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Improving Elementary Science Programs Through Professional Learning Communities

By Edel Maeder

Posted on 2019-12-19

“I’m not good at science.” It’s a declaration that far too many students have made in classrooms. Their beliefs are often based on lack of exposure to science, not their true potential to do science. So how do we change their minds and get them to believe they have the capacity to succeed in science? As the PreK–12 Science Coordinator for a school district of more than 11,000 students in 17 different schools, it’s a question I grapple with regularly.

The U.S. Department of Education has invested upward of $200 million in high-quality science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and knows “STEM education is a pathway to successful careers, and [the Department] is committed to ensuring equal access to a strong STEM education for all students.” To get there, our youngest students require consistent opportunities to form the foundational skills and knowledge needed to progress to higher levels of thinking that develop over time. This need is clearly described in the grounding research of the Framework for K–12 Science Education: “Building progressively more sophisticated explanations of natural phenomena is central throughout grades K–5, as opposed to focusing only on description in the early grades and leaving explanations to later grades.”

We know it’s important that all children have equal access and support in science, but what are the effective strategies to accomplish this? Research shows “the most promising strategy for sustained, substantive school improvement is developing the ability of school personnel to function as professional learning communities.”

A focus on equity, access, and continuous improvement is needed to enhance instruction. As a member of Achieve’s Science Peer Review Panel (Science PRP), I’ve worked with some of the nation’s foremost experts on three-dimensional teaching and learning. That experience readied me to meet the challenge of leading Greece Central School District in the transition to three-dimensional science teaching and learning in a way that minimized the need for teachers to be out of the classroom.

I launched a Science Leadership Team made up of a group of self-selected elementary school teachers and administrators interested in learning more about the new science standards and willing to share their learning with district teachers to help their colleagues.

Together with these teacher leaders, we mapped out a plan to support all the elementary teachers in the district. Leaders from the Science Leadership Team were given two weeks, which we called a “cycle,” to meet with grade-level colleagues from different buildings, resulting in the same learning shared districtwide by the end of each cycle.

The Science Leadership Team met for two full days before a new cycle began to make sure they were prepared. The first day concentrated on new learning for the team. My involvement with the Science PRP proved invaluable because I shared case studies and lessons deemed “high-quality” using the EQuIP Rubric for Science as well as other material grounded in best practice.

On the second day, I introduced the group to a 45-minute learning opportunity that the Science Leadership Team members, in pairs of two, would use when they met with grade-level teachers across the district. The team was invited and encouraged to work together to examine the learning opportunity and make it better. As a result, team members improved the experience and felt prepared to lead a group, and every teacher received the same high-quality learning.

I believe hope lies in communicating, collaborating, and forming a professional learning community that exhibits research-based characteristics to be effective, including “an environment that fosters mutual cooperation, emotional support, and personal growth as they work together to achieve what they cannot accomplish alone.” NSTA and Achieve are providing resources, such as those high-quality examples from the Science PRP, that can guide districts as they progress in their understanding and implementation of three-dimensional teaching and learning for all of our nation’s children.

I am honored to lead my district forward in full implementation of the New York State Science Learning Standards, which are based on the Next Generation Science Standards. I hope our efforts will help change the paradigm. By engaging students earlier with good science instruction, they will see their potential to do science, and we, as educators, will help them achieve what they hought was impossible.

Dr. Edel Maeder is the preK–12 science coordinator for the Greece Central School District (GSCD), the 10th-largest district in New York State. Before becoming a district-level administrator, she taught secondary science for more than 20 years. Her certifications include biology, Earth science, chemistry, and general science. She is a member of the GCSD Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment and leads a variety of professional learning activities. She is a member of the New York State Science Content Advisory Panel, NSTA’s 3-D Professional Learning Cadre Community, and Achieve’s Peer Review Panel. Maeder is committed to supporting educators in three-dimensional teaching so all students benefit from three-dimensional learning. Connect with her via Twitter at @EdelMaederSTEAM.

Note: This article is featured in the December 2019 issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

NGSS Professional Learning old Elementary

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