BOTHELL — Some 2½ years after the Northshore School District became the first American school system to go remote for the coronavirus, teachers from across Washington state arrived at the district’s headquarters in Bothell last week for a different type of experiment.  

In a second-floor conference room, chemistry teachers furiously rubbed their heads with balloons to generate an electric charge and investigate why lightning strikes. In the parking lot, biology teachers burned pieces of peat — decayed plant material — to understand why fires are emerging in the Arctic Circle. 

For years, many of these teachers say they’ve had to scavenge for a science curriculum interesting and substantive enough for their high school students, who have grown trickier to engage since the pandemic began. So they’ve decided to help beta-test a new one. 

“I’m tired of doing the same thing,” said Anita Emery, a teacher at Bellarmine Preparatory School in Tacoma. 

During a three-day training, the educators learned how to teach science in a way that lets students drive the lessons, using a free and open-source curriculum developed by OpenSciEd. The organization aims to fill what it says is a vacuum of science curricula that meet the Next Generation Science Standards, a set of national recommendations for science education adopted by 20 states including Washington. 

Washington is one of 10 states where teachers are testing the curriculum and providing feedback for improvement. The state pays for teachers to train on OpenSciEd from a mix of funding sources, including federal pandemic relief dollars for schools and legislative funding set aside for school districts to meet the NGSS standards.

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Because the curriculum is largely free (except for intentionally low-budget lab materials), it has appealed to teachers in lower-income school districts that haven’t purchased a science curriculum for use across all their schools, said Will Baur, a former science teacher for Battle Ground Public Schools who now works for the state facilitating trainings on OpenSciEd. 

A departure from traditional science curricula, which usually have students memorize vocabulary terms and place heavy emphasis on teacher lectures, OpenSciEd starts every unit with a phenomenon in nature, like lightning. Students then discuss and investigate their own questions based on their observations. Teachers are given a template to track which student speaks and to whom. 

“They have kids doing science, not just learning facts,” said Jamie Yoos, a chemistry teacher at Bellingham High School who trained the chemistry cohort at the Bothell training. 

To make this shift, the teachers must play the part of students in their training on OpenSciEd. Once they’re in student mode and experiencing a lesson, they are not allowed to speak in technical terms or ask overly advanced questions. 

“How’s everyone doing?” Yoos asks the room, kicking off a lesson about lightning on the first day of training. 

Several respond in slight groans, taking their acting jobs seriously. 

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Yoos shows the room several GIFs of different kinds of lightning strikes, and asks the educators to write down and share their observations and questions. He studiously takes down notes on their responses at the front of the room. 

“I wonder what it would sound like? Is it more like kaching!?” asks Baur from the back of the room. “Or more like kuchoo!” 

A few minutes later, they see some slides of charts and heat maps of where lightning strikes occur. Yoos asks the room to describe the patterns in the chart. 

Founded four years ago, OpenSciEd is funded by philanthropy, including the Carnegie Corporation, the Hewlett Foundation and the Gates Foundation. (Education Lab receives funding from the Gates Foundation.) A group of university researchers develops the curriculum materials. More than 40,000 teachers nationwide have registered for the OpenSciEd materials, which so far are only publicly available for the middle school grades. 

“There was a belief when it came out that it was a pent-up demand,” and that has turned out to be true, said Jim Ryan, executive director of OpenSciEd. 

Teachers at the training say they’re excited about the approach because it encourages students to problem-solve rather than memorize. Emry says her students sometimes have trouble translating what they’ve learned into other contexts.

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There’s certainly room for improvement in science learning. On statewide tests, only about 46% of kids were proficient in science in 2022. When compared to students in other states, kids in Washington performed about five points better than the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress science test administered by the federal government.

The topics in the curriculum are chosen through polling of students across the country. In the midst of social anxiety wrought by online schooling, it may encourage students to talk more, said Carlee Walker, a chemistry teacher at Fort Vancouver High School. 

“My classes were 98% just me talking,” Walker said. “Being able to elicit all that participation, I think it’s going to be powerful.” 

There are a few unknowns and limitations. Walker mentioned it could be difficult to use in classrooms like her own, where several students are learning English. And OpenSciEd has yet to release any data publicly about efficacy, though in Baur’s case, students’ performance on state exams improved once he began teaching with OpenSciEd’s approach. 

On the second day of training, the educators arrive to find a contraption on a table in the back of the room: a giant plastic container filled with water, with spouts on either side. As the water makes its way down on either side, it passes through hollowed-out cans and lands in a bucket. Around the side of the contraption, two pennies, barely kissing each other, are fastened to two metal clasps.

Using small LED lights, a balloon attached to a straw, tinsel and other household objects, the paired off students must find a way to detect and produce static. 

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Anita Emry, a private school teacher in Tacoma, and Debra Hawker-Schreiner, a teacher from Kