“This is going to be fun!”
When fifth graders walk into a classroom set up for the next science lesson with that level of enthusiasm, something very right is happening, and it’s not magic.
Their teacher, Sarah Carter, knows engaging science learning – the messy kind, with hands-on lessons and authentic, sometimes unpredictable inquiry that invites students to make a new kind of sense of the world around them–is actually serious business that’s best achieved with attention to detail. She’s in. And so are her students.
“This year, more than half of the class said in student-led parent/teacher conferences that their favorite subject is science,” says Carter. “There’s definitely a different level of expectation.” She’s pretty sure she knows what upped the ante. It all started with mySci.
Carter came to Rose Acres Elementary this year after seven years teaching at another elementary school in the Pattonville School District. She started her career in 2015, just as the District adopted mySci, a comprehensive, standards-aligned science curriculum created and administered by the Institute for School Partnership at Washington University in St. Louis (ISP). Well-versed in the program, Carter served on the committee that recently determined mySci remains the best science resource for the District. A second, seven-year contract for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) -aligned program, which includes curriculum, a convenient science kit service and ongoing professional development, was signed in Fall 2022.
“We really wanted to keep providing hands-on science activities, especially for Grades K-5,” says Carter. “mySci also fits into Pattonville’s commitment to personalized learning for students. It gives students opportunities to show that they are learning concepts in different ways other than reading and writing–there are lots of entry points for diverse learners.”
Pattonville serves over 6,000 students, and ranked No. 10 among top districts on Niche.com’s 2023 Best School Districts in America list. In Missouri, the District ranks No. 1 for Most Diverse School Districts and No. 4 for Best Places to Teach.
Carter’s familiarity with mySci (and fifth graders) made her a perfect thought partner for mySci’s team of instructional specialists. They are deep into the process of improving the program’s new user experience format. All 25 units are getting renewed attention, and piloting fifth grade was a good place to start, starting with Unit 22–Using Our Resources Wisely.
Working on the Farm
“Students are almost always more interested in a story,” says Alex Gerber, one of two ISP instructional specialists working on the pilot program. “We ask ourselves big questions. Are all the students engaged? Will students feel that the curriculum is something they can relate to? Is what they are learning part of a big picture? The best way to get the answers to those questions is to work directly with the professionals who use the resources every day.”
The ISP team approaches every aspect of program development with an iterative process, meaning there is a lot of testing, exploring and refining.
“We bring teachers along for the process, including the writing and evaluation,” says Lauren Ashman, another ISP instructional specialist working on current curriculum revisions. “We really do have an actual relationship with our teachers and partners as people. It’s not transactional.”
As Carter, Ashman and Gerber worked through Unit 22 together, the key question they asked themselves was this: are all students able to access this material?
“A lot of the students in our district would not have direct connection with farms, but this new iteration presents the material in big, connected themes,” says Carter. “This new approach helps the students see the dots and connect them more directly.”
Talking about fresh water, where it’s located and what happens to an environment that lacks access to it could be applied to the concept of a farm. What elements exist on a farm that could pollute water? Animal poop, of course. Which led to learning about biodigesters and an experiment with methane gas and balloons.
Carter says the student expectations of science learning have been elevated, too.
“When we piloted the revised unit, they noticed something was different,” she says. “When we moved onto the next unit, which hasn’t been revised yet, they kept saying, ‘We want to do the NEW science!’”
Partnership, partnership, partnership
Altogether, the ISP team will go about revising the remaining 24 units with a similar equity lens, working directly with teachers like Carter, who know mySci and ISP as trusted partners. That kind of partnership doesn’t happen overnight, says ISP Executive Director Victoria May, who considers the longstanding relationship with Pattonville to be part of the mySci story.
“Pattonville was the very first mySci district as the program was developing,” says May, recalling the critical ground-level support ISP received from Melissa Yount-Ott, who served as the District’s Director of Elementary Education at the time.
“Melissa helped with the mySci launch in so many ways,” says May. “She helped us put all the structures in place to get the ball rolling, from working with teachers to figure out what was grade level appropriate, to piloting the units to implementing the observation sessions that we still use today for professional development.”
Yount-Ott remains with the Pattonville District, but serves as principal at Parkwood Elementary. She remembers how the District and mySci/ISP relationship formed.
“That first year, one of the District’s goals was to adopt new science materials,” she says. “This was right about the time that the NGSS standards had just come out. We knew more science needed to be taught and we needed something that would help teachers feel confident and offered the materials that were easy to delve into to keep the learning hands-on. It needed to feel doable.”
The partnership piece was huge, says Yount-Ott, as was the convenience of the mySci kits and commitment to professional development. Pattonville teachers and administrators alike participated in developing the components of the program.
“What we found is that principals really value having the support, too,” she says. “Being able to lean on a trusted partner to take care of the facilitations, the data collection and analysis, and point out trends is very helpful. The partnership also takes the weight off a district’s instructional specialists. It helps the speed and pace at which change happens. Over time, the ease of using mySci, coupled with the results teachers see from pre and post assessments, helps teachers believe that they are doing something that matters.”
For more information about ISP’s collaboration with Pattonville, read this case study.