Don Pringle was having some trouble getting control of his classroom.
As he stood at the front of the room, patiently counting down from five, small groups of students continued lively discussion about the materials in front of them: a handful of surge protectors, each opened up to reveal tangles of wires and screws.
Once the room settled, Pringle, a high school teacher from Ferndale, invited students to share thoughts on what their dissection of the everyday technology revealed.
“I’m going to ask you not to explain, but just to list things you observe,” said Pringle, carefully.
Though Pringle was using his “teacher voice,” his students weren’t children. After all, it’s still early August. This week, science teachers from across the state gathered at the Educational Service District 112 headquarters in Vancouver to receive instruction from Pringle and other facilitators in an up-and-coming, project-based curriculum called OpenSciEd.
Over 100 teachers were split up across four classrooms, taking lessons in how to teach biology, chemistry and physics to high school students. Until now, OpenSciEd had only conducted field testing and provided curriculum at the middle school level; the expansion to high schools would be a first for Clark County and beyond.
Though Pringle’s classroom was abuzz and at times chaotic, curriculum designers say it’s by design. As teachers trouble-shoot the curriculum, they’re constantly considering how it might be received by a young teenager.
“They’re thinking, ‘How’s this going to work with my own students?’” said William Baur, a former Battle Ground and Vancouver teacher who’s been at OpenSciEd trainings across the state. “The payoff for students is that their natural questions that come up throughout learning each get addressed.”
About the curriculum
Years ago, Washington was one of a handful of states that adopted the Next Generation Science Standards: a progressive new set of standards that challenged students to think critically and connect concepts across subjects. The ways of multiple choice and rote memorization were no longer prioritized in testing — students would now be given complex scenarios to sift through and apply their skills to various real-world problems through writing.
While admirable in its goal to produce advanced, independent thinkers, the curricula being still offered to students in the classrooms in Washington hadn’t changed to meet the new standards. Teachers across Washington reported not feeling supported by provided curriculum in meeting the framework’s benchmarks.
Until OpenSciEd, few science curricula effectively prompted students to think and develop personal interest in the way the new standards sought, the teachers said. OpenSciEd walks students through long, curiosity-based units tailored to their own interests and regularly intersecting with real-world issues including climate change. The first round of statewide standardized test scores following the COVID-19 pandemic revealed OpenSciEd classrooms greatly outpaced those teaching traditional curricula.
Jamie Yoos has taught science for 27 years — in 2010, he was named the Washington State Teacher of the Year for his work teaching chemistry at Bellingham High School.
“I had seen lots of curricula trying to hit all the standards, but OpenSciEd was the first to really do it,” said Yoos, who has worked as a facilitator in this week’s trainings. “A big element is equity. All students need exposure to high-quality curriculum, this is something that really gives all students a voice. It helps teachers realize their students each have value to show as independent parts of the classroom.”
The teacher experience
Brooklynn Smolin began her teaching career at Heritage High School in 2020: perhaps the most chaotic time for education in decades. She quickly saw her students weren’t invested, and she understood why.
“When kids are bored, I get it. As an adult with ADHD, I remember not liking a lot of things in school; finding them tedious,” said Smolin, who was one of Pringle’s students tinkering with power strips Wednesday. “Science, in my experience, has always been taught very traditionally. Nobody ever asked me what I thought about what we were learning. In my first job, I’m looking at my students and thinking, ‘Teaching this way is a disservice. You’re just teaching them to be obedient.’”
Throughout the trainings, teachers are switching between thinking like themselves and thinking like a student. For a lesson on ecosystem conservation in the Serengeti, a student might wonder how annual rainfall has changed in the last decade. For a lesson on the Texas blackout, a student might wonder what the power grid in their own neighborhood looks like.
Those asides — the things teachers say kids are naturally curious about — get honored and built into the class.
Smolin field-tested OpenSciEd’s biology curriculum last year and, though it took some time to get momentum going, said she saw incredible results in her students’ level of excitement and participation.
“You just need a safe space to let kids feel comfortable asking questions,” she said. “This curriculum is validating.”
Implementation going forward
Last summer, Evergreen Public Schools hosted a similar teacher training in OpenSciEd. This year, Baur said, his team received twice as many applications for the summer session.
Since July 2022, 398 teachers from 204 different schools in 113 different school districts have engaged in professional learning in OpenSciEd instructional routines through the ESD network for the first time. Internal research in the program revealed that 98 percent of staff who attended the training shared concepts they had learned with co-workers at school.
The work facilitators do to lead trainings in OpenSciEd has been funded through a handful of federal pandemic-era teaching grants. With much of that funding set to expire on Aug. 31, however, ongoing specialized professional development like this is at risk of falling to the wayside.
“Building the capacity of these teacher-facilitator relationships has been great, but it takes the facilitation of districts and ESDs to put them on a platform and give them an audience,” Baur said.
Teachers at Wednesday’s training session said they not only saw value in the curriculum itself, but in what the trainings themselves provide when executed properly.
“Professional development is there, but you have to seek it out. It’s also a huge commitment; people are choosing to be here instead of take vacations with their families,” said Ayla Wilk, a teacher at Summit Atlas, a Seattle-area public charter school. “Having a funded professional development opportunity like this is really rare. Most often when we want to do these types of things, I have to pay for it out of pocket. Sustained funding for these curriculums is going to be really critical going forward.”