Eighth-graders at Cascade Middle School applied Newton’s laws of motion to an unusual experiment involving imaginary cats on skateboards.
They wanted to know which cat would go faster down a ramp: Bubbles, a 4-pound kitten; 15-pound Hank; or Vladimir, the 30-pound tabby.
The students in Christine Oberloh’s science class rolled three different sized balls representing the cats down an incline and timed them.
“We found out that Bubbles was the one to go the fastest,” said Alberto Rodriguez, who is 13. But his group’s findings didn’t jibe with those of the rest of the class.
“I want you guys to think about this because all of the other groups found that the biggest one was the fastest,” said his teacher, Oberloh. ” So why do you think your data is different from everybody else’s?”
Alberto and his classmates are not only learning the facts of science, they’re learning the practices of science — such as controlling variables consistently over multiple trials.
That’s one of the reasons that Gov. Jay Inslee and state superintendent Randy Dorn arranged to visit Cascade Middle School in the Highline school district on Friday to talk about the future of science instruction from kindergarten through 12th grade.
They are expected to announce that Washington will become the eighth state in the country to adopt the “Next Generation Science Standards,” which outline what students should know about the big ideas of science, key practices scientists and engineers use to solve problems and fundamental concepts that apply across all scientific fields.
Delaware, California, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Rhode Island and Vermont also are on board with the new voluntary standards.
Washington was among 26 “lead state partners” that have been working since 2011 on the massive undertaking, which has involved thousands of education leaders, science teachers, scientists and researchers who study how children learn.
UW’s prominent role
The University of Washington has played a prominent role both in developing the standards and in helping teachers teach them.
Philip Bell, director of the university’s Institute for Science + Math Education, was one of 18 experts brought together by the National Research Council to identify the key ideas and practices in science that all high-school graduates should know not only for their jobs and further education, but to become scientifically literate citizens.
“These are incredibly rigorous in terms or peer review and having full consensus opinions of the world’s leading experts,” said Bell. “It’s a much more firm research foundation than we often have had in the past in education.”
Much of that research shows that even very young children have more sophisticated ideas about how the natural world works than adults once thought.
Scientists also know that thinking out loud, crafting explanations using evidence and defending those explanations lead to deeper understanding.
That kind of classroom talk can begin as early as kindergarten, Bell said.
But such conversations don’t just happen by accident.
Bell’s UW colleague, Jessica Thompson, has been helping teachers at Cascade and other schools in the Highline district design lessons that get students talking about science with the kind of rigor expected under the new standards.
The teachers get time outside of their normal classroom duties to work with other teachers on lesson ideas, observe their colleagues teaching in real time, and make adjustments on the fly — sometimes tweaking lessons from one period to the next — to better anticipate where students will need help.
That includes boning up themselves on the science behind the lessons so they can better appreciate students’ attempts to make sense of the concepts and help them fill in the missing pieces, Thompson said.
Cascade Middle School science teachers Anna Kramer and her colleague across the hall, Oberloh, were listening to their students when they designed a lesson to explore concepts of motion.
Kramer’s students like BMX racing and were interested in why some bikers could race down a ramp and upside down through a loop without wiping out and others could not.
Posing question first
Traditionally in science lessons, students wouldn’t be asked to apply what they’d learned to specific situations until the end of a lesson. Kramer posed the question first to spark her students’ interest in finding the solution.
“The goal is just to get them to apply physics concepts to something that is interesting and maybe puzzling to them,” Kramer said. “Instead of teaching kids things out of context and then asking them to apply it later, you’re giving them context the whole time so that they have a purpose for learning those things.”
At first they simply described what they saw in videos, and Kramer helped them develop explanations based on what they couldn’t see, such as gravity and friction.
“It’s always impressive to me how when you ask kids for their initial ideas, more often than not they offer ideas about real science concepts, they’re just often in kid language. So they don’t have the word ‘force’ or they don’t have the words ‘gravitational potential energy.’ But they can talk about how he needs to start high up so that gravity can make him go faster.”
Across the hall, Oberloh’s students were more interested in skateboards than BMX bikes, so they thought about whether a fat cat or a tiny kitten would go faster.
“Sometimes our data might be different and sometimes even we argue among each other trying to figure out the answer because sometimes we have different ideas,” said Christian Pena-Ayala, 13.
The new standards will be phased in over several years and timelines haven’t been nailed down yet. The Class of 2020 may be the first students who have to pass tests based on the standards to graduate, according to the state.
But the kids in Highline will have a head start.
“These teachers and these students are going to be really well prepared when we start to make this shift,” Thompson said. “They’re going to be in front of the curve and it won’t be a shock to the system.”