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Turning on lightbulbs in students' minds

Bainbridge schools have a new science curriculum, but the next levy may determine its effectiveness. New textbooks and inquiry-based methods need the support of laptop computers and digital cameras -- which would be funded by next February’s capital levy -- to be fully utilized.

“Right now, I can only do 30 percent of this lab because I don’t have the equipment,” said Enrique Chee, Bainbridge High School physics teacher and science department head. “It’s not just me. We as a science department are relying heavily on this tech levy. We’re gambling.”

The school board is still in the planning stages to fully integrate technology into the curriculum and provide all the necessary training and support for teachers, board member Cheryl Dale said.

“But what we’re seeing in the science curriculum is that technology is playing a major role,” Dale said. “They need digital cameras; they need laptops; they need probes. It will cost $2.5 million just to replace existing equipment and infrastructure.”

With the last review a decade ago, and most school districts upgrading about every five years, Bainbridge couldn’t wait to redo the science curricula, replacing materials at a total cost of $365,000. The Bainbridge Island Public Schools Trust made a hefty contribution of $140,000.

The board has already supported the purchase of some new equipment. A request for materials that ranged from software to “probe-ware” – chemistry lab sensors that take measurements and transmit the data to computers – was funded at $60,000.

Training in the new materials began last summer as a cadre of teachers from each school attended a two-week science summer academy at Western Washington University, and the Bainbridge Education Support Team Institute gave schools $65,000 for more professional development.

New inquiries

The new curricula expands science programs to be more “inquiry-based” – that is, encouraging students to formulate their own questions and seek answers.

Students in grades K-5 now use Full Option Science Systems materials for earth, life and physical science. The research-based FOSS program was developed at University of California-Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science with support from the National Science Foundation, and is published by Delta Education.

Students have a “science kit” with supplies with which to do projects; the kits are replenished three time a year from a supply center at Ordway rather than from an off-island supplier, saving the district $12,000 per year.

“A real benefit to our teachers and kids is that we control the materials, the contents and the rotation schedule,” K-8 science lead teacher Laurie Spickard said.

Grades 6-8 are using “Science and Technology Concepts for Middle Schools,” developed by the Washington, D.C.-based program National Science Resources Center.

In addition, students have the “Science Education for Public Understanding Program” and “Science and Life,” an issue-oriented curricula that uses personal and societal challenges to introduce and explore science concepts, also developed at Berkeley. They will also use software to simulate going down in a submarine to learn about marine ecology and navigation with the Global Positioning System.

BHS instructional materials are drawn from a variety of sources.

“Subject by subject (the materials) are going to vary,” Chee said. “For physics, there is a web site linked to the textbook.

“Students solving a problem may be referred to the site for interactive, step-by-step solutions.”

Deficiencies

Other changes to the program include making science mandatory for ninth and 10th-graders; fifth and seventh-grade participation in an annual science fair; a K-12 environmental education program; and equipping Eagle Harbor High School with a science lab.

The new curricula are targeted at program weaknesses identified during a program review survey.

The survey found that students don’t get enough exposure to science in the first five years of school because most elementary teachers are not trained in the field.

The exposure they were getting was more likely to be biology, a life science more familiar to teachers than physical sciences like chemistry.

The survey also revealed that not only did students entering BHS have too little science, 25 percent of freshmen avoided enrolling in science classes.

The lapse wouldn’t help students score well on the WASL science exam given in their sophomore year, the science committee concluded.

“This is where the WASL does come into play,” Chee said. “If they take the exam at the 10th grade level, then these students should at least be exposed to two years of science in high school.”

High schoolers should be exposed to both the major branches of the sciences: life sciences like biology and physical sciences like chemistry and physics, if they are to take the WASL.

To attract students, Chee said, science must be perceived as interesting. What makes it so is letting kids explore, the inquiry-based learning that encourages kids to ask the questions themselves in labs, guided by teachers who have been trained to use the equipment.

“We do a disservice when we don’t expose them to science,” Chee said. “Every kid who comes into ninth grade (should have) been exposed to both branches of science. I find after kids take physics a year, they say ‘wow this cool. I wish I’d had it before.’ And my response is this is pretty scary: ‘Eleven years in the school system and, now you finally have the concept of what physical science is.’

“That lightbulb in that kid toward science should have clicked on a long time ago.”

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