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Opening doors to science

Free curriculums bring new opportunities to schools

Kelloggsville, Kentwood – Eighth-graders were on a collision course to learn about contact forces.

At three separate stations in science teacher Brittney Blaskis’ Kelloggsville Middle School classroom, students rammed miniature cars together to see what happened. The cars were affixed with stoppers, clay, even golf balls. Did the cars move backward? Was there damage?

Some cars barely moved. Some bounced back quickly. Some flew off the table. Students recorded the results in their notes. 

The small-scale demolition derby was part of a science unit in the OpenSciEd curriculum, focused on “Why do things sometimes get damaged when they hit each other?” Through experimentation, students are learning the factors at play when an object collides with another. 

Watching the cars crash under different circumstances helped eighth-grader Jackie Hernandez make observations. “The project helps us see the damage in person, so it helps us understand it better,” she said.

OpenSciEd, used by sixth- through eighth-grade Kelloggsville science teachers, is a resource accessible to educators for free. Lessons build on one another and align with new science standards, Blaskis said. In previous years, she didn’t have a curriculum to work with, but pieced labs and worksheets together. This allows more comprehensive, engaging learning.

A key reason: there’s no more memorizing terms and moving on. Students must explore the “why?” and “how?” in science, she said.

“It allows me to understand how they are thinking and what they are grasping a little bit better,” Blaskis said. “With the other style of learning, it was a lot of just rote memorization of the content. Here, it allows me to challenge them to put their knowledge on the paper.”

High Quality, Open-source

OpenSciEd is one of several open-source science resources – meaning schools have access to them at no cost – that teachers have recently gotten their hands on.

The free digital resources are allowing all classrooms access to high-quality instruction that emphasizes get-out-of-your-seat experimentation and encourages students to wonder, ponder, discover and problem-solve. Think about high school students investigating the role genetics plays in Duchenne muscular dystrophy; elementary students learning to forecast the weather; and middle-schoolers creating bath bombs in chemistry class to make for fizzy tubs.

Curriculums, some that districts have fully implemented and others that teachers are taking on as pilots, align with standards that challenge students to wear their scientist hats and investigate. For schools that have long lacked resources to purchase updated science materials, it’s a big deal. New and engaging curriculums mean it’s time to toss aside dated textbooks, said Wendi Vogel, Kent ISD education science consultant. 

“It’s a huge difference. It’s a game changer for districts,” she said. “It’s an exciting time for kids to be able to engage in science.”

While open-source materials have been available in the past, these are “a new ballgame” compared to 20 years ago, Vogel said. 

Open-source science resources:
Sprocket by Lucas Education Research
CREATE for STEM Institute and SOLID Start, developed and offered through Michigan State University. Read how Kentwood Public Schools uses Create for STEM
Michigan Open Book Project, created by Michigan teachers and includes resources for many subjects
Inquiry Hub, developed by teachers in Denver, Colorado, the University of Colorado and Northwestern University. Read how Godwin Heights High Schools uses IHub
OpenSciEd, created by a consortium of curriculum directors 
Carbon Time, developed through a collaboration of scientists, teachers, graduate students and IT specialists, and led by MSU. East Kentwood Freshman Center teacher Wendy Johnson contributed
Interactions, a collaboration between CREATE for STEM at MSU and the Concord Consortium. East Kentwood Freshman Center teacher Kristin Meyer contributed

“They are much higher-quality units and lessons and instructional opportunities,” she said, noting that another benefit of using the resources is that teachers can allocate less time to creating their own materials and more time to facilitating learning.

Oftentimes, teachers have to focus on creating their own lessons. “Curriculum writing is a full-time job and we have teachers who have been doing both,” she said.

Students prepare to force a collision between a car with a golf ball in front of it and a CD case

Engaging, Enriching Science for All

While it’s nice for teachers to have go-to materials, the big picture concerning open access to quality curriculums is improved equity in education. Resources were developed so all schools can reach new expectations in science in their classrooms. Content aligns with Next Generation Science Standards. Several open-source curriculums are funded by major research institutes and organizations.

The standards, nationally adopted in 2013, made old textbooks and science instruction that focused on memorization and more insular lessons obsolete. The need for aligned material spurred the development of new resources through collaborative efforts by science education researchers, science content experts and teachers, Vogel said.

Curriculums do require some cost for materials (cars to crash and fossils to examine). But money freed up on curriculum can often be used to fund materials and professional development, Vogel said. There are some grant opportunities as well.

‘At the end of a lesson you kind of want students asking the question that the next lesson is about, which is really cool. That’s what’s really different from the old way of teaching.’

– East Kentwood Freshman Campus biophysics teacher Wendy Johnson.

Vogel, a former classroom teacher, said she hopes high-level, fun science will inspire students to go into science fields and become science teachers. There’s a major shortage of students entering the teaching field, especially in science. “The hope is if we have more exposure to high quality science, then students will have more opportunities to see themselves in those kinds of professions.”

Wendy Johnson

Igniting That Spark

As a Michigan State University doctorate student, East Kentwood Freshman Center teacher Wendy Johnson contributed to the curriculum, Carbon Time, which was developed through a collaboration of scientists, teachers, graduate students, and IT specialists.

She now teaches biophysics, which combines biology and physics into one class to provide a foundation of building blocks in both subjects and present bridges and connections between them. Her colleague, Kristin Meyer, who also teaches biophysics, contributed to another open-source curriculum, Interactions

They use material from both curriculums and pull in other lessons as well.

Johnson said the exploration involved is exciting. Students start with a question and figure things out through a series of steps. That sparks new ideas and more questions.

‘It’s a huge difference. It’s a game changer for districts. It’s an exciting time for kids to be able to engage in science.’

– Wendi Vogel, Kent ISD education science consultant 

For example, her class focuses a lot on energy – a main principle in both physics and biology. To learn about food and calories, students feed mealworms potatoes. They monitor the worms’ growth and the decrease in the mass of the potatoes. It’s not an even transfer, they note. So where did the energy that didn’t fatten the mealworms go?

“At the end of a lesson you kind of want them asking the question that the next lesson is about, which is really cool,” Johnson said. “That’s what’s really different from the old way of teaching.”

Johnson sought her doctorate – a dual Ph.D. in curriculum instruction and teacher education; and ecology, evolutionary biology and behavior –  with an interest in making science education more equitable and the firm belief that “science education should be what scientists are doing.”

The fact that she’s contributing to that, in a diverse district like Kentwood, is helping fulfill that mission.

“A big reason for all of that is because we can create open-source curriculums and everyone can share.”

Kelloggsville Middle School eighth-graders Samantha Rangel (white sweatshirt) and Jackie Hernandez test what happens when miniature cars with clay affixed to them collide

Explore more unique video stories of students learning, interesting school programs and educators working to help all children succeed.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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