TDHS takes new direction for science

In the fall, The Dalles High School will have a new science curriculum that focuses not on memorizing facts, but “how to do science,” a teacher said.

“Science is a process, and it’s always been taught as a bunch of facts, and that’s the problem,” said The Dalles High School science teacher Tegner Weiseth.

The new curriculum also inverts the typical order in which disciplines are introduced. The standard progression is to take biology, then chemistry, then physics. The new curriculum reverses that.

The high school is adopting a curriculum developed by Beaverton schools, which allowed several of its science teachers to take time off from teaching to fashion the curriculum, Weiseth said.

The North Wasco County School District 21 board voted June 15 to proceed with the new curriculum. Instead of spending perhaps $100,000 on new textbooks, the district will spend less than half that buying 175 new Chromebooks, Weiseth said, enough for 35 Chromebooks in each of five science classes, plus charging stations, and establishing wi-fi connections in each classroom.

Weiseth’s classroom already is wired for wi-fi, and students congregate in his classroom at lunch to take advantage of it, he told the school board.

“There isn’t anything in a textbook that you can’t find on Google,” he said. “But there’s a whole lot of stuff on the internet that you can’t find in a textbook.” Science has a context to it, which “makes it real for the kids. All that stuff happens in the classroom, not in a textbook, and a computer is a much better tool to do that for kids than a textbook is, to make it relevant,” Weiseth said.

Science teacher Ajay Rundell also spoke to the school board, and said that students in Beaverton told him that the new curriculum “contextualizes the math for them.” He said math is brought to the forefront in the new science curriculum.

“This is the way math exists in the real world, it’s not numbers in a book,” Rundell said.

Weiseth said the physics curriculum will be the first to be rolled out, with the chemistry and biology curricula staying as they are currently for the first year. The new chemistry curriculum and biology curriculum will be added in in each subsequent year, he said.

Each student will be required to take physics, chemistry and biology, but they will be less rigorous than the current versions of those courses, Weiseth said.

Science concepts cut across all three disciplines, he said, and all three must be interwoven to strengthen scientific understanding, he said.

Students are required to have three years of science. Currently, students must take freshman science, then biology, and then a third-year elective class. Electives options are anatomy, plant science, environmental science, chemistry, AP biology, AP chemistry and physics.

Beaverton has allowed any school district to adopt its curriculum for free, and Bend, Redmond and Hood River are also adopting it, Weiseth said. Beaverton does strongly recommend that teachers take a five-day training, at $500 per teacher, and The Dalles teachers will take that in August, Weiseth said.

Weiseth and Rundell gave a description to the school board of Beaverton’s curriculum, which covers less material, but does it more thoroughly. Beaverton found that after adopting its curriculum, student scores on the ACT – the leading college admission test -- rose “exponentially,” Weiseth said. It went from having average scores to being 30 percent above average, he said.

However, Beaverton’s scores on state testing dropped, because the new curriculum’s focus is less on rote learning of facts and more on scientific process. State testing is more about “did you memorize a bunch of stuff, whereas the ACT test tests more reasoning skills,” Weiseth said.

Even if science scores drop on state testing, Weiseth said The Dalles High School has consistently scored 10 percent to 15 percent higher than the state average on science in state testing.

Weiseth said the curriculum gives students the opportunity to launch an inquiry, generate their own data, engineer a project, and argue points with other students. It weaves physics, chemistry and biology together, showing how each discipline builds on another.

Where students used to have to spit out the facts behind the process of photosynthesis, they will now create a model of it. “It’s way more powerful,” Weiseth said.

The Beaverton teachers took the bold step of upending the traditional path of science teaching by putting physics first. “It historically hasn’t been done because people are afraid of math. They were worried kids couldn’t do the math because it’s too hard, but really from a conceptual point of view, physics first makes sense because physics is the fundamentals of the natural laws of the universe. And the laws and properties of physics is what chemistry is built upon. And biology is basically a bunch of chemistry.”

Weiseth is glad the district is not investing in more textbooks, though it is standard procedure for high schools to buy new textbooks every five years. He said he virtually never uses his textbooks.

He showed a picture taken in Beaverton, where a stack of textbooks was being used to prop up a desk.

Weiseth said an example of classroom learning under the new curriculum includes an experiment on bungee jumping with a Barbie doll. “We’re going to see if you can predict how far the Barbie doll is going to spring back when it does its bungee jump. So they start doing equations based on gravity and other things to make a prediction, and their final test is to show other people they can predict” where the Barbie doll will spring back to, based on a certain height of drop.

In that process, he said, “they’re doing math, they’re doing physics. All they’re doing is they’re collecting their own data and making an argument, and that’s what science is.” The curriculum also adheres to the Next Generation Science Standards, adopted by Oregon and considered best practices in science education. The standards are surprisingly loose and allow individual districts to choose their own path in instruction, Weiseth said.

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