Monday, November 10, 2008
MS Science Teachers Visit 3 Chicago Independent Schools Schools
As a part of our two year CARP process the middle school science teachers visited the University of Chicago Lab School, Francis Parker, and The Latin School in late October of 2008. Before our visit we prepared questions for the schools to help focus our visit. Overall the trip was enlightening, and we were able to spend some time talking not only about what we experienced at each school, but to also share ideas about our curriculum. Our responses to these questions and personal reflections are also noted below.
8th Grade Science
The purpose of the Middle School science teacher trip to Chicago was to gather information (both specific and general) about three comparable independent schools: Lab School, Latin School and Francis Parker. Through school tours, class observation and peer dialogue, the middle school science teachers at USM would gather information that could be used for their CARP review.
As the eighth grade science teacher at USM, I wanted to gather information in four areas.
First, what type of technology was being used in eighth grade by teachers and students at these three urban Chicago schools? In addition, what was the frequency of this technology use?
Answer: Every school visited had science rooms equipped with projection devises and some of the rooms were equipped with smart boards. For the most part, students had access to computers (mobile cart) and Vernier software and probes were being used and were being used on a routine basis.
Secondly, were their academic science issues between divisional as eighth grade teachers prepared their students for high school?
Answer: No academic science issues existed between MS and US for any of the school visited. This was the result of MS teachers working closely with their US counterparts through monthly department meetings. Collaboration and communication appeared common.
Thirdly, did any of these Chicago schools require that their eighth grade students participate in a science fair project?
Answer: None of the schools visited required a science fair project for their eighth grade students. All the school participated in Science Olympiad, with Parker Francis hiring an addition teacher to serve in this role. In addition, none of the school visited, require semester exams in any subject for their eighth grade students.
Lastly, what type of lab experience where the students receiving and how frequent were these experiences?
Answer: Most of the students had one to two lab experiences per week. The frequency of the labs was determined by the length of the lab experience with some lab lasting several class periods. Project work appeared to be more common than it is at USM. All of the eighth grade teachers visited use inquiry- based learning on a routine basis.
My Chicago trip confirmed many of the practices I used in my classroom at USM, but more importantly, provided me with many new ideas. Confirmations include: 1) Eighth grade students at USM are using technology in a comparable way to their Chicago counterparts. While the Chicago school are much more MAC dependent than the USM community, the use of technology for data collections and analysis, graphing, research, word processing and presentations are similar. 2) Eighth grade students at USM are being prepared for US science. 3) Semester exams for eight grade students are not developmental appropriate. If the most respected urban independent schools in Chicago do not require eighth grade students to take semester exams, should USM? Project based learning experiences are more developmental appropriate for eighth grade students. 4) Lab experiences are an essential component of any science class. The greater the frequency and depth of the lab experience, the greater the scientific learning experience.
My Chicago tri left me excited and energized in two areas: 1) I must do more hands-on activities. Every day, students should be touching and doing science. Good science, true science is inquiry based. Over the years, I became too focused on the content of science and not the scientific process. It is time to get back to what makes science science. 2) Many of the Chicago schools used a thematic approach to teaching science. This theme would run throughout the year. After doing some research and consulting with peers outside the USM Community, I will be making a proposal to the MS science department to go to a thematic approach in eighth grade science.
7th Grade Science
• What topics are taught in the 7th grade science curriculum?
The curricula at all three schools had different topic that were covered. The schools had different focus elements; Francis Parker utilized a laboratory composition notebook for scientific inquiry, the Latin school had more of a traditional approach and the Lab School was in the throws of curriculum modification gearing towards a lab oriented curriculum.
• How is the scientific or research method introduced and implemented in the 7th grade science program?
The research method was used in all three schools that visited. The strongest use of the scientific method was at Francis Parker School. The school has made a commitment to use a laboratory manual to record data, perform lab activities and do complete investigative science. The program starts in the lower school and continues to through to the upper school. It was interesting to see this approach to science in action. The students seemed very comfortable with entries being made in the “composition log book” for use of a better term.
• How much time is spent with activities that allow students to investigate the scientific process or learn through hands on activities?
Each school we looked at had the elements of process and content that was at the heart of the middle school program. All the schools had elements of “hands on learning” in their curriculum in the classes I observed. The Lab school combined a higher degree of technology in the hands of the students. 7th graders there we incorporating research taken at a recent field experience and had culminating reports posted on a blog. The Latin School used a measurement activity and nervous system reaction time in a lab/partner setting. Observations were recorded and follow up questions were answered. At Francis Parker the students were starting the unit on the nervous system. Students moved from station to station-exploring facts and ideas about the nervous system in an inquiry setting.
• What types of technology do 7th graders use in their learning of science? How does this impact their learning?
The technology that was used at each school demonstrated to me that the students were receiving a variety of computer generated assistance as well as web tools to increase academic performance. The schools used blogs, lab reports written in word documents, and graphs and tables to draw conclusions and answer questions in class and in lab.
