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Encouraging Students to Embrace the Identity of a Scientist
Posted 03/02/2018 11:20AM

Last fall, Rowland Hall first graders tackled a mystery in the science lab: how could two islands on either side of the world have the same tree growing on them? As part of a unit on seeds and trees, students suggested an explanation for this phenomenon, and then followed clues to determine whether their explanation was plausible. Carly Biedul—who served as the long-term science substitute teacher during Kirsten Walker's maternity leave and continues to teach the first- and second-grade science labs—was impressed with the students' engagement. "It was awesome to see how the first graders kept changing their answer the more and more they learned about seeds," she said. She explained that this lesson taught students about more than seed dispersal: it showed them that it's okay if your first answer to a problem is wrong because scientific study entails gathering evidence and then refining your answer based on what you learn.

Over the past four years, Rowland Hall has been examining and refining the ways we teach science, largely in service of the Strategic Plan's second goal: provide the Intermountain West's most outstanding math and science program. While division-specific and developmentally appropriate, these curricular changes all have one thing in common: students are spending more time in class—and hopefully outside class too—engaging in the behaviors of science. They are conducting more lab experiments, which involve asking questions, making observations, collecting data, and forming and revising arguments. Teachers are often using the universal framework of claim-evidence-reasoning to guide their lessons, which fosters the kind of critical thinking that students can apply in any field.

In kindergarten through eighth grade, Rowland Hall's science curriculum now aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which emphasize inquiry-based learning and making connections across scientific domains. The vision outlined in the NGSS is one where students are empowered to lead their own scientific discoveries, and sixth-grade science teacher Molly Lewis wholeheartedly supports it.

"Kids are the scientists now," she said, "and teachers are the facilitators." Whether directing a lab experiment about human vision—having students identify the limitations of their eyesight in certain circumstances, such as a dark room—or exploring the relationship between the form and function of red blood cells, Ms. Lewis is happy to let the students take risks and posit theories that might initially be ill-founded. "We're giving them meaningful context instead of just abstract ideas, and then teaching them the skills necessary to discover what's true or what they can prove."

In the Middle School and the Lower School, phenomena—like the trees and their traveling seeds, or fossils found in sedimentary rocks—are being used to draw students into the practice of inquiry. The Lower School also has several new units that integrate science and literacy, laying the groundwork for more in-depth experiments in the science lab. The Beginning School, meanwhile, builds foundational skills with activities such as daffodil painting and dissection.

For Upper School Science Department Chair Alisa Poppen, the skills and concepts learned through lab work are essential, and her department recently acquired some new sensors and probes necessary for proper data collection. Echoing Ms. Lewis, Ms. Poppen said, "We are using labs to build models rather than simply confirm ideas. We are focused on the behaviors of scientists, and understanding that science is not a collection of facts but rather a series of practices."

While the Upper School curriculum is focused on moving toward lab-based Advanced Topics courses—rather than using the NGSS as their guide—Ms. Poppen is thrilled at the prospect of students entering ninth-grade science with an excellent foundation in the claim-evidence-reasoning framework. Furthermore, she sees additional lab time creating an upswing in student engagement, much like Ms. Biedul observed in first grade.

Teachers and administrators will continue to observe how students perform in science classrooms—and, like good scientists, they will refine their practices based on the data they collect. Ultimately, Rowland Hall remains committed to providing students with the best possible learning experience. New Middle School science teacher Melissa Sharp hopes that by increasing students' enthusiasm for science, their learning experience will carry over into after-school hours too. "I want them to get into the car and ask their parents about genetics, and say, 'Mom, let me see your thumb!'" she said. "Or they might watch football and think about concussions, wondering what is happening in terms of neuroscience."

What it boils down to for everyone teaching science at Rowland Hall, including Ms. Sharp: "I want students to embrace the identity of a scientist."

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