Emme Brown, Annika Whittmann and George Groebner study in Jen Fox’s eighth-grade biology classroom.
Emme Brown, Annika Whittmann and George Groebner study in Jen Fox’s eighth-grade biology classroom.

After almost 20 years without an updated science curriculum in Seattle schools, a new teacher-created curriculum is being field-tested. It was set to be adopted in the 2019-20 school year, but may be on hold due to large budget cuts.

Seattle Public Schools’ last elementary science curriculum adoption was in 1995; 2002 for middle school and sporadically before 2000 in high school. SPS’s Pre-K -12 Science program manager MaryMargaret Welch has been working with a large group of teachers, students, parents, local experts and leaders to create a new science curriculum that would be based on a student’s desire to learn and could help lift up students who have been left behind in the past.

“Essentially what’s happened is this huge void,” Welch said. “The last time we had a high school adoption was in 1997. And you think, ‘There’s been a lot of changes to science since that time.’ But also there’s been a lot of changes in what we know about how kids learn. And that’s probably as critical as anything else at this moment.”

The state of Washington adopted new science standards in 2013. SPS teachers and leaders came together to create a new curriculum alignment, but the district did not have the required funding to adopt the curriculum.

“It was actually really sad,” said Hamilton International Middle School biology teacher Jen Fox. “I mean people put countless hours in it. And for teachers, it’s not very good pay. Also, you think of all the volunteer hours from the community ... and then we got to the end and they said we couldn’t fund it because there was a $43 million lack of funding.”

Fox has been teaching science with SPS for 19 years, and she’s been working on the team with Welch to create this new science curriculum since 2013.

Bridging the gap

Beyond updating the science in the curriculum, Welch said, the new way of teaching could help bring students who historically do poorly in science courses up to par with their peers.

“What we’ve done in the past is we didn’t include everyone in the science space,” Welch said. “So if you were great at memorizing facts, if you had advocates in your home and you had great opportunities to do all of these outside, informal science experiences, then you were kinda cruising ... you were doing OK. But we haven’t been as responsive to every single child and every single learner. So this is really our opportunity to do this differently.”

According to Washington STEM, Washington has the top economy in the United States for STEM careers but the state is only going to see a 24 percent increase in those jobs from 2018, which is seven points above the national average.

Washington also ranks fourth for technology-based corporations, but 46th in the country for participation in science and engineering graduate programs.

“We have to motivate these kids now,” Welch said. “That’s not going to happen at the college and university level; that has to happen with us in school.”

Welch said the magic year to get students motivated and interested in STEM is fourth grade.

According to statistics provided by Scientific American, if one compares the population of the U.S. to the population of professionals working in STEM careers, it’s predominately white men. Followed by white women, then “non-dominate” men and “non-dominant” women.

“Our goal is to build a comprehensive, systemic science program, so we can take this mythical child that moves through our school system and set them up with opportunities at every step of the way,” Welch said. “This is a tedious process and kind of crazy making, but I’m willing to take it on because I really care about science education.”

Curriculum change

Fox and Welch said what makes the new curriculum so exciting is that instead of forcing students to learn the curriculum in a set manner, it is based on what Welch calls the “anchoring phenomena.”

Each unit starts with the anchoring question or phenomena, something students may have wondered but didn’t know the exact answer to. Such phenomena can be “Why is the sky blue?” Or, “If it rains in the morning but stops by noon, why do puddles disappear by the evening?”

“Brain research says by engaging kids in things that matter to them, they are much more willing to come to the table,” Welch said. “That creates a climate of engagement. This is about asking, ‘What’s in your head already? What do they know? What do they think about?’ We built these sequences of lessons to help them answer the question about the phenomenon.”

“I feel like my students understand it at a deeper level than they did before,” Fox said. “They would prefer to memorize an equation and regurgitate it, but my tests now ask them to apply their knowledge.”

The curriculum was created solely by teachers and education leaders in Seattle, instead of being pulled from an education vendor or an outside program.

SPS received grant funding and personnel assistance from multiple universities, including the University of Washington, Seattle Pacific University and Michigan State University. Boeing also provided grant money for the project.

Because of this unique work, Welch was invited to present and discuss the success of this approach at the National Academy of Science in Washington, D.C., in January

Funding the next step

Fox and other teachers at SPS are currently field-testing the curriculum. Fox said some students are finding the work a bit more challenging, but she believes it is helping them understand the subject at a deeper level.

“They say it’s hard because I don’t give them the answers,” Fox said. “They wish I would tell them the answer. Today in my class we did a discussion strategy where one partner shares with the other partner their answers. So, in the end, they got the answer but they had to discuss it first, and so they understood it more. It gives them a chance to formulate their own idea before it’s confirmed by their teacher.”

Welch said field-testing and results should be ready by May. According to Welch’s timeline, the board will hopefully choose to adopt the curriculum for the 2019-20 school year.

But due to a gap in the budget, Welch’s curriculum might have to wait a bit longer.

Seattle Public Schools CFO JoLynn Berge said the district is looking at making $40 million in budget cuts for the 2019-20 school year due to a lack of funding.

“We don’t have enough to balance our budget for 2019-20 with the current amount we are authorized to collect,” Berge said.

Berge said voters approved the two recently proposed levies in February but because of a spending cap created by the Washington Legislature, the district cannot collect the full amount to make up for the gap. Berge said the district is hoping the Legislature will create additional state funding or raise the cap during the current session, but choices about the budgets have to be decided and approved by the end of February.

“Moving forward science adoption is on hold,” Berge said.