Attending the three schools as a science faculty allowed us an opportunity to step away from our daily classroom activities and explore curriculum questions for our CARP review. It was helpful to have some focus questions to ask fellow middle school science teachers in Chicago. This allowed us excellent, specific feedback to our questions and at the same time allowed us to compare what we do with other similar schools in the Chicago area. I came away with great ideas for our department; ideas on which we have begun to have conversations. The visit reconfirmed my view of technology as an assistive tool to the scientific process and not as a be all and end all concept. I was excellent use of technology in meaningful environments directed at the appropriate age groups in the 7th grade. Having the time away from classes and sharing with my own department members gave me a stronger sense of purpose that what I teach and the process with which I teach it is very real and worthwhile.
6th Grade Science
• What topics/ units do sixth grade science students study?
• Two of the schools we visited spend the year focusing (mostly) on one area of science. The third school is more of a survey course.
6th graders at Latin School, begin the year with an intensive forensics science unit to introduce biology and teach lab skills. The remainder of the year is mostly spent on Biology: Animals, Classification, Evolution, Cells and Ecology, with a short look at matter. The curriculum was much more textbook and traditionally based, more reading and research, less hands-on.
At Parker, 6th graders begin the year preparing for their study of the four distinct ecosystems at the Indiana Dunes National Park. During the rest of the year, 6th grade students focus on Earth Science: Lithosphere (plate tectonics, rock cycle, glaciations, volcanoes), Hydrosphere, and Atmosphere (meteorology.) They also study some chemistry and physics including phases of matter, atomic structure, electron orbitals, and density which are integrated into some of the Earth Science Units. The program was heavily project/inquiry based.
Chicago Lab School 6th grade science classes are project-based. They study and explore the following topics: astronomy, physics (forces and motion, building a car), cells, genetics, chemistry and gas laws.
• Do the sixth grade science students do any engineering or robotics?
Lab School 6th graders definitely do some engineering, including designing and building an electric car that moves forwards and backwards with working headlights.
At Parker sixth graders can participate in the Robotics club. Robotics also happens Engineering happens in-class during 8th grade science, with a once a week math/science engineering double period.
• What technology (specifically computer based technologies) do the students use in class?
Lab School – laptops, IWeb, Vernier Probes
Parker – laptops, Proscope, Pasco
Latin – laptops
• Do they use a textbook? If so, which one and how is it used (primary source, supplement)?
Lab School – Use Science Explorer Series as a primary text. The science teacher uses the text to teach content and to the students how to identify important information, take notes, make flashcards.
Parker –They use an Earth Science textbook as a supplemental resource.
Latin –Holt Reinhart & Winston This is used as a primary text and the source of class content and work.
The trip to visit three top rated independent schools was extremely exciting from a science teacher’s perspective. Having lived in and taught in Chicago, I knew of each of the schools, but had never been to any of them. I quickly learned during each visit that all three of the schools had their own unique “atmosphere.” At all of the schools, however, it really was clear that science is held as a vital and important subject school wide, from K-12. Two of the schools (Parker and Lab) for sure had a lab-based science “special” class for the lower school. Depending upon the grade level, the K-5 students met for science with a science specialist 1 to 5 times a week where they did exciting “hands on” science. Parker had a guest scientist program where an established career scientist came to work with the students two or three times per year. All of the schools took regular field trips to explore and study natural areas. It was really a thrill to see how important science was to the middle school and larger school communities!
One of the trends in science education is exposing students to engineering and design, giving them skills that are anticipated to be among some of the most important as the United States and the international community at large develop new technologies and try to solve various ecological (and other) problems. I know there is a concern among current scientists and engineers that American students are not receiving either proper encouragement or training in these areas – potentially resulting in 1) America falling behind other countries as a leader in this area, 2) The need to look outside the U.S. and “import” scientists with these interests and talent. As such, I have had a huge interest in engineering and design as implemented in middle school science curricula. I was very impressed with the engineering projects at both Lab School and Parker. I had already planned on adding more of these skills to my 6th grade curriculum, so it was absolutely wonderful to see a similar plan in action at other “great” schools.
From this trip, I definitely feel inspired to make some changes to my curriculum. I have been reminded that one of my jobs as a middle school science teacher is to really teach my students to “think,” to problem-solve. Middle school science definitely needs to be heavy on process. Having been once around the 6th grade science curriculum, I would definitely like to inject more “fun,” project-based science. I think it is more important to create an experience that students will remember than to ask them, for instance, to memorize the differences between basidiomycota and ascomycota. When students are actively engaged in solving a problem or creating a project to demonstrate their science knowledge, I believe they will internalize and “own” the concepts much more thoroughly.
