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UW Works with School Districts to Improve Science Education

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)

With Wyoming’s new science education standards in the final stages of approval, some school districts are well ahead of the curve, thanks to partnerships with the University of Wyoming that have helped them understand and begin to implement the new K-12 standards.

Outreach Science Educator Ana Houseal, from UW’s Science and Mathematics Teaching Center, and a team of colleagues and graduate students, have already worked with school districts in Campbell, Uinta and Johnson counties specifically on the science standards.

Leading the pack is Campbell County School District 1 (CCSD), which is completing its third year of a Wyoming Department of Education Math and Science Partnerships Grant that allowed the district to work with UW to completely overhaul its K-12 science curriculum.

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 national 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.

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)

“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.

However, the district’s curriculum is strongly place-based and, therefore, not a cookie-cutter curriculum that can be adopted by other districts, says Jodi Crago-Wyllie, Science Center director and CCSD’s elementary science facilitator.

“We want the students to make connections to Wyoming, to what they see and are familiar with,” she says.

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.

Across Wyoming

Houseal and her team also have provided professional development trainings in Uinta, Fremont, Platte and Johnson counties, including two years working on the science standards with Uinta County School District 1 in Evanston and focused trainings related to energy development in Fremont and Platte counties.

During a year of work with Johnson County School District 1 (JCSD), Houseal and her colleagues helped elementary school teachers understand the new standards and develop specific science units around them.

“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 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.”

This work already is 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.

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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