At Carl Albert Middle School in Midwest City, Oklahoma, eighth-grade science students complain that their brains hurt after class. “You are expected to talk a lot more in Mrs. Kelpine’s science class than any of the other classes I have,” says student Abbie Stewart. According to Tiffany Neill, Oklahoma State Department of Education’s deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction and former president of the Council of State Science Supervisors, “We want students, as early as prekindergarten, to interact with the world around them, to become curious, and to gain information and evidence that will allow them to answer questions about the natural and designed world.”
Oklahoma is one of 10 states engaged in the nationwide field test of OpenSciEd, an open-source, high-quality curriculum that offers powerful learning opportunities to students so that they can achieve the vision for science education set forth in the National Research Council’s A Framework for K–12 Science Education (2012). OpenSciEd is the result of a nonprofit initiative among science educators, curriculum developers, teachers, and philanthropic foundations to improve the supply of, and demand for, high-quality K–12 science instructional materials by providing freely available curricula and professional learning materials. As Neill explains, the curriculum “supports teachers in providing those learning experiences for students, and supports students of diverse backgrounds and experiences with feeling confident and engaged in their learning.”
As new units and materials are being developed (approximately every six months), OpenSciEd convenes teams of state facilitators responsible for supporting teachers involved in state field testing to improve the curriculum prior to its national release. A fifth convening of the state teams was scheduled for summer 2020, but when the pandemic struck, OpenSciEd found itself faced with a huge dilemma: How to maintain momentum in this new virtual world? Each state partner faced similar concerns, but the Oklahoma team was committed to continuing its efforts and learning from the OpenSciEd team how best to move forward.
“Curriculum-based professional learning is essential to ensuring that students have access to high-quality curricula,” says Jim Short, program director of the Leadership and Teaching to Advance Learning portfolio for Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Education Program. “Teachers make sense of materials based on their unique experiences, which at times can be different from what the designers intended. OpenSciEd prioritizes teachers’ ability to grasp concepts in ways that are tied to students’ perspectives, and this summer, the OpenSciEd team took on the challenge of executing professional learning for the new remote conditions.”
Teacher as Learner: How OpenSciEd Implemented Virtual Training
A foundational aspect to OpenSciEd professional learning is an approach known as “student hat” where teachers/participants experience new materials as a student in a science classroom. Each unit begins with an anchoring phenomenon, followed by driving question boards. Student questions drive the investigation phase.
“Virtual sessi0ns are challenging as so many of us quickly learned this spring/summer,” says Paige Kelpine, Carl Albert Middle School field test facilitator and classroom teacher. “I appreciate the support we received from our state education leaders. Our teachers showed patience and grace as we navigated the virtual space. The dedication and commitment from teachers is incredible! I love that teachers were so open and willing to accept new teaching tools.”
Science is intended to be hands-on, and OpenSciEd made sure each participant received a box with all relevant materials prior to the first summer session. “We created a landing page for the session where teachers could access other materials necessary throughout professional learning,” says Katherine McNeill, center director for professional learning in the OpenSciEd developers consortium. “The agenda struck a balance between synchronous and asynchronous work. People were excited!” The key to success, Sarah Delaney, director of science for OpenSciEd, explains, “was staying true to the professional learning design principles, even in the remote setting.”
Beyond being effective, the virtual professional learning offered some bonuses. “Teachers were able to engage in figuring out science in a collaborative way even though we were working digitally,” says Susan Wray, Oklahoma State Department of Education’s science specialist and lead coordinator for the OpenSciEd field test. “We were able to utilize the chat box in Zoom for a pair-share activity, Google Docs to organize and share our thinking together, Google Jamboard to present new ideas and questions, and Google Slides to work with groups to explain what we had learned from investigations. Many of these techniques are not just for virtual learning but should be used with our 21st-century learners inside the walls of our classrooms.”
Videos, artifacts, and pictures of instructional delivery depicting culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms allow teachers to see how lessons unfold and imagine the same situation with their own students. To support remote implementations during the pandemic, OpenSciEd worked with colleagues to develop resources for Staying Grounded When Teaching Remote and Remote Learning Adaptations of the released units.
Reflection and Application
“Fundamentally, learning is social, and because the informal, spontaneous conversations in face-to-face settings were unlikely to occur, more time was scheduled in small group settings,” says McNeill of the virtual implementation. “We also used coleads during learning sessions. One lead would be responsible for monitoring the chat box as well as sending private messages to those participants who looked puzzled or disengaged.”
Zoom breakout rooms provided opportunities for reflection and application for teachers to better understand their instruction and their school context and to plan for their classrooms. “One of the most challenging aspects of virtual facilitation was not having a ‘feeling’ of the room and not being able to assess body language,” says Kelpine. “We addressed that challenge by modeling what we wanted from others through our own facial expressions and hand signals.”
Redesigning the nationwide field test for virtual conditions has set a future course for OpenSciEd. “In Oklahoma, we have already begun to take the learning experiences provided to teachers this summer and have offered those same learning experiences to another 130 teachers who haven’t been participating in the field test,” says Neill. “We have also utilized the virtual learning strategies in other virtual settings to support teachers with implementing our newly revised science standards.”
When it comes to the new school year, “we are invigorated through OpenSciEd!” says Kelpin. “It is a powerful experience when you hear your students talk about science outside of the classroom and when students come to class with new ideas or new investigations they want to try. The benefits of the shift from sitting and absorbing information to actually thinking, asking questions, and investigating to find answers are unmistakable. When kids realize that they know stuff and can contribute to moving a class’s science thinking forward, teachers are able to engage students in more meaningful experiences.”
Stephanie Hirsh, former executive director of Learning Forward, is an author and consultant specializing in professional learning, leadership development, and organization improvement.