In my physics unit, I am planning to include a roller coaster project this year so that not only will the students be using design skills, they will need to apply what they have learned about forces and Newton’s Laws. We will then use the Vernier technology to capture and graph the velocity of the marbles that roll down our roller coaster. I may also inquire more about the 6th grade “car” project at Lab school. Since USM’s 5th grade does study electricity and circuits as do they, that project may work well for us in the future.
In addition, I would like to try to arrange engineering challenge days, perhaps between units, where we take a break and spend two to three days trying to solve an engineering problem. This could even evolve into a special grade wide or school wide “Science Challenge day.” Perhaps, I will see if I can arrange this for the sixth grade in the spring!
Finally, I would definitely like to teach more Biology, especially plants and animals and adaptations – important content that we seem to miss entirely in the middle school. To do this, I would have to give up one of my units, such as geology.
These changes are all ideas that I had previously thought about in my goal to make 6th grade science curriculum my own. After seeing other schools doing them, I feel more confident now that they are good decisions.
5th Grade Science
• What types of assessment do you use in your class?
I briefly looked over two student binders from a 5th grade science class. They showed student work samples of lab-like activities done in class. Process skills were apparent although a “formal lab” sheet/ structure was not used. It appeared that students focused on specific process skills (such as hypothesis, procedure, etc) in parts, perhaps for each class session, to form a whole lab. It didn’t appear that these were evaluated in any way, but were more like a collection of work done in class. I spoke with the teacher about how she assesses students and she showed me a sample of a grade sheet that had various “codes” she used for different assignments. It didn’t really make sense to me.
The sixth grade science teacher used a variety of tools to assess students learning. Prentice Hall Science Explorer is used as a supplement text to teach content and tests from the series are used to assess students’ content knowledge. The teacher also uses a project-based approach with rubrics designed with learning outcomes.
• Do you use portfolios when assessing a student’s progress? If so, how do you use them?
The 5th grade binders were the closest artifact that resembled a portfolio, but I did not find out how or if they were used in assessing student progress.
• How to determine what students should be able to do when they exit 5th grade? Middle School?
I had a brief discussion with the 5th grade science teacher about this and found the answer to be a little vague. I got the impression that the Lower School science teachers do not dialogue (or map out as we do) about what they are teaching and they have freedom in selecting content. It seemed that she would adjust her content if something were covered in lower grades. The website does have content outlined for each grade level.
• Do you use benchmarks when you plan your assessments?
I believe I asked this question and the answer was no.
• To what extent is technology integrated? What types of technology are used?
Vernier labs used as demos in 5th grade and more extensively in upper middle grades; occasional use of projector; no Smart Board technology used in science and no apparent interest in it either.
• What units are covered (and in how much depth)?
The fifth, sixth/seventh and eighth grade teachers explained what units they covered. The fifth grade teacher covered topics rather than in-depth units because students only have science three times a week/cycle. The sixth grade curriculum seemed to resemble my own the most in that the teacher has specific units, text support and projects/labs. The eight-grade teacher covered only earth science through the course of the year. What really stood out here were the outdoor learning experiences as students are frequently taken off campus to make hands-on connections to what is learned in class.
• Is there a textbook used for your grade level?
In 6th -8th grade
Despite my trip being cut short, I was very excited to see the U of C Lab School, having heard and read a bit about it. What I expected to see and what I actually saw were completely different. The nature of school was informal, as were its faculty and students. The class sizes were larger than expected. That being said, it didn’t seem to matter in terms of the level of productivity taking place. The teachers and students were open, friendly and very willing to share their work. The access to resources and equipment, if they needed it, was impressive.
I was hoping to see a model 5th grade middle school classroom, but it is merely housed in the middle school. They plan on moving 5th grade to the Lower School and creating a 3-5th grade division. I thought that was interesting, as I have felt that although our 5th grade is part of our middle school, the curriculum should flow/spiral from the 3rd and 4th grade to provide consistency in instruction, student learning and skills. Despite that, I believe middle school is a good place for 5th grade as it is a transitional year no matter where it is housed. I began a dialogue with 3-5th grade teachers at USM last year and would like for this to continue. As it stands now, they try to keep me in the loop and vice-versa. I feel I need to make this more of a priority, but I have less available time this year than last year.
I felt the 6th grade program closely resembled my own in terms of structure; content, labs and projects. I love the idea of a more project-based curriculum, but believe time constraints make this difficult. Being able to observe students in action while working on their projects was very cool. They were so involved in the process and highly motivated. For me, that is a number one priority. I have already taken some of what I observed and thought about when and how I could incorporate these ideas into my curriculum, but on a smaller scale. I was really impressed with the level of off-campus learning taking place. This is something I’d like to think more about-where, how, when and so on. Overall, I felt really secure about what I am accomplishing in my own classroom, realizing, however, that it is so beneficial to see what others are doing. I wish I could have visited the other two schools and will keep them in mind for a future visit.