Every once in a while, it’s healthy for teachers to step into the shoes of their students.
Dozens of teachers from across the state did just that Tuesday to learn about a new science curriculum that focuses on high-engagement, exploratory learning. The professional development seminar was held at Evergreen Public Schools’ headquarters in Vancouver.
OpenSciEd is a free-to-use, project-based middle school science curriculum that became fully available to the public this year after three years of field testing across the country. Its implementation in Washington and Clark County is supported by federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding and grants from the Williams Foundation.
In 2018, Washington joined nine other states in field testing the curriculum at the middle school level. After seeing success, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, which led Washington’s involvement in the project, agreed to expand the field test to the high school level last summer.
Before it’s implemented in the classroom, teachers participate in a re-training program like the one in Vancouver to rehearse how some of the curriculum’s activities and projects might be used in their own classrooms. The training takes place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. throughout this week.
“It’s sometimes hard transitioning from being the ‘knower’ to accepting the role as a student,” said Kari VanWinkle, an OpenSciEd curriculum facilitator leading a session for seventh-grade teachers on Tuesday. “That admission of vulnerability and a need to learn is sometimes uncomfortable for teachers.”
Teachers must don their student hat
Teachers participating in the development session are split into groups based on the grades they teach: sixth, seventh and eighth. In each session, curriculum facilitators, such as VanWinkle, introduce the core concepts of OpenSciEd’s courses for their respective grade levels and then walk through an example of a project that their own students will do. Example projects included learning about one-way mirrors, the chemical reactions in “bath bombs” and the physical forces that cause our phone screens to break when we drop them.
Throughout the seminar, teachers are tasked with switching between two forms of thinking — wearing either their student hat or teacher hat.
“Resist the urge to label a phenomenon,” said Louisa Hodges, the sixth-grade curriculum facilitator. “Let the students play with what they’re observing and make conclusions themselves.”
Hodges, who teaches in a small town just outside of Baton Rouge, La., said that perhaps the biggest benefit of OpenSciEd is its potential to emphasize equity in learning.
“The curriculum prompts students to talk in small and large groups just about their thoughts on a concept,” she said. “Especially in the last year, this is doing a great job at featuring social-emotional learning in the classroom. Students are engaged and curious and leading the discussions themselves.”
Instead of leading with the vocabulary or equations, students are encouraged to find reasons of their own to be interested in the concepts and connect them to practical situations in their own lives, program facilitators said.
For teachers, that approach can be difficult, as it requires them to sacrifice a bit of control in the classroom.
“It seemed daunting, but it’s very holistic and student-focused,” said Miki Ray, an eighth-grade teacher at Daybreak Middle School in Battle Ground, who was receiving training in OpenSciEd curriculum for the first time on Tuesday. “We used to really only do stuff that was centered on rote memorization. I’ve been wanting to go in this new, student-led direction for a while.”
Teachers say OpenSciEd’s prioritization of student engagement and conversation helps to get students excited about being in the classroom, particularly as they get used to the return to the classroom following the period of remote learning in 2020 and 2021.
“The level of engagement is higher, because it really gets more students involved,” said Margaret Morgan, a sixth-grade teacher at Horizon Middle School in Ferndale, who was among the first teachers in Washington to participate in the program’s field testing. “Students find themselves excited. Kids are surprising me, their confidence is up. They’re giving me more complex answers.”
Because the program is still in its early stages of implementation in Washington and beyond, teachers are waiting to see how OpenSciEd’s new approach might have an impact on test scores, graduation rates and interests in STEM fields at the next level.
Will Baur, an OpenSciEd curriculum teacher for Educational Service District 112 leading Tuesday’s session, previously worked as an eighth-grade science teacher at River HomeLink in Battle Ground Public Schools, where he started working with the curriculum in 2018.
In just a few years, he said, he quickly noticed how the program was boosting his students’ confidence in reading and having conversations about otherwise complicated topics highlighted in his classes. That focus on reading, he said, quickly led to improvement on state tests, such as the Washington Comprehensive Assessment of Science, a yearly test given by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
In 2019 — the first year of testing following his students’ adoption of OpenSciEd — 65 percent of eighth-graders at River HomeLink met state proficiency standards, a 12.5 percent increase from the previous school year.
State test scores in math and English proficiency took a nosedive in 2021, largely due to a shortened preparation time following the return to the classroom. Scores in science, however, barely flinched at the middle school level, a phenomenon Baur said may be partly due to the early field testing and implementation of OpenSciEd.
As the 2022-2023 school year quickly approaches, teachers at Tuesday’s professional development said they’re looking forward to using the curriculum’s new approach, no matter how unorthodox it may seem.
“I like labs where results are unexpected as opposed to ‘cookbook’ labs where everything happens the same way,” said Ray, the teacher at Daybreak Middle School. “I’m really excited about encouraging student discourse.”