Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
December 1, 2006
Vol. 64
No. 4

Snapshots of Science in Practice

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Snapshots of Science in Practice- thumbnail
Credit: Copyright(C)2000-2006 Adobe Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
A science teacher opens an early college founded on students asking and answering their own questions. A science school reaches out to the science community. A science specialist teaches both students and teachers. A school district uses a historic site to integrate its science curriculum. A university pilot tests an engaging food safety curriculum. Read on to discover how some schools are raising the bar on science instruction and motivating students and teachers alike.

Empowered to Ask

Ardi Kveven
When I started working with cutting-edge scientists who were conducting hydrothermal vent research, I had an epiphany as a learner and science teacher. I realized that the scientists didn't have the answers to my questions; they just had more questions. This experience changed my understanding of how to teach science effectively.
As a result, I discarded step-by-step lab procedure instructions and encouraged my high school students to make observations and to ask and test their own questions. Although it took a while to guide students away from asking, “Is this on the test?” I was amazed at their ability to design and conduct experiments. This realization, coupled with my frustration with the constraints of the large comprehensive high school in which I worked, led me to establish an early college whose curriculum is founded on students asking and answering their own questions.
The Ocean Research College Academy (ORCA), founded three years ago with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Everett Community College, embraces the questioning nature of science. With a current enrollment of 70 students from 14 area high schools (and with enrollment increasing by 15 percent every year), the ORCA program accepts students who have been evaluated by a written application, college readiness test scores, and a math placement interview. Ninety percent of the first graduating class enrolled in universities with the attributes necessary to persist to a bachelor's degree. Regardless of their major (only half of our students major in science), we want students to continually ask questions and apply scientific principles to their everyday lives.
Science provides the impetus for asking questions, but ORCA students become lifelong learners in all disciplines because they are empowered to become active participants in their education. ORCA students earn 16 credits every quarter in math, science, English, and history. In every discipline, instruction is scaffolded to provide all students with the basic knowledge and skills necessary to conduct rigorous intellectual inquiry. The following snapshots show this approach to learning.
A 16-year-old student came face-to-face with a challenge while in the field collecting shipboard water samples measuring temperature and salinity. From laboratory experiments she had conducted, she understood that colder water is denser than warmer water. The ocean normally has warmer water at the surface and colder water at depth. However, at this sample station in Puget Sound, her collected samples from various depths showed the colder water layered on top of the warmer water.
She was forced to grapple with this incongruity. Her data were her data—they were neither right nor wrong—but what was she to do with the information? She questioned what she knew, reflected on it, and finally was able to explain this unexpected result: Colder freshwater had flowed in from a river and layered on top of the slightly warmer and salty ocean water. Discovering this explanation on her own empowered her to continue to question, evaluate, and explain what she saw in the world around her.
Another student wondered why jellyfish glow in the dark. Her initial question led her to do research with a premier jellyfish researcher who worked at a nearby research university. Her testable hypothesis on the photoperiod and recovery time of jellyfish yielded new findings (including how different species respond to a chemical light signal) as well as a full tuition scholarship to the University of Washington.
One student discovered her passion for birds when she was observing seagulls at the beach. She questioned whether bird feces carried and spread disease. This question and others led her to take classes that involved conducting research on birds. Recently, this student participated in an internship with a Dartmouth ornithologist conducting field research in San Diego. She is the first high school student ever offered this position, which is normally reserved for graduate students.
During our project week, in which students explore topics of interest with no grade attached, one student created his own monitoring project in a lake by his house. To answer the question he'd formulated—How polluted is the lake?—he built his own bottom-sampling device and borrowed water-sampling equipment from a local government agency. He continued to work on the project for the rest of the year, developing the sampling protocols and conducting his research both in and out of class. The student wondered whether there was a cheaper and faster way to measure water quality than the standard chemical tests. He adapted a river-testing protocol—using the presence or absence of bottom-dwelling organisms as an indicator of water quality—that was not commonly used in lake settings. He submitted his paper and preliminary findings to the Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Network and was invited to present at the organization's international conference. Even though this student plans a future in medicine, his critical-thinking and problem-solving abilities stem from hands-on science experiences that originated simply from giving him the power to ask his own questions.

