping a coin.

"You have to know how to put the traits together, rather than just writing it on paper," 13-year-old Ely Bullock said. "You have something you can look at and know this is what happens when this and this combine."

Once the creatures were built, Coe played a "survivor game" with her students to see which creature’s traits provided greater adaptability.

"A T-Rex is looking for his dinner. If you have wings, fly away," Coe said in the game. The groups’ creatures without wings lost a point. If three points were deducted, the creature became extinct.

Coe said that in another lesson on the relocation of species, she added a real-world element by having students research plants and animals that had been relocated, either accidentally or purposefully. The students then decided if it was a useful or harmful move for both the organism and the new environment. She said the activity made students "think outside the box."

"The questions that are asked require students to think critically and apply background knowledge to new situations," Coe said. "If they can do that, they will be very successful in my class."

At a pond in Cosmo-Bethel Park 

At Gentry Middle School, sixth-grade science teacher Dean Klempke walked his students to Cosmo-Bethel Park as part of his unit on aquatic ecosystems and photosynthesis.

As the students circled around a mossy pond, Klempke asked them to draw pictures of the pond in their science notebooks. Draw all the living things and nonliving things and label everything you observe, he told them. Pay close attention to the algae floating on the pond. Use magnifying glasses to get a better look.

The students took water samples of the pond to examine under microscopes, which the class had set up in the park pavilion. Under the microscopes, students identified living organisms in the samples. One student said she saw a water flea.

Klempke said the experiment at the park is more engaging than traditional worksheets and gives students a better understanding of how lessons on ecosystems are applicable to the world around them.

"It’s not just enough for me to have a list of topics to cover," he said. "It’s got to be more engaging. It’s got to have more real-life applicability."

Klempke said he gives students a clear purpose in each unit to show why they are learning specific material. The "why" behind learning is integral to the new science standards.

"It’s about 'What are you going to do with this?' rather than 'Well, it’s important that you know all the parts of a cell,'" Klempke said.

He said he often evaluates his students through face-to-face assessments, asking the students to explain how they applied the concepts to class projects.

"It’s a whole lot more interactive. It’s a whole lot more authentic," Klempke said. "To be able to say to a kid, 'Tell me about your thinking' rather than, 'Oh, you got number two wrong, here’s your paper back,'" he said.

Cutting across science subjects

The Columbia district began implementing the Next Generation Science Standards last spring when the final version of the standards became available nationwide, Szydlowski said. This is the first school year that teachers have been able to apply the standards in the classroom, he said.

"The stuff we see in the classrooms with these standards is so much more exciting than what we saw in the old standards," Szydlowski said.

Szydlowski said the old standards were more focused on memorizing specific content and definitions, as opposed to the new hands-on approach.

According to the Next Generation Science Standard’s website, the standards are based on a "Framework for K-12 Science Education." It comprises three parts: practices, content and crosscutting concepts.

STEM-based engineering labs, such as the oil spill simulation used in Dobrowolski’s classroom, would fit into the practices dimension and involve problem-solving through engineering design, according to the framework.

The other two aspects, content and cross-cutting concepts, require relevance in the material taught in science classes across disciplines — meaning lessons in biology, chemistry, earth science and others will overlap.

The new standards also require teachers to incorporate two controversial topics in their lessons: climate change and evolution.

"These are the same topics we've taught for many, many years," Szydlowski said. "But those two are pretty meaty now."

Szydlowski said that in the old standards, it was easy for lessons about evolution to be skipped. With the new standards, evolution and adaptation lessons start in life science units in late elementary school and are taught through high school. Coe's lesson on crazy creatures and adaptability is a one example of the heightened emphasis on evolution.

Szydlowski said in the past, a few parents would approach him each year to express concerns about these lessons. He would then explain the objectives of the lessons and they would feel more comfortable, Szydlowski said.

"It's about how animals have changed after life started," Szydlowski said. "A lot of people think evolution is about what started life or how humans have developed. That's not what our curriculum is about at all."

Lessons on climate, which are now incorporated in units about weather and environmental sciences, focus on using weather and climate data to explore how it changes over time.

"It’s not about if it's natural or if it’s caused by humans, which is the controversy," Szydlowski said. "But there’s no doubt there’s climate change for whatever reason."

Creating consistencies

The standards were developed through a joint effort by the National Research Council, Achieve, the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and through collaboration with 26 lead state partners and other stakeholders.

Like the Common Core standards, individual states decide whether to adopt the standards and create assessments based on them. As of this month, 11 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the science standards. Missouri has not.

“The reason we’re going ahead is we feel that we will be able to go deeper and make learning more meaningful than what the old standards allowed,” Szydlowski said.

Szydlowski said the Next Generation standards are essentially the Common Core standards equivalent in science curriculum. Common Core standards apply only to mathematics and English language arts.

"The goals are really just the exact same," Szydlowski said about the two sets of standards. “When you look at the science standards, they actually correlate to the Common Core. So for the first time, everything matches.”

Although Common Core standards do not determine the science curriculum, its relationship to the Next Generation standards provides consistency in skills students should develop across disciplines, Szydlowski said.

“They’re reading a lot more science articles, which is linked to Common Core," he said. "They’re doing a lot more presentations and communicating, which is what we’re required to do."

Incorporating, evaluating standards

Szydlowski said one of the biggest challenges of new standards is how time-consuming it is to redesign the curriculum, train teachers to convert to the standards and create assessments based on a new curriculum.

"I really believe this is the biggest science teaching change in any of these teachers’ careers," he said. 

"Companies are still developing things for Next Gen, and we’ve decided to go ahead with it, not because we want to be the first doing it — we just think it’s going to take us three years to get there," Szydlowski said.

His plan is to steadily convert the curriculum each year through spring 2016, though some teachers have moved forward with the standards beyond what is expected.

By the time the curriculum is fully implemented, he thinks Missouri will have adopted the standards.

"Moving forward will put us ahead because all the other districts will have waited," he said. "They’re going to have to go fast to get this done, and with these standards, there’s just no way."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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