Posts Tagged Science Education

Inquiring Minds Want To Know Science

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During their sophomore year, biology students at William M. Davies Career & Technical Center fan out in teams to swab things all over the school.

They’re on a quest to address this question:  Since schools are breeding grounds for disease, exactly where would you be most likely to find pathogens, the infectious agents also known as germs?

Translation to teen-speak:  What is the grossest thing at school?

Welcome to “inquiry science.”  Yes, “inquiry” is just asking good questions, which is what scientists do anyway, right?  But K-12 science has far too often depended on textbooks that pile on facts, formulae and procedures.

Adam Flynn was Chair of Davies’ Science Department during the years of changes that recently yielded a fat bump in the school’s test scores.  He says, “When I was in school, they’d hand you a procedure.  First you do this, then that.  A trained ape can follow a procedure.  It’s not engaging.”

Instead, “inquiry science” poses a question, and turns the kids loose to figure out how they’re going to find ways to arrive at credible answers.  And when they have data results, how they’ll synthesize the information and present their findings.  Very different animal.

Teaching and learning the habits of “inquiry” became more urgent in 2007 when the statewide science NECAP exam was introduced.  Each year’s test is roughly 60 percent multiple choice, but about 40 percent of the score depends on the students’ abilities to complete an inquiry task.  The test poses a problem, and expects students to hypothesize an answer, describe how they’ll get their data using the tools given to them, and formulate a conclusion.

The initial results statewide were not pretty.

At Davies, by far the weakest domain was inquiry.  “So we made inquiry the lens through which we teach all courses now.”  Flynn talks about the science department’s switch from textbook dependence to backwards design.  It took the form of three questions asked of each science teacher:

1.  What are the desired results?  What, exactly, should students know and be able to do?

2.  How will you assess your teaching so you’re sure the kids got it?

3.  And only lastly, given numbers 1 and 2, what’s the lesson plan?

The faculty started the work by taking stock of what was already in place, conducting a bit of inquiry research of their own:  What standards did each teacher and each course address?  How often?  When addressed, were those standards formally assessed?

“We found we had lots that we were teaching and not assessing.  Again, in teacher prep, we didn’t focus on why you assess.  If it’s Friday, that’s just what you do.  And if the kids don’t pass, oh well, we’ve got to move on.  We realized we needed to become assessors and not activity planners.”

So whole chunks of the curriculum, including some beloved units and projects, were evicted to make room for assessable units that did support desired results.

“Kids are always asking why we need to learn this.  If I have to pause to answer, I’m not engaged.  Better to put it on them by asking why the universe looks the way it does and let them come up with, and own, their answers.”

Flynn asks his juniors:  “Where will the next earthquake strike?”  Some kids find the U.S. Geological Center or other online sources.  Some comb through the news.  They can collect their data however they like, but they have to find hard evidence to back up their prediction.  It’s weird to hope for a disaster, but if an earthquake does strike during that class, it speaks to the predictions.  Kids have a blast with how right some of their answers are.  The experience of having reasoned out a pretty good guess is educationally impressive to students.

Finding the grossest place in the school has similar appeal.

Flynn says, “It really doesn’t matter what the content is, as long as they’re using scientific thinking.  It engages them so much more.  Assignments like that help the kids to practice really good science skills.  And the way we have it designed, they have to do and show their work just like they do on the NECAP test.”

As a vocational school, it’s not uncommon for a majority of Davies’ students to enter the 9th grade reading only at a 6th-grade level.  Science tests are hugely dependent on reading and writing abilities, so for Davies’ students to jump 15 percentage points in a year is no small potatoes.

Flynn has since become Davies’ Supervisor of Academic Instruction.  Wonder why.

Okay, okay, what is the grossest thing at the school?  Answer:  the basketball.  That was a surprise.  Keyboards and mice come in second.  The toilet, a common hypothesis, is one of the cleanest places in school.  Why?  Because — and you knew this one already — it gets cleaned.  So that was a whole different kind of lesson in itself, prompting more inquiry and more interesting answers.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Let Kids Outside for Long-Lasting Learning

Published by — We need to expose kids to the outdoors where they can play and learn naturally.

“We’ve come to believe that being outside is not good for children’s health.

Adults worry kids will catch cold, get sun-burned, bitten by a dog or tick, break a bone in an accident, become victims of “stranger danger,” or a thousand other adversities.

