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Turning students into scientists

Six years ago, Jeanne Glowicki set in motion a partnership with the Van Andel Education Institute that would transform science education at East Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Teaching science had become too focused on rote memorization and recitation, she said. And, we were losing kids’ interest. “I want kids to love science. I want kids to stay in science.” Too many students are entering college with the intent to study science, but never finish.

To learn what kept students inspired, what resources were available to keep students engaged, and what expectations the scientific community had for how science should be best taught, the East Grand Rapids school district approached neighboring colleges, universities, and research hospitals.

“We came away knowing we needed to focus on collaborative learning,” said Glowicki, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction. “And, it’s important that (students) understand the process to solve a problem. Actually solving the problem isn’t necessarily the goal.” How did they accomplish this? Making a big change required an experienced, flexible partner.

The Van Andel Education Institute Science Academy is a Grand Rapids-based non-profit dedicated to advancing science education at the national level and inspiring students to pursue careers in science fields.

As a partner, the academy brought a research-based process for teaching science. It encouraged students to question, to predict, to observe, to explain, and to evaluate. It advocated for curiosity and critical thought. In addition to their proven process, they provided district-wide training for teachers and the resources to support them.

“It’s about thinking and continuing to think after class. Students will come up to me and ask me questions that I cannot even answer,” said Cheryl Radecki, 4th grade teacher at EGR’s Breton Downs Elementary. “That’s what I want—that deeper thinking—that desire to investigate. They are fulfilling these deeper curiosities.”

Another key aspect of the new learning process is building a culture in which students are supported in taking risks. Glowicki is especially proud of this component. “From our failures, we learn so much.” Hearing 4th graders talk about the failure of evidence to support their predictions is incredible, she enthused.

Ongoing learning and self-direction are important aspects of the classroom environment. The process empowers the students to take control of their own learning.

“As an educator you teach content. This was more than teaching content,” said Radecki. “This was teaching problem solving. This was teaching collaboration. This was so far beyond content. When you are willing to give up control to the students it’s so meaningful to them. Before they are even done with their project, they were thinking ahead.“

A major part of the new teaching process is turning over control of the content to students. For three weeks to a month at the end of every year, the students take complete control. “Students generate a question that is the result of any content they learned during the year. It’s up to them, “Radecki says.” Animal science? Planetary science? Physical sciences? Whatever they want. They’re in charge. They ask the question they most want to learn.” Students are responsible for taking that question from start to finish of the scientific process. The process is truly hands-on and the kids are passionate about working through it because they’ve been given the freedom to choose what they want to study.

Throughout the year they are learning what makes a good question. Cheryl shared with me some of the actual curiosities that her fourth grade students came up with for their final project:

• What are the effects of caffeine on Daphnia (the common water flea)?

• What are the best soil substrates for beetle habitats?

• What is the best gage of wire for conducting electricity?

“We are stepping back and giving them their own voice and they have completely embraced this idea. They are buying in. They own it. They are excited for science,” said Radecki.

The impact is immediate, said Glowicki. “I’ve never received so many comments from parents telling me that science is different. ‘My child has never been interested in going to science class before. But now they’re even talking about class at home. They cannot wait to go back.’”

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