Local students aren’t learning science by the book anymore.

Instead of memorizing facts or filling out worksheets, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) students are building their own solar water heaters or extracting DNA from strawberries. The projects serve as a jumping-off point for collecting and analyzing data, making graphs and writing about concepts. After making solar water heaters, students at Will Rogers Elementary School collected temperature data to understand which materials in the heaters made the water heat up the most and wrote scripts of commercials to sell their heaters.

“We’re looking at practices scientists really use every day, like asking questions, using tools and analyzing data,” said Dr. Irene Gonzalez-Castillo, director of curriculum and instruction.

SMMUSD has been working to incorporate the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) since 2016 and set a three-year plan in motion last fall. The NGSS were developed by a consortium of 26 states and are intended to help students understand core scientific concepts and the scientific process of developing, testing and explaining ideas. California adopted the standards in 2013 and released the California Science Framework in 2016 for districts across the state to implement.

“NGSS really makes it explicit that it’s just as important for students to learn about data collection and observing as what’s in their schoolbooks,” said Laura Simon, Will Rogers’ STEM coordinator.

Teachers from SMMUSD elementary and middle schools provided the Board of Education with an update on NGSS implementation at the board’s Apr. 3 meeting. High school teachers will address the board on May 16.

The district is shifting science instruction to emphasize the real-world applications of science and engineering, how different scientific disciplines are interwoven and learning through inquiry, Gonzalez-Castillo said. Teachers typically begin a unit by asking students to observe a phenomenon, which they then research and build projects off of. Students read, write, speak and listen about the topic throughout the process.

Lincoln Middle School science teacher Marianna O’Brien said the approach is meant to give students hands-on experience with each topic.

“You can’t just know a type of chemical reaction, you have to see it happen and … interpret the data to be considered proficient,” O’Brien said. “You can’t know science unless you do it. It would be like someone just reading a lot of cookbooks and considering themselves a chef.”

UCLA and California State University, Northridge have been helping teachers roll out the new pedagogy throughout the school year and the partnership will continue next year. Elementary schools will now identify science teachers leaders on each campus and pilot new instructional materials, while middle schoolers will refine curriculum guides and develop benchmark assessments for students.

madeleine@smdp.com

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