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Johnson County School District Partners with UW to Improve Science Education

July 7, 2016
middle school students using glue guns and plastic tubes to build things at a table.
Seventh-grade students Brian Barajas, Cole Blakely, Mary Cleveland and Tinley Pierson work on a science project building kites in Victoria Davis’s class at Kaycee School. The Johnson County School District is working with UW College of Education representatives to incorporate new methods of teaching science. (Victoria Davis Photo)

Students in Johnson County School District 1 (JCSD) are beginning to embrace new science standards -- becoming investigators, asking important questions and designing solutions -- thanks to a forward-looking school district and help from the University of Wyoming’s Science and Math Teaching Center (SMTC).

After the national Next Generation Science Standards were released in 2013, Wyoming began working on updating its own science standards -- a process that is now nearing final approval. While some districts have waited for Wyoming’s new standards to be fully adopted, others have begun trainings to get ahead of the curve. JCSD was one of these districts.

Elementary school teachers in the district received training from SMTC Outreach Science Educator Ana Houseal during the 2013-14 school year, and teachers have continued to work on the units developed.

Houseal explains that the new standards are based on three dimensions: 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 goals (of our work with UW) were to begin to align our curriculum with the (new standards) and to help teachers better understand the complexity of the standards and the higher-level thinking required in the standards,” says Victoria Davis, who teaches math and science in grades 6-8 and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in grades 3-5 in Kaycee. “The standards really demand the students do the driving. We are striving to make sure students are asking the questions, designing solutions and investigations, and taking the lead in their own learning.”

Teachers like Davis, who work in rural areas, often must teach multiple grades. Houseal and her team, which included graduate student Tayla Fulcher, worked to help Davis apply the standards in a way that worked for her school’s particular needs.

The trainings helped local teachers share knowledge and information.

“It really opened up communication within their district,” Houseal says. “The teachers have continued to refine and work on the concepts they developed.”

Jeanie Iberlin, associate superintendent of JCSD, says Houseal also helped the district’s elementary school teachers create units they’re excited to carry out in the classrooms.

“She taught science in such a way that our teachers got it,” Iberlin says. “They understood it, and they’re able to put into practice what she taught them.”

The new standards improve student learning, and the teachers also are more engaged, Houseal says.

This work is already paying dividends in JCSD, Iberlin says.

“I think kids are loving science more because it’s more hands-on and connected to the bigger picture, bigger ideas and bigger concepts,” she says.

With Wyoming’s new science standards nearing final approval, districts across the state will be working to implement them via changes to curriculum and instructional methods.

Davis, who is finishing her master’s degree in natural science from UW, wants her middle school students to not just know science, but leave her classroom thinking like scientists.

“I think this work is incredibly important,” she says. “We are taking a giant leap in science education.”

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