“We can try to protect kids from everything.  But at what cost?  Kids are spending up to 8 hours a day on digital media, contradicting their natural programming to learn the natural world.”  Meaning: kids are hard-wired to become skilled at living in whatever bit of the eco-system is their home – the jungle, forest, seashore, desert.  Human children evolved to thrive in nature, not in protected isolation like zoo animals.

David Sobel, senior faculty member at Antioch University in New Hampshire, specializes in “place-based education.”  That just involves using wherever the kids are as a giant learning lab.  Specifics in a moment.

Sobel spoke recently at Roger William Zoo, in a huge tent-created auditorium, packed to standing room only, in spite of pouring rain.  Thrillingly, all manner of educators, politicians and agency staff were there to think about giving children back their childhoods.

Which starts by giving them back the outdoors.

After graduating from Williams College, Sobel went to England to train as British infant teacher, which in our terms means pre-school.  He returned in the early 1970s to found the Harrisville School in New Hampshire.

He tells this story from those early days directing that school.  A period of relentless rain had been driving his pre-schoolers stir crazy.  The instant the rain stopped, kids burst outdoors to run around.

Rainwater was gushing out of a drainpipe, creating a “child-sized rivulet” that cut a path along a slope.  Two boys took an interest in making a dam to divert and control the water’s flow.  Other kids came along.  Soon an large upper dam developed.  Then subsidiary channels appeared, bringing water to a lower dam.

Sobel exclaims, “Suddenly it was a massive project.  They argued about should they raise this dam, deepen this ditch?  But they worked it out.  They’d yell ‘Ten minutes to flood,’ warning they would let a dam go.  So for the next 2 weeks, the curriculum was about mud, dirt, water and damming.  It was a good example of kids descending into their wild selves, their animal selves.  It was just old naturalistic play, such as kids do all over the world.”

Such as even Americans of a certain age used to do.

Now it’s called “place-based education.”  As a principal writer and thinker on the subject, Sobel has devoted much of his career to helping people understand that the natural world holds enormous, compelling power for teaching kids science, among other things.  Whatever bit of nature is close at hand is a fine start to a learning lab.

Bottom line:  “We need to create the infrastructure so kids can do that.”

In agricultural times, students came in from the fields and cow-barns to learn the science behind what they knew from hands-on experience.  I love the kit-based science promoted by the National Science Foundation because kits bring interesting natural experiences indoors.  But at the end of the day, it’s still a bunch of stuff that comes out of a box, onto desks in a classroom.

Kits are not tidal estuaries, rivers, or green space begging to be explored.  They’re prefabricated experience.

About 20 years ago, Sobel says, Germany started a “forest-kindergarten” movement, specifically to combat children’s alienation from nature.  Sometimes called the “rain or shine” schools, kids were outside all or most of the day.

“Now they are doing this in Scandinavia.  Some schools have a yurt or a green house, but some have no heating at all.  Kids are oblivious.”

Furthermore, it makes them healthier.  Sobel explains, “Outdoor pre-schools have lower rates of absenteeism and infectious diseases than regular ones.”

In fact, “over the last 10 years, researchers have found that physical activity outside produces better health, strength, flexibility and coordination.  Contact with nature lowers stress, behavior disorder and anxiety.”

Apparently, even hospital studies show that if your window has a view of nature, you will heal better and faster than if your view is a parking lot or the building next door.

I love this:  “Physicians are now prescribing time outdoors for ADD.”

Currently 9.5 percent of America’s kids are taking drugs for this condition.  Yes, I’ve known a few kids brought back from total dysfunction with medication.  But the drugs can have serious long-term side effects, and mostly what we’re doing is drugging kids’ wild, animal selves into submissive compliance.  ADD drugs help perfectly healthy little energy dynamos tolerate the long periods of sitting at desks, often preparing for tests.

Since that’s the aspect of education we adults seem to care about.

But even on the subject of test scores, Sobel assures us that “place-based education improves academic achievement.”

So there it is: if you want healthier, smarter, more socially-adept, resilient kids, work with your community to make a cool, accessible place where kids can mess around with nature.  The adults’ job is to be around, but always at a little distance.  At that remove, adults’ can figure out how to feed kids’ natural hunger to know more about how to master whatever they’re doing.

Because that kind of learning you don’t forget the day after the test.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.  For more detail, see or contact her or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Learning to Write Teaches Westerly Students Science

Published by — A focus on kids learning to write boosted science learning and test scores in one district.

