Borrowing a training format from Japan, teachers prep for new science standards

On Board Online • December 19, 2016

By Jackie Wiegand

Sporting oversized goggles and latex gloves, a group of fifth-graders huddle around a table to tackle an engineering challenge: How do you assemble an effective water treatment system - using chunks of carbon, coffee filters and a plastic cup - to reduce nitrate levels and increase clarity in a water sample?

As the students discuss their strategy, dozens of teachers hover nearby, quietly listening and taking notes.

This "live research lesson" was part of a Nov. 8 professional development conference in Syracuse to help teachers and administrators prepare for proposed new state science standards, which were approved by the state Board of Regents at its December meeting.

One trio came up with the bright idea of putting a carbon teabag in a cup and using it as a filter.

"Oh my gosh, the water is so clear," one girl says.

"The filter is working," a boy replies.

But suddenly the water turns black.

"I told you we should have put a rubber band on the outside of the cup!" the third member of the team, a boy, exclaims.

The lesson was part of a unit on global water issues and included information about the California water crisis.

"I love the fact that they focused on a real-life situation," said Patti Connor, a seventh-grade science teacher from the West Genesee school district, near Syracuse. "The kids are collaborating," she added. "They are given guidelines but they really are in charge of their own problem-solving."

Connor was one of 300 educators at the conference, which included demonstrations of science lessons by four teams of elementary students. It's a training technique called lesson study. Popular in Japan, it involves three steps:

  • A team of teachers plan a lesson together and make predictions of how students will react.
  • One teaches the lesson to students while the others observe.
  • The team evaluates what happened.

"To my knowledge, this is the first conference in the U.S. to focus on the intersection of elementary science and lesson study," said Kelly Chandler-Olcott, associate dean for research in the Syracuse University School of Education.

If implemented well, the new standards will improve our nation's scientific literacy, said Jessica Whisher-Hehl, coordinator of the Center for Innovative Science Education at Onondaga-Cortland-Madison (OCM) BOCES. She organized the training event with Sharon Dotger, associate professor of science education and lesson study researcher at Syracuse University.

The goal is broader than inducing more students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Whisher-Hehl said. "Prior science reform efforts focused on creating more STEM majors and they failed," she said. "This is a movement for 'science for all.' Understanding science is important for all students regardless of the career paths they choose."

The proposed new state science standards are based on the Next Generation Science Standards developed by 26 states, including New York, with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Noyce Foundation (named for the inventor of the integrated circuit) and foundations affiliated with General Electric, Cisco and DuPont.

The standards emphasize giving students hands-on experiences that will help them develop skills to solve complex problems, think critically, work collaboratively and communicate ideas.

At the Nov. 8 conference, Carol O'Donnell, director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center, told attendees that science education can't stand still. Thirty years ago, she said, it was enough to teach students about the simple concept of "soil." Today, students can look that up on their smartphones. She said the challenge today is to expose students to larger, global problems related to soil, such as drought and erosion, then guide the students as they model engineering solutions with their classmates, make connections to other subjects and build on their knowledge over time.

"We have to prepare them for a rapidly changing world," O'Donnell said. "It's not about teaching content - it's about teaching them how to use the content to solve complex problems."

OCM BOCES is one of two field partners with the Smithsonian Science Education Center on a $200,000 grant to help school districts implement the new standards.

Seventy teachers will participate in grant-supported work over two years. In the first year, they will teach lessons based on materials developed by the Smithsonian. In year two, teachers will receive two days of professional development related to lesson study and be asked to engage in one research cycle related to supporting early elementary students engaging in engineering practices.

"I think the changes in science education are even larger than what's taking place in English language arts and math, especially at the elementary level," said Alice Kendrick, superintendent of the Jamesville-DeWitt Central School District outside Syracuse.

She praised the conference as "really modeling what we need to do to support teachers."

Kendrick said implementing new science standards will be a major undertaking for schools. "It's going to be a challenge to figure out how to make this happen for hundreds and thousands of teachers, not just in this area but throughout New York State," she said.

For more information on the lesson study training technique, go to: and .

For more information on New York's science standards, go to .

Jackie Wiegand is marketing coordinator for Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES.

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