A Canadian Science Community

Sandra W. Last
For several years, the parent community and science-based industries in Calgary, Alberta, had been asking about the possibility of developing a science alternative program within the city's public school system. In response to that demand, the Science Alternative Program at Langevin School was born. Three years later, the program enrolls more than 400 K–8 students who are interested in science.
Our students engage in a wide variety of activities. For example, in conjunction with the nonprofit organization Society for Partnership (SOPAR), our 2nd graders embarked on a fund-raising effort to build a well in India, investigating water, wells, and water pressure along the way. Our 7th graders participated in an annual engineering event called Canstruction, in which they worked with a team of engineers from a local engineering and construction firm to design and build a creative sculpture out of canned foods to donate to the local food bank. Another student team took part in a technology competition and won first place for designing and engineering redundant backup systems in a device that would signal the arrival of pirates and lift a treasure from the bottom of the sea.
To fulfill our desire to learn outside the school walls, interact with practicing scientists, and work at long-term field-study sites, we created several fruitful partnerships with members of the science community. The Calgary Board of Education partnered with the Canadian Space Agency, which is located across the country in Longueil, Quebec. As a result, our science school now supports the design and testing of the space agency's learning programs, brings space-related content and expertise into the classroom through the agency's distance-learning programs, and consults agency scientists and engineers for expert input in space-centered projects.
Students in grades 5–7 have had the opportunity this year to meet with a number of scientists from the Canadian Space Agency, either virtually through videoconferencing or in person. Structural dynamics engineer Marie-Josée Potvin delivered a presentation through videoconferencing that dealt with misconceptions in popular science fiction novels and movies, helping students develop clearer understandings of concepts related to conditions in space. Dave Williams, a Canadian astronaut and aquanaut, provided students with a distance-learning opportunity after returning from his NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) mission undersea, in which investigators studied remote robotic surgical techniques. Seventh graders asked about the complexity of working and living in an undersea test environment.
The science school also has several partnerships with field-study sites. Our urban field-study site is on Prince's Island in the Bow River, within walking distance of the school. Studies at this site included long-term water-quality monitoring, environmental naturalization projects, and migratory bird observations. Our rural field-study partner is the Ann and Sandy Cross Conservation Area, located southwest of Calgary. The conservation area is dedicated to protecting natural habitats and providing space for native species of wildlife; it offers conservation education programs and manages human use of the area through “entry by appointment only.” We intend for all students to visit multiple times each year so that they can engage in authentic, long-term, and sustained study of this area.
In return, teachers at the science school have committed to studying the effect of long-term, multiyear field-study experiences on the development of environmental ethics among students, parents, and teachers in our community.
Our prediction is that sustained field-study work will lead students to live in ethical and environmentally sustainable ways within their future communities. In addition, our teachers support the Conservation Area's efforts to develop programs using best practice in science education.
Several other potential partners have come to Langevin School with an interest in developing education programs. We believe that this rich connection to our scientific community will grow and continue to foster the creation of wonderful learning opportunities for our students.

The Science Specialist in the Classroom

Elaine M. Silva Mangiante
Some schools use the science specialist as an itinerant teacher who can offer the classroom teacher a free period. Our in-house mentoring model differs: Students engage in scientific discovery with both the science specialist and their regular classroom teacher. The science specialist teaches each class once a week with the classroom teacher present. This provides classroom teachers the opportunity to observe effective science teaching techniques and learn the science content along with their students.
The science specialist meets weekly with each grade's team of teachers to review the science lesson and explore possibilities for a follow-up lesson that the classroom teacher will conduct. For example, teachers can integrate concepts related to the rock cycle, weathering, and erosion with the study of the geologic and land-use history of the students' town or state; or they can coordinate a science unit on the properties of objects with a measurement unit in math. The classroom teachers' follow-up lessons ensure integration with the full breadth of the elementary curriculum.
As a science specialist who used this mentoring model for grades 1–5 in a K–8 school, I have experienced its positive effect. For example, in the 5th grade unit on energy transfer, the classroom teachers cotaught with me. I developed and delivered the science lessons as the primary teacher, introducing concepts, tasks, experiments, and demonstrations. Together, the classroom teacher and I assisted small groups of students as they designed and conducted their experiments or completed energy transfer activities. We often divided the class in half to reduce the student-teacher ratio when conducting hands-on exploration experiences with students.
During every class, the classroom teacher actively participated in the students' discussions and experiments, often becoming a team member in one of the student groups. Students and teachers experienced together how energy is transferred by conducting various experiments and through hands-on explorations of all kinds of topics: force, work, inertia, collision, Newton's three laws of motion, mechanical systems, propellers, solar cells, components of a water-powered mill, and types of water wheels.
The follow-up lessons with the classroom teacher integrated these science topics with other subjects. Students learned about the real-life application of energy transfer by studying the technology of the Industrial Revolution. They learned about inventors and mill workers, for instance, and about innovations that led to early textile machines and improvements of present-day machines. They also discussed past and present labor and health issues. Students and teachers went on field trips to historic and modern mills, listened to guest speakers who specialized in the topic, and read such relevant books asMill (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) by David Macaulay and Lyddie (Puffin, 2001) by Katherine Paterson. The integration with language arts and social studies made student learning come alive.
Students gained a working understanding of the creativity and perseverance necessary to invent an efficient technology by completing a “challenge” project: They had to create a water-powered device that could move smoothly and freely, stand on its own, and turn a gear without getting the gear wet. In teams of four, students created their own designs, selected their own materials, and built their own devices. They tested their devices and made structural improvements. The result was a group of 5th graders who were fascinated by experimentation and the pursuit of innovation.
The science specialist can monitor student acquisition of skills and knowledge as defined by the science standards and adjust the curriculum on the basis of data from standardized testing. This continual in-house professional development results in a strong standards-based elementary science program, makes science more accessible to students in the elementary classroom, and empowers classroom teachers to effectively and confidently teach science.