Back in December 2009, excited 4th graders at Westerly’s State Street School sat down to take a practice science test. Like little sports jocks, the kids approached the task as if it were training for the big game coming in the spring, the statewide science NECAP.

In 2008, the whole Westerly district had performed so poorly on that test that teachers actually volunteered their time to form a K-12 Science Task Force focused on redeeming their sullied academic reputation. (See last week’s column about this Task Force.)

Then, insult to injury, in 2009 State Street’s scores tanked again.

The heat was on. State Street had already started implementing the Task Force’s recommendations, including its strong emphasis on teaching writing.

Wait. Writing? That’s English, not science. But more on this in a moment.

Westerly’s students had struggled particularly with the “inquiry” part of the NECAP, where kids to do a hands-on task and draw conclusions from what they see in front of them.

State Street’s Principal Audrey Faubert says, “Science (NECAP) is only given at the 4th grade (and later at 8th and 11th), so K-3 weren’t exposed to the rigors of testing. We decided to give all the kids an inquiry task to complete. And the faculty also took some of the released test items from the RIDE website. Even though they’d been teaching inquiry with the science kits, it was interesting for the teachers to be on the other side of a test.”

But the spotlight’s glare was on those 4th graders.

Faubert smiled sadly, “The room was buzzing. The kids thought they did fantastic.”

Working in pairs, the school’s entire teaching staff scored the kids’ work. The results were enough to induce clinical depression.

But as it turns out, the school’s good efforts hadn’t quite paid off yet. The Task Force was onto a good thing when they decided writing was key to learning science. State Street’s instruction had only just started to take root.

Here’s the problem: Old science was about answers. When a test asks a question like: “How does wind change sand dunes?” somewhere in the science textbook was an answer that the kid was supposed to have memorized.

New science is about thinking and reasoning. The way Faubert puts it is: “The (NECAP) science test is a thinking test, not a knowledge test. Science isn’t about recall any more, but about synthesizing information.” New science poses essential questions, such as the sand dunes example, but now the kids need to derive the answer themselves, by sorting through data. Teachers provide techniques, tools, research methods, and experiences. But like scientists themselves, students must do their own research and figure out what their discoveries mean.

Writing is always the product of thinking. Writing forces a kid to organize her thoughts to be expressive and communicate clearly.

Middle school principal Paula Fusco says, “Prior to the work of the Task Force, we’d left writing up to the English teacher. But whatever the kids did or didn’t know, they weren’t able to communicate their understanding of science.”

To work on that understanding, Fusco says, “We’ve been taking the vocabulary out of NECAP – infer, predict, explain. So the kids aren’t afraid of the words they’re encountering.”

The ability to define “predict” doesn’t help at all if the ability to MAKE a prediction isn’t also a familiar habit. Kids need to demonstrate, by their writing, that they understand what they need to DO when the test asks them to predict, infer or explain.

Similarly, Fusco’s teachers began to work with the kids on “sentence starters” to guide their thinking – However, In conclusion, Whereas, Therefore.

Fortunately, Westerly’s students were in the habit of writing in science journals. But they had used them mainly to record observations. Faubert says, “Every teacher brought in examples of their students’ science journals. Oh, here are the strengths and weaknesses right in our own notebooks. We’d never had the kids prove their thinking in their journals. Think like a scientist, based on what’s in front of you. Prove your thinking. Prove your thinking. We said that so many times.”

At the end of the day, teaching the kids to EXPLAIN their predictions and reasoning was the clearest way to teach them habits of scientific thinking. And those explanations also helped the teachers assess kids’ understanding and misunderstanding.

By February, State Street dared to try another practice test with the 4th graders. Again, the staff scored it together. Ahhh, much better. So much so, Faubert felt more confident about improving on the 49 percent proficiency they’d managed in the prior year’s test.

In fact, when the results were released last Fall, State Street kids hit 80 percent proficiency, 8th highest in the state, out of over 150 schools that take that test. (And Westerly is the 8th lowest-income community in the state.)

Superintendent Roy Seitsinger’s take on the situation is this: “Nobody (meaning veteran educators) signed up for what we’re doing now. Most of the people weren’t trained to bring students through a thinking process. Now the educators’ job is to teach kids how to sift through all that information and to be critical, reflective and make decisions. We have too much information and not nearly enough sorting skills.”

Therefore, in conclusion, learning to write promotes scientific thinking. Other districts would do well to take notice.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.




