Working Together to Build a Science Education Plan

August 11, 2015

In a six-hour school day packed with reading, math, and writing lessons, elementary teachers across California and around the nation struggle to schedule enough science instruction. A study by the Lawrence Hall of Science found that California students in Grades K-5 receive 60 minutes or less of science instruction each week.

Holly Gil, Elementary Science Education Consultant for Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD), a district with high percentages of children from low-income families, recognizes this was true for her district just four years ago. “Initially, we were stunned to find that many students were not receiving science instruction at all. The reality was that students entered junior high and high school lacking the background knowledge and skills needed to be successful in science. This essentially cut them off from future options in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) related careers.”

Recognizing the need to make sustainable improvements in its science education program, SBUSD invited the Hall to work with its administrators. “The first thing we do with each district is conduct an in­-depth reflection on what they currently are and are not doing,” said Craig Strang, Associate Director of the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley. “We quickly identified that one of SBUSD’s challenges was that they did not have consistent district-wide materials. Teachers had assembled their science curriculum from a variety of sources, and each teacher taught a quite unique array of lessons and units. We have found that it’s hard to meet the goal of providing consistent, high-quality science education without consistent, high-quality materials.”

While the barriers to securing funding for new materials initially seemed insurmountable, the benefits of adding coherence and quality to its science program inspired SBUSD to find a way. “They put a bond measure on the ballot, and it passed in three months,” said Strang. “SBUSD purchased new teaching materials, including the Lawrence Hall of Science FOSS modules, and began implementing the curriculum, which the Hall supported with professional development efforts for teachers, district leaders, and administrators alike. Hall curriculum and professional development resources directly align with the ambitious vision laid out in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), providing SBUSD with a head start implementing these forward-looking standards.” These resources were also tightly connected to teachers’ understanding and implementation of the Common Core State Standards in the district, which enabled their classes to achieve a coherent approach to science as well as other subjects.

Dave Cash, SBUSD Superintendent, affirms that for the first time in the district’s history, science for elementary students has now become as important as every other subject. “There is absolutely no doubt that our partnership with the Lawrence Hall of Science has made a dramatic change in our students’ experience every day,” he commented. “Prior to our work with the Lawrence Hall of Science, student experience was based on what I call a ‘personal contact’ of their classroom teacher. If the teacher knew a scientist or knew someone who did science-related work, those students would have some science taught to them during the school year. Today, every student learns and, most importantly, experiences how to learn science, every week in our classrooms. It has been transformational.”

Jean Pettitt, President of the Wharton Foundation, which funds the ongoing partnership between the Hall and SBUSD, supports this effort because she believes the future depends on skills that kids learn by doing science. “Students need to ask questions, they need to inquire, they need to look for evidence, they need to support that evidence.” She also believes that if districts want systemic change, they must create a framework similar to the one that the Lawrence Hall of Science helped SBUSD develop. Pettitt remarked, “Unless you think about the whole picture, you’ll end up funding separate programs, events, or ideas that are not cohesive and therefore are short term and aren’t very effective.”

Superintendent Cash believes that the Wharton Foundation’s support made it possible for SBUSD to come up with answers on how best to teach science while supporting NGSS in connection with the Common Core. “Their willingness to allow SBUSD to focus on infrastructure and leadership, to start with, has ensured that this is now part of what we do — as opposed to being a new thing or a new program. The expertise of the Lawrence Hall of Science has explicitly created the conditions for site-based leadership and consistent implementation across the district in science.”

“With the help of the community, the Wharton Foundation, and the Hall, we pulled it together,” noted the Hall’s Craig Strang. “The fundamental point is that the district was serious about its commitment to turning around science education. The community voted for the bond measure, and the Hall was there to help the district put the new materials and methods in place.

“We at the Hall have been inspired by the commitment and tenacity of the district leaders, from the superintendent and his cabinet to the science coordinators, the principals, and, of course the teachers, to really make a difference,” Strang concluded. “We are so pleased that the Hall could make a positive contribution to assist them in achieving their vision of creating a science program that will help students to solve problems, improve their lives and communities, and make the world a better place.”

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All photos courtesy of Santa Barbara Unified School District.

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