Mystery Rocks and Marvelous Machines

Cynthia Fiducia, Elizabeth Keroack, and Robert Simpson
In fall 2001, a group of 5th grade educators in the Malden Public School District in Malden, Massachusetts, faced the following challenge: How could they create a curriculum experience that would help students learn about rocks, minerals, and simple machines? Data from the previous year's Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) science exam showed that 5th graders were not responding to traditional instructional practices and had misunderstandings about science, engineering, and technology concepts.
Through collaboration with various universities, Malden created a Teacher Learning Center to help teams of district teachers learn how to integrate technology into the curriculum to enhance student understanding of academic content. Participating in the yearlong professional development program, teachers learned to create technology-based units aligned with state and district curriculums. The project-based units focused on essential questions that motivated students to struggle with scientific inquiry in a real-world context.
During 20 instructor-led training sessions that continually shifted between acquiring basic technology skills and understanding how to construct a project-based curriculum, the teachers decided to use the nearby Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site as a central organizing concept for aligning 5th grade subject matter. Dating back to 1646, the Saugus Iron Works was the first successful integrated ironworks in the United States. Today, the site contains historically accurate reconstructions of many of the original buildings and machines that powered New England's fledgling economy. Engaging students in an exploration of how 17th century colonists built and managed the ironworks would be the driving force for teaching about the importance of natural resources and about the science and technology behind the amazing machinery found at the site. The project's capstone would be a field trip to the Saugus Iron Works to connect classroom learning to the real world.
Teachers used their newfound technology skills to construct a Web site, connect with one another through a Web-based communication board, and archive and share files. To support teachers in the development of project-based units (PBUs), Malden and its adjoining school districts, Everett and Medford, formed the Tri-City Technology Education Collaborative (TRITEC) to design a curriculum/technology integration model. TRITEC not only designed the model that led to the development of the Saugus Iron Works project-based unit (seehttp://tritec-inc.org/pbu/std.cfm?id=110), but also created a technology infrastructure called PBU Builder to support teachers in developing and distributing other project-based units. PBU Builder provides point-and-click access to district curriculum standards as well as Web space to upload and manage a unit. All teachers were issued laptops, enabling them to personalize their computing environment and enjoy the benefits of mobile computing.
In spring 2003, Malden teachers at the K–8 Ferryway School pilot tested the ironworks unit with 47 5th grade students. First, students created a booklet comparing colonial and present-day children. The unit then transitioned into a science unit on rocks and minerals. Students visited Web sites to learn about the rock cycle, identify the three kinds of rocks (sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic), hunt for virtual rocks, and test minerals. In a creative-writing assignment, students crafted an autobiography of a “rock person” on the basis of a rock they found and brought to school. Teachers used rubrics to assess student work and issued passport stamps for completed work.
The science content then spiraled upward to a component called How Does It Work? in which students learned about simple and complex machines. Using interactive Web sites, students investigated levers, pulleys, inclined planes, wheel and axles, screws, and wedges. Culminating activities included creating a complex machine and an advertisement promoting the invention.
Later that fall, MCAS data confirmed that the pilot test raised student performance on test items aligned to Saugus Iron Works unit content. Students did better on such technology and engineering questions as, “What other tool beside a sledge hammer should you use to split a log?” or “Identify and sketch four simple machines” (the lever, pulley, inclined plane, wheel and axle, for example).
Independent evaluation data revealed that 85 percent of the students involved in the project answered these questions correctly, as opposed to 55 percent in the comparison group. Moreover, statistical groupings taking into account whether students had an Individualized Education Plan or were eligible for free lunch indicated that project-based unit exposure was the major factor in raising student performance. When the project was implemented in all Malden 5th grade classrooms, more than 500 students studied the unit. On the 2005 MCAS science exam, the 5th graders scored significantly higher on items that related to the project-based unit than on nonrelated items. Our data suggest that creating and implementing a project-based learning experience that is technology infused and aligned to district curriculum standards is a model worthy of replication.

