Revitalizing Science Education from the Ground Up

Chicago Public Schools grant enables SESP professor to expand inquiry-based environmental science curriculum to three-year sequence of science courses.

By Ed Finkel
To reform science instruction in struggling Chicago Public Schools, Daniel Edelson leads a new project to initiate a three-year sequence of inquiry-based courses. Photo by Jerry Lai

To reform science instruction in struggling Chicago Public Schools, Daniel Edelson leads a new project to initiate a three-year sequence of inquiry-based courses.
Photo by Jerry Lai

Curriculum specialist Meridith Bruozas leads a teacher workshop at Clemente High School to support Edelson's project-based environmental science curriculum
Curriculum specialist Meridith Bruozas leads a teacher workshop at Clemente High School to support Edelson's project-based environmental science curriculum.
Photo by Andrew Campbell
Jon Vitton can't be sure if it's the quality of the lessons or the underlying structure — maybe both — but his freshman environmental science students at Chicago's Roberto Clemente High School seem particularly engaged this school year.

Their curriculum follows an overarching story line for eight weeks: how to lay out a new school on a site in Florida that's the habitat for the gopher tortoise, which has been designated by the state of Florida as threatened by human population growth. To make decisions about how to build the school, they must learn about the often-delicate relationship between native ecosystems and human populations.

"It's a real-world situation," Vitton says of the curriculum, developed by SESP professor Daniel Edelson, who has recently been awarded a multimillion dollar contract to support a network of Chicago high schools in implementing a three-year science curriculum that includes this course. "They see where it's going — they see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Vitton's colleague Katie Reeves says that in the past, students often have asked the dreaded question: Why do I need to know this? "Here, we can say, 'We're trying to find a solution to this problem," she says. "There's proper order. It makes sense."

"They seem a lot more motivated by the activities, maybe because they know the end result," echoes Olivia Straw, who teaches at Robeson High School. "There's a story line to it. The activities are purposeful."

These Chicago teachers and several others are gathered at Clemente on a blustery December day to attend a training session on the curriculum from SESP lead curriculum developer Meridith Bruozas. As part of the daylong session, they work on an experiment using different combinations of batteries and alligator clips to turn on light bulbs. It's part of the story line from another unit on energy, in which students make decisions about what kind of power plant to build to meet a community's growing need for electricity and where to put it.

"This is a hands-on activity that motivates kids to think about energy transformation, which ties into the larger project," Bruozas says. "Kids think that energy gets used up, and it's gone. This is one way to show them that it just changes its form."

This hands-on curriculum and the teachers' professional development sessions, along with ongoing "coaching" for teachers and leadership training for administrators, will expand thanks to a contract awarded by the Chicago Public Schools in January.

Enhancing science learning
For the last five years, Edelson has been working with Chicago Public Schools to help them implement the high-tech, hands-on environmental science course that he and his team have developed with funding from the National Science Foundation. The new contract increases both the number of schools his team will be working with and the scope of the curriculum they will be supporting. They will expand from environmental science in ninth grade to a three-year sequence that also includes Earth science, chemistry, physics, and biology, all taught using a similar project-based approach. Edelson says the concept of this project combines two central themes of his research: learning by doing and learning in meaningful contexts.

This project is part of a new Chicago Public Schools initiative to reform English, math and science instruction in struggling high schools. To respond to Chicago's request for proposals for innovative reform projects, Edelson assembled a consortium of organizations from across the country with expertise in science education reform. The consortium includes the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), the oldest and best-respected science curriculum development group in the country; It's About Time Publishers, a leading publisher of reform science textbooks; and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

They call themselves "The Meaningful Science Consortium," and they titled their proposal "Preparing Chicago High School Students for Their Future." In addition to Edelson, three other SESP faculty are part of the consortium, Louis Gomez, James Spillane and Penelope Peterson.

"What the new project is enabling us to do is to expand our efforts and have impact on another scale," Edelson says. "A big theme in education — and a big challenge — is to scale up. There are lots of examples of people who are able to do very impressive things at a small scale. But school districts like Chicago, Houston, L.A. and New York need reforms they can implement at a large scale."

He sees the reform effort in Chicago as a rare opportunity. "I don't know of any other school district that has tried to do an initiative like this, where they really put together all the components that are necessary to do reform successfully at such a large scale," he says.

Designing for change
Edelson views the development of curriculum and support for implementation in schools as an important form of educational research. "If you want to do research on reform, you need to have reform to study," he says. "By collaborating with others in SESP and elsewhere, I am able to do what I do best — design and implement innovative programs — while providing a context for others to study the conditions under which learning and reform can be successful." Edelson comes to this style of research naturally, since his background is in engineering.

This new Chicago opportunity came along at just the right time for Edelson and his colleagues. Their environmental science curriculum, entitled Investigations in Environmental Science, has just been published, and they have gained substantial experience working with Chicago teachers like the ones at Clemente.

In addition, Louis Gomez, Aon Professor of Learning Sciences, and Kimberly Gomez, a former research scientist in Learning Sciences who is now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, have been conducting a study of how to support literacy in science classes for struggling readers, using Investigations in Environmental Science as the context. The new project will build on this research and expand it to all three years of science instruction.

Supporting schools
The teacher workshops that Bruozas runs will continue to be an important element of the new project. Teachers will participate in a weeklong workshop in the summer and meet for follow-up sessions throughout the school year.

These workshops will only be one element of the support that schools will receive from the consortium. Gomez will lead an effort to keep teachers continuously learning through ongoing coaching efforts. "You have expert teachers who are going out and working directly with those teachers in their schools, helping them plan, either co-teaching with them, or observing them and giving them feedback," Edelson explains. "It's ongoing, it's being in the school, it's working directly with the teachers."

Collaborators at BSCS will be conducting leadership training for administrators and lead teachers in the participating schools, as well. The leadership training piece will be key, Edelson says, since administrators evaluate teachers, and "if they don't understand what to look for, they can be evaluating teachers in counterproductive ways. We've had stories of principals who come in and say, 'Your class is noisy.' " They need to understand why "not all the kids are doing the same thing at the same time, and they're arguing with each other, and they're talking loudly. It's because they're engaged in what they're doing."

That makes the curricula supported by the Meaningful Science Consortium different from traditional high school science teaching, which is based on "encyclopedic reading. … There's kind of a fear among people that, if you don't teach it in the traditional way it's taught in college, that in some way you're dumbing down," he says. "With this project-based approach, you may cover fewer topics, but students learn it better.

"So in the end, students come out of it with better understanding."
By Ed Finkel