- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) - The video cameraman and sound man weaving their way through Jami Howe’s fourth-grade classroom during a science project is clear evidence that Campbell County’s work on teaching science is breaking boundaries.

There’s a lot of interest in the science program, now in the fourth year of a federal grant that will ultimately revamp the way science is taught in the school district. The K-12 project has drawn a lot of interest statewide, and now the attention has grown nationally and internationally, the Gillette News Record reported (https://bit.ly/1VArf2E).

Two small northeast Wyoming communities in Campbell County are the focus of that attention.

John Tulenko of “Education Week/PBS New Hour” was at Paintbrush Elementary School with a film crew to view a hands-on science project on light and mirrors. The trio also visited other schools in Wright and Gillette throughout the week to report on the groundbreaking efforts to teach science. Tulenko said the report will likely air sometime in late May, around the time of this year’s high school graduations in Gillette and Wright.

No other district in the state has attempted anything similar. And there are not many districts in the nation, if any, doing similar work, said Tulenko, who’s covered education for the past 20 years.

The timing, with Wyoming considering adoption of new science standards for the first time since 2008 (the first public meeting on the proposals will be May 4 in Gillette), seems somewhat prophetic.

It’s happening at a time when states were grappling with the debate over the national Common Core Standards and the Next Generation of Science Standards.

Despite that debate, Gillette educators decided to take a different approach, essentially changing the way science is taught.

“There isn’t a lot of this,” Tulenko said. “Gillette is pioneering it.”

Revamping science

The science program is in its fourth year of a federal grant through the Wyoming Department of Education under the tutelage of University of Wyoming assistant professor Ana Houseal. It is something of an experiment in its own right. It’s the science of teaching science.

It began in 2013 as an effort to revamp Campbell County School District’s science courses in grades K-12. That first year, teachers in grades 3-6 were involved.

Even school district trustees were concerned that science was becoming the ugly stepchild in elementary school classrooms in Gillette. Science scores on the statewide PAWS tests were averaging only about 40 percent proficiency.

They wondered if Campbell County students were even being taught what they were being tested on.

In 2012, the trustees agreed to undertake a year-long study to determine if science was getting enough attention from teachers, particularly those at the elementary level. That same year, trustees passed a strategic goal of having 80 percent of Campbell County’s students score proficient or above on the statewide assessment by 2017.

They also set a minimum time limit for teachers to use science reading or kit-based lessons for 40 minutes a week in K-2 classrooms and 180 minutes a week in grades 3-6. Secondary science teachers had to provide science instruction a minimum of at least 80 minutes over two days.

Part of the strategy also included reviewing the district’s science curriculum, delivery and assessments to make sure it aligned with state and national standards.

“We needed an overhaul (in science) and we knew that,” said Jodi Crago-Wyllie, district facilitator in elementary science and director of the Science Center-Adventurarium.

With leadership also from Christy Mathes, the school district’s secondary science facilitator and junior high science teacher, teachers have helped take science to a whole new level in Campbell County.

“It’s a huge shift. It’s not the science we taught 10 years ago, but these are skills our kids need,” Mathes said.

“It’s exciting stuff,” Crago-Wyllie said.

Home-grown approach

Teachers have taken the lead, designing the lessons at each grade level and then piloting the units to see what works and what doesn’t.

That work likely will continue until the entire K-12 science lesson plans are rolled out in 2017-18. The district also will continue tweaking its lesson plans for many years beyond that with teacher communication and consistency being a key.

The district’s grade 7-12 program is being piloted this year, Mathes said. By 2017-18, the Campbell County School District will have a complete 13-year program in place.

“It’s been a lot of teacher training and a lot of shifts in thinking,” she said, adding that “it’s all about teaching science in three dimensions.”

As the work has continued, several benefits have emerged beyond science. Teachers have made efforts to improve their teaching methods by working with their peers. They are becoming more effective teachers as a result.

And the lessons have been designed to incorporate other subjects, including reading, writing and social studies. What began as a science lesson now branches out to cover many subjects that will translate into a more rounded and meaningful education for students.

“Teachers have told me that kids are a lot more interested in science,” Tulenko said, adding that “there’s a lot more hands-on” in classrooms than he’s seen before.

Kids also are more interactive in the lessons. In fact, they’re responsible for learning on their own.

“I’ve noticed in a few classrooms that teachers have had to do almost no managing of the behavior of kids,” he added. “They’re really involved. The kids are modeling complicated concepts. That’s good to see.

“I’m definitely learning from teachers that students are really into it.”

Tulenko said the Next Generation of Science Standards is a 270-page document. It’s asking a lot of teachers to incorporate that into their classrooms and some feel it will later be used to evaluate teachers.

But the approach being developed in Campbell County is about much more.

“It lets kids look at data and make their own conclusions,” he said. “It’s more about letting kids make the decisions themselves.”

It’s about Wyoming

While the lessons include information from across the nation and world, such as the Grand Canyon in a unit about land forms, it also focuses on Wyoming and the West.

Crago-Wyllie, a native of this area, takes a lot of pride in that.

“We still teach them (the Grand Canyon), but we start here,” she said. “We really focus on Wyoming and the West.”

It’s not one-size-fits-all for the state, however.

Lessons and science kits designed for use in Gillette and Campbell County may not work as well for other areas of Wyoming, including the Grand Teton mountain range or the Red Desert in the southwest.

“You can’t take it and run with it,” Crago-Wyllie said. If school districts in other areas show interest, they will have to do some of the legwork themselves.

The exemplar lesson plans and units will be available on the school district’s website, perhaps by the end of next year. It’s not the property of the district, since the work was financed through a federal grant. But teachers have certainly taken ownership in it.

“I feel like we own this, this is ours and every district needs to make theirs,” she said. “This is all about Campbell County. We’re not teaching science in isolation anymore.

“This was created by teachers. I’m so proud of them. They put a lot of time and passion into it. Teachers really should get the credit for this. Their work is the meat to it.”

The proving ground

Now that the pieces for Campbell County’s full program are clicking into place, the next step is testing and assessment. That’s already happening at the elementary level, with teachers designing assessments as they designed units.

And while there’s no actual data to prove it, there’s definitely anecdotal evidence that the elementary piece is already showing student improvement, Mathes said. The research data will start to become available next school year.

That’s when the rubber will meet the road, essentially, although both Mathes and Crago-Wyllie believe the benefits are evident even now.

At the secondary level, it’s become more of an approach of “how to teach it so it matters,” Mathes added. “A lot of what we’re doing is just good teaching. It’s implementing ways of making kids show their thinking.”

AJ Hermstad, 9, showed his joy of that in Howe’s fourth-grade class while the filming was taking place.

“We got it!” he yelled, pumping his fists and trying out a few celebratory dance steps with partner Owen Lock, 10, who looked on, smiling. They had used a penlight and mirrors to focus a circle of light on a certain point in their box.

Their homemade kit, using items collected and stored in the Science Center, included only three mirrors. So their task was something of a head-scratching dilemma. They had hypothesized what would happen. Then their conclusion matched their hypothesis.

AJ’s enthusiastic dance steps certainly shined a whole new light on the academic lesson of science. “I got it, I got it,” he chanted with each step, celebrating as if he had won the Super Bowl.

In a way, he had.

Maybe we should call it the science bowl, instead.

___

Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, https://www.gillettenewsrecord.com

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