“The best thing is to have a lifelong love of science and critical thinking.”
On any given day, students at LES are lined up outside Jonathan Winter’s classroom ready for a favorite weekly class: Science. The beloved Mr. Winter greets the students with his trademark warm smile as they head to their assigned seats and prepare to learn about the day’s topic. Each lesson begins with direct instruction or an observable phenomenon that underscores a big scientific concept presented in a way that’s accessible to elementary students. Sometimes, there’s an engaging video clip to capture their interest and fascination. Then Mr. Winter readies the scientists. They jump into the planned activity, which allows them to deepen their understanding. Before leaving class, students complete an assignment that demonstrates their learning.
It’s a seamless routine with a steady rhythm that keeps the students engaged and excited. What goes on behind the scenes, though, requires a lot of work and preparation. And within the past decade, the way teachers engage students in science has changed, from the standards to the curricula to the broader expectations of what it means to “do science”.
Prior to 2000, consistent science education was not happening at each school site. Across the district, LPIE docent instructors taught fourteen to sixteen classes per grade level, in addition to classroom lessons from the general education teachers. At that time, there were no dedicated science labs.
Here in Lafayette, LASF, the precursor to LPIE, stepped in and funded a science teacher at each school site, but it was a traveling science program. There wasn’t much direction in terms of how to teach science so much as what to teach, and teachers had carte blanche to do what they wanted. Back then science education was based on the 1998 CA State Standards. “Science standards came across as factoids,” Winter says. “We realized that wasn’t enough.” It wasn’t the time to make lasting changes, though. From 2007-2008, the recession hit science hard as state funding disappeared. That meant science programs were reduced for a couple of years, with less time for classes and no time for field trips. Since 2010, however, everything has been moving in a positive direction. Science teachers are back to meeting full time. What that looks like in our district is that the Science teachers typically see each class once a week for an ½ to 1 hour, depending on grade level. Science teachers can dig in and think about what the students need to learn.
Beginning in 2013, the State Board of Education adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for California Public Schools, Kindergarten through Grade Twelve, to guide science education. The guiding question now is “How do you do science?” Mr. Winter describes how educators took a hard look at the standards and asked, “how can students move beyond factoids to understanding scientific concepts and practices?” These are big scientific concepts that aren’t specific to one level but weave through all the grades.
There are three dimensions to the standards: Science and Engineering Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Crosscutting Concepts. Science and Engineering Practices include the skills that scientists and engineers use daily, like planning and carrying out investigations, developing and using models, and analyzing and interpreting data. Disciplinary Core Ideas draw from Physical Science, Life Science, Earth and Space Science, and Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science. Crosscutting Concepts are skills that weave across the curriculum, and include things like pattern recognition and understanding cause and effect.
“Teachers are focused on teaching students how to understand concepts rather than memorizing factoids. The facts are embedded in the curriculum; students learn core ideas while developing a conceptual understanding of scientific processes, acquire knowledge about core scientific concepts and practices, and gain an understanding of how scientists think and work. Students conduct an experiment, then prove they can make a graph to show the results. Graphing is an example of the practice, while the concept is pattern recognition,” Winter says. The result is that students are not walking away from class having learned an interesting tidbit that they may soon forget, but carrying forward skills that will guide them as they learn to investigate the world around them.
When the standards changed in 2013, textbooks, curriculum, and assessments followed. What makes teaching science even more interesting is that every seven to ten years, schools across the state are required to adopt a new curriculum in accordance with the California Education Code. The required changes give teachers the chance to ensure that learning reflects the most recent research in science and pedagogy. Ultimately, it’s a good thing. But that means the year 2020 marked seven years after the standards were implemented. Since then, the science teachers have been tasked with implementing a new curriculum.
Across the elementary schools, they collaborated to ensure the lessons met the new NGSS vision for elementary science. Then they came together to review upwards of fifteen approved curricula. With the input of classroom teachers and the assistance of our director of curriculum, they selected the best new curriculum for the district and implemented new units of study across the elementary school grade levels. They continue to meet on Professional Development days in person and regularly over Zoom to check in and share progress. We are now seeing the results of that process. The current curriculum for texts and readers at the elementary level is provided by Amplify; at the Middle School level, it’s FOSS. Both curricula are up to date, with fantastic units of study. Winter says he is grateful to be in a district that can provide for the learning of science. “Most elementary schools outside Lafayette don’t have it. Parents are very supportive; many are just grateful to have a science program.”
Beyond the curricular changes, which are exciting in the way they engage students’ brains around science, Winter says that building future scientists is what our science teachers are all about. “The best thing is to have a lifelong love of science and critical thinking.” And he wants parents and caregivers to know that there are ways to keep kids excited about science outside of the classroom.
“We live in a place with such great resources. Going out and experiencing them is so valuable because it is a family shared moment.” Places like the Exploratorium, Lawrence Hall of Sciences, and Cal Academy are all within easy reach. There are also great websites for students who want to dig into science more. Some of the ones he recommends are Physics Girl, Deep Look, Science Snacks, and Veritasium for more advanced learners. And while STEM is hard to do at the elementary school sites, projects to get them to think like engineers are great. He can’t think of anything more fun than what got him excited about science when he was younger—science subscriptions. “I used to get science kits sent to my house in cardboard tubes when I was a kid. I remember doing all kinds of things, from understanding electricity to making paper!” In fact, science kits are one of the coolest gifts he can think of. “The Holidays are coming up—this is the perfect time to get a subscription!”
More than anything, giving kids time and opportunities to develop their own creative minds is one of the best gifts of all. “If they like science and engineering, they have a place in the future,” he says.