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K-12 Task Force Helped Westerly Triumph Over Dismal Science Scores

Pulbished by — Westerly’s plan to improve its science instruction, after sobering 2008 scores, included a volunteer effort by teachers.

In 2008, bad news came like body blows to the little beach town of Westerly, RI.

First, the elementary and middle-school science scores were fairly disappointing, but the high school full-on bombed. The 11th graders scored a percentage point below the state average, which itself was a pathetic 18 percent proficient.Teachers had worked hard for test-score squat.

Second, the realities of falling enrollment and a strained budget meant the district had to mothball one elementary school at the end of the year. Always upsetting.

The re-shuffling of kids and teachers included adding the 5th grade to the middle school. The district laid off one elementary principal and assigned the others to the remaining schools. For the most part, teachers chose to follow their principal to wherever he or she got assigned.

And 6 superintendents had cycled through the district since 2005.

The system churned.

But even with all that roiling change, the district couldn’t afford to let science fall through the cracks. Remarkably, teacher volunteers from each building, K-12, stepped up to form a Science Task Force — on their own time and dime. Very unusual. They’re to be commended.

Teachers, not just curriculum officials, came out of the isolation of their classrooms and buildings to collaborate on a comprehensive picture of K-12 science instruction.

Once the hurt and defensiveness died down, the Task Force’s view of Westerly’s science program had many clear lessons, one of which was quite surprising.

But first a bit about Westerly. The large, lovely homes overlooking Narraganset Bay belong mainly to “summer people” whose kids go to school in New York, New Jersey, wherever. The monster casinos that moved close by in Connecticut increased the demand for Westerly’s rental housing. In the winter, the summer rental properties are relatively cheap. But that means the schools get and lose highly-mobile students all the time.

And the big manufacturing employers have been closing up shop.

So Westerly’s year-round population has Rhode Island’s 8th lowest median family income of Rhode Island’s 36 school districts – a surprise to me. The poverty rate among students has tripled in the last decade, from 11 to 33 percent.

Westerly officials make no excuses, though. The town wants good schools and is willing to support them. The current Superintendent, Roy Seitsinger, gratefully reports that their teachers union is supportive of reform efforts and wants to be “innovative and creative.”

While the Task Force preceded Seitsinger’s arrival, he was an instant fan of a K-12 approach to the science problem. “Any time you silo an effort to fix a problem, you haven’t trained the new habits of mind you need to keep the problem fixed. The Task Force is now a systematic practice. They are establishing a districtwide culture of data gathering and reflection.”

Well, what did they find?

Naturally, they found a whole laundry list of interrelated issues, including a badly misaligned curriculum with gaping holes.

But by far the biggest issue they found themselves facing was the fact that everything about teaching science has changed rather quickly, and Westerly hadn’t really kept up.

In recent decades, scientific research has exploded with new knowledge. That coupled with the advent of the internet means the subject has long outgrown its status as a body of knowledge, facts and formulae, that a kid could learn and spit back on a test. Instead, students need to learn to think like a scientist – predict, prove, show evidence. Most importantly, they must be able to show they can use their skills proficiently with hands-on tasks and experiments.

For example, consider a released item from the “inquiry” section of the state’s science test, the NECAP, This test question [PDF] question asks kids to perform a an actual task, know how to understand the physical evidence in front of them, draw conclusions and explain them. Very different from just remembering an answer.

Just for the record, Rhode Island’s secondary regulations mandate that high school diplomas must require students to demonstrate their ability to apply knowledge. In addition to exposing students to the subject in general, teachers need to pose essential questions and guide kids through learning the skills and information they’ll need to arrive at a conclusion. This practice of question or “inquiry”-driven instruction is a huge shift for all but the most recently-trained educators.

Fortunately, the kit-based science curriculum that the district had been using K-8, GEMS-net, is deeply inquiry-based. So Westerly had something to build with. But it was going to be ten tons of work to shift instruction from remembering factoids to focusing more on thinking.

Their work paid off big time. Last spring the high school students achieved 44 percent proficiency, while the state average struggled only up to 25 percent. Westerly’s elementary and middle schools are a good 22 and 15 points above state average, respectively.

But wait? What made the big difference? Surprisingly, the Task Force decided that the most effective way to solving the science problem K-12 would be – I love this – teaching the kids to write. Next week, we’ll see how showering the kids with writing instruction was the magic that turned disappointment to triumph.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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