Science teaching is changing, not just curriculum, but also the methods
Middle school science teachers have begun preparing for a shift in core curriculum, but this time, it’s not only the content but the way they teach the curriculum that will change.
In 2015, the Utah State Board of Education (USBE) and the State Science Education Coordinating Committee (SSECC) adopted higher science standards for sixth- through eighth-grade students, passing with an 11-4 vote.
Facing the first science curriculum overhaul since 2003, science teachers around Sanpete say they are excited about the transition.
“The new standards are really fantastic,” Tim Black, one of the seventh-grade science teachers at Ephraim Middle School, said. “[Students] are hands-on and this is a neat curriculum. It’s been a long time coming.”
The goal of the new curriculum is to transition learning from memorization to real-world problem solving using the hands-on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) learning model.
The new approach will separate the instruction based on grade level with sixth-grade kids beginning from the bottom, learning the fundamentals of the scientific method.
In seventh grade, students will learn about the interaction of the forces they learned about in sixth grade, like cause and effect. Then, in eighth grade, students will learn how those forces react.
“There is a good way to look at it,” Tyrel Hanson, North Sanpete Middle School (NSMS) chemistry teacher, said. “In eighth grade, things will be a bit more abstract. They’ll learn that abstract science you cannot physically hold. Those are normally harder concepts for students to understand, and in the past, they’ve been spread out over the sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Now, some of those things will just be taught in eighth grade.”
Essentially, concepts are being shifted from simplest to more abstract as students advance in grades, in hopes that students grasp a deeper understanding of the curriculum.
“It’s going to be more of a challenge for teachers, especially teachers who have been around for a little while, like I have,” Wayne Nielson, NSMS seventh-grade science teacher, said. “It’s going to be a little bit of a challenge to shift and change gears to where kids will now solve the problems, rather than, ‘Okay, here’s what you need to learn and here’s what you need to memorize for the test.’”
Neilson says when he first started he was taught to hand out worksheet after worksheet and then take a test, a method that instills memorization rather than real-world problem solving.
Now, through workshops, teachers will learn how to teach subject-specific content, including the “big ideas in science,” which are specific to both the subject and grade level.
Educators will learn to teach cross-cutting concepts, including ones that are repeatedly used to explain scientific phenomena, says Hansen.
Science and engineering practices will also need to be re-learned. These are the behaviors students will use to investigate the world around them and find solutions through experimenting.
“We hope it sticks with them because of the way they are learning it. We’re teaching the brain to think. They are learning to find the answers themselves, and not have the answers given,” Hanson said.
Black, a former member of the SSECC, says the new standards were first created using national core statistics and documents to help build the curriculum about three years ago.
Since then, the USBE released two 90-day public reviews, allowing educators a chance to comment, and since then, the methodology has been adjusted to meet the STEM, hands-on model.
Although middle schools will be the first schools in Utah to undergo a science curriculum facelift, high schools and elementary schools can expect to see changes in the following years.
For high schools, the pilot year will be initiated in the 2018-19 school year. Elementary schools, grades kindergarten through fifth, should be in full swing beginning the 2020-21 school year.
“Overall, this is definitely more beneficial,” Nielson said. “It’s teaching the kids to think more scientifically. It approaches the kids in a manner that’s easier for them to understand what science is about, rather than listen to this, then memorize it for a test.”