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Campbell County Works with UW to Overhaul Science Curriculum

July 7, 2016
students outside watching experiments on sidewalk
Students participate in a summer science activity at Hillcrest Elementary School in Gillette. The Campbell County School District has pioneered a cutting-edge science curriculum with help from the University of Wyoming. (UW Photo)

As Wyoming enters the final stages of adopting its new science standards, Campbell County School District 1 (CCSD) sits well ahead of the curve in its preparation and groundbreaking science curriculum overhaul.

This fall marks the fourth year of a Wyoming Department of Education Math and Science Partnership Grant that helped CCSD work with Outreach Science Educator Ana Houseal from the University of Wyoming’s Science and Mathematics Teaching Center. Houseal and her team are working with the district to completely revamp its K-12 science education.

Science scores in the district already are going up, and more measurable results are on the way. In the meantime, teachers are reporting increased student knowledge and engagement.

“The students are just so much better prepared,” says Christy Mathes, CCSD secondary science facilitator and a science teacher at Sage Valley Junior High School in Gillette. “For example, seventh-grade students are able to build an electromagnetic crane to test magnetic fields instead of starting at the basics. They’re able to actually apply the knowledge they learned in elementary school.”

The overhaul of the science curriculum was inspired by a combination of poor science MAP test scores and motivation to get ahead of the new science standards. With the district completing rollout of the entire K-12 lesson plans in 2017-18, it puts CCSD well ahead of most districts in the state and nation in creating a place-based adaptation for the new standards.

“When we took our teachers to the MSP (Mathematics and Science Partnerships) conference in October 2015, they were talking to teachers from all over the country, and those teachers couldn’t believe we were doing this,” Houseal says. “Everybody else is about five years behind.”

Wyoming’s new science standards are based on the Next Generation Science Standards, Houseal explains. The standards include three dimensions to learning science: cross-cutting concepts, which help students explore connections across the four domains of science (physical, life, earth/space and engineering); science and engineering practices; and disciplinary core ideas.

The format improves student learning, and the teachers also are more engaged, Houseal and Mathes report.

“Not every kid is going to love science, but every kid needs to be a critical thinker, and every kid needs to be able to troubleshoot situations and come up with solutions,” Mathes says. “Regardless of what career you go into, those are life skills. Science just gives us the perfect opportunity for that as we’ve begun to implement this three-dimensional learning model.”

Both educators hope that more districts will take on the task of revamping their science curricula, and Houseal says the project with CCSD can provide an example.

“One of our goals is to have sample exemplar lessons from each grade level available online and also discussion on what things need to be considered when people are thinking about embracing this,” Houseal says.

photo of a woman

Jodi Crago-Wyllie, Science Center director and the Campbell County School District’s elementary science facilitator, says the new science curriculum is tailored to northeast Wyoming. (UW Photo)

However, the district’s curriculum is strongly place-based and, therefore, not a cookie-cutter curriculum that can be adopted by other districts. Jodi Crago-Wyllie, Science Center director and CCSD’s elementary science facilitator, says “We want the students to make connections to Wyoming, to what they see and are familiar with.”

The process of building the curriculum from the ground up proved optimal for the district’s teachers.

“It’s difficult to hand over a curriculum and have true buy-in by a district if they don't understand the process and don’t have those place-based connections,” Crago-Wyllie says. “What we have done here is something very special to Campbell County and northeast Wyoming.”

Mathes and Crago-Wyllie appreciate the expertise of Houseal and her project team, which includes UW colleagues Pete Ellsworth, Alan Buss, Jeff Lockwood and Franz-Peter Griesmaier, and graduate students Tayla Fulcher, Sarah Hackworth and Martha Inouye.

“The level of expertise in working with the university is fantastic,” Mathes says, adding that the work, in turn, informs the education of future teachers studying at UW, as professors bring the findings back to the college classroom.

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