The Science of Salmonella

Jennifer Richards, Gary Skolits, Harry Richards, and F. Ann Draughon
Every year, 76 million Americans contract food-borne illnesses that result in an average of 5,000 deaths annually. To combat this growing problem, the University of Tennessee, funded by a USDA National Integrated Food Safety Initiative (NIFSI) grant, is pilot testing an innovative food safety curriculum targeted at middle school students. The goal of the program is to create an interdisciplinary curriculum focused on food safety concepts that encompasses state content standards in science, math, social studies, and language arts. The cornerstone of the unit is the scientific principle of bacterial growth.
In the science component, students learn that bacteria are microscopic organisms found on most surfaces, including the human body, and that bacteria can be easily transferred to food, resulting in a food-borne illness. Students conduct an experiment comparing the growth of bacteria from unwashed hands, hands washed for 5 seconds in cold water with no soap, hands washed for 20 seconds in warm water with soap, and hands treated with a hand sanitizer. Students construct concept maps to activate prior knowledge; gather new knowledge from a PowerPoint presentation; and then apply their knowledge by creating such products as poems, rap songs, and how-to manuals. Students aggregate the results of the bacterial growth experiment to reflect classroom data, and they isolate and stain colonies from their growth experiment to view under the microscope.
The math component uses the real-world data generated from the bacterial growth experiment to teach basic statistics, such as mean, median, mode, and range. Students also use these data to create graphical representations, such as box-and-whiskers plots, frequency tables, histograms, stem-and-leaf plots, and scatter plots. In addition, students explore the concept of bacterial growth as an example of exponential curves. Using modeling clay, students demonstrate the division of cells and extrapolate growth rates at two, three, and four hours. Students then apply this knowledge to determine whether food is safe to eat by analyzing food-based scenarios that provide the initial load (the number of bacteria present); the generation time (the time it takes a bacteria to divide under optimal conditions); and the amount of time that a food has been sitting out.
Research skills, such as evaluating credible sources and gathering data, are the cornerstones of the social studies component. Students research several common food-borne pathogens and then analyze scenarios to determine the pathogen responsible for the outbreak. Students must locate incidents of Salmonellosis in four different countries during the past five years. For each incident, students record the date, location, number of cases, and suspected source. They then find standard-of-living information for each country in which they located an outbreak. Using the data collected by the class, students consider whether there is a connection between a country's standard of living and its incident rate of food-borne illnesses. To bring the located outbreaks into a spatial context, students create and label outbreak maps.
In the language arts component, students focus on the core concepts of safe food handling: cook, chill, clean, and separate. Students summarize informational text into key points, write press releases educating their community on the potential effects of Salmonellosis, and suggest strategies to avoid the illness. The culminating activity for the food safety unit requires students to demonstrate understanding by assuming the role of food safety experts contracted by the Centers for Disease Control. To help combat a high number of outbreaks in their community, they must create a PowerPoint presentation on safe food handling.
Early feedback from the University of Tennessee's pilot project suggests that the program works. So far, 23 7th grade teachers have been trained to implement the curriculum, which takes one to two weeks to complete. When asked whether the curriculum was useful in their classrooms, most teachers indicated it was excellent, entertaining, and well organized. Most teachers agreed that there was a direct connection between food safety and the disciplines they teach and that it was easy to use food safety concepts to teach the core knowledge and skills that they must cover to prepare students for state accountability tests.
End Notes

1 Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2002).Economics of food-borne disease: Food and pathogens. Washington, DC: Author.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services
From our issue
Product cover image 107029.jpg
Science the Spotlight
Go To Publication