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SFUSD teachers help design next-generation science curriculum

Laura Dudnick | February 9, 2015 | SF Examiner

Original article

Galileo High School physics teacher David Barrios gave a demonstration while holding up a syringe with a balloon inside at a recent session for a select group of San Francisco Unified School District educators.

"Pulling [the plunger] is going to make the balloon change size," Barrios speculated, writing down his prediction on a sheet of paper, where he was also instructed to note observations. The teacher then plugged the end of the syringe with his thumb to prevent air from escaping, and slowly withdrew the nozzle.

Barrios' forecast proved true: The tiny balloon appeared to inflate inside the syringe.

That's because there are a set number of molecules inside the syringe, and when the volume increases, the molecules spread out, explained Tammy Cook-Endres, a teacher-in-residence with the Exploratorium's Teacher Institute who had assigned the experiment to SFUSD teachers at the teacher-training session last month.

"So you have fewer molecules in a given amount of space that are pushing on the balloon," thus allowing the balloon to expand, Cook-Endres said.

The fun-with-syringes lesson – which included experimenting with mini-marshmallows and M&Ms in the plastic nozzle as well — kicked off one of five teacher development days this school year in which 40 science teachers are helping to develop the SFUSD's next-generation science curriculum that is set to take effect within the next few years.


The new science standards, adopted by the state Board of Education on Sept. 4, 2013, spell out scientific ideas and practices that all students are expected to learn by the time they graduate from high school.

School officials emphasized that the state science standards do not supply a curriculum, but how they are taught is up to individual districts. The standards were also created to align with the Common Core English-language arts and math curriculums, which were implemented in the 2013-14 school year and this school year, respectively.

The SFUSD has since selected 20 high school teachers and 20 middle school teachers to "build a common understanding" about the next-generation science standards, as well as "the landscape of science learning in SFUSD," said Sarah Delaney, the district's science program administrator.

Allowing teachers to design the curriculum themselves — instead of simply imposing new teaching methods — will help ensure success in classrooms, district officials noted.

"This work is being undertaken by the teachers in the district, so they own the change," said Jim Ryan, executive director of the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program for the SFUSD.


District officials pointed out that plenty has changed in the scientific world since California's current science standards were adopted in 1998.

"The old standards had lived a long life. They still had Pluto as a planet," said Ryan, referring to how Pluto has since been classified by astronomers as a dwarf planet.

The new standards will essentially shift the way science is taught. Much like January's teacher development session in which educators conducted experiments to reach conclusions, students will learn science with a more hands-on approach.

"The previous standards were very fact-based, and these are much more conceptual," Ryan explained.

For instance, investigation and experimentation will play a larger role in the classroom, similar to how scientists and engineers engage with their work. The goal is to implement three-dimensional learning that weaves in facts with concepts.

"Not that there aren't facts or skills that students learn," Ryan noted, "but they are conceptual and they're also practiced-based."

Additionally, engineering — currently an elective — will be built into San Francisco's curriculum for the first time with the new science standards.

"Engineering is the application of science knowledge to solve real-life problems," Delaney said. "That's how it's framed in these standards. ... Learning in the classroom is going to be focused now on how do we look around us, identify problems, and then use our science knowledge to solve them."


This school year, the SFUSD is in what California education officials call the awareness stage, meaning teachers are learning about the new science standards as plans for districtwide implementation get underway.

District officials next plan to develop the core curriculum this summer for middle and high schools, before beginning to design the elementary-level science courses next school year.

The ultimate goal is to prepare San Francisco students for the statewide Next Generation Science Standards assessments that will roll out in the 2017-18 school year, district officials said.

Barrios, the Galileo physics teacher, acknowledged that the new standards will be a "huge shift" for many teachers, but said that students will ultimately have a more authentic science experience in the classroom.

"I'm really interested to see how they actually test that, but I do think [the standards] are a really good move in the right direction," Barrios said.

Lori Lambertson, a staff teacher at the Exploratorium, emphasized that the new science standards will recycle some educational practices already used in schools.

"Teachers are already doing 99 percent of these things in their classroom. ... It's just a different kind of a learning process than, 'We're going to do this and then we're having a test,'" Lambertson said.

Page updated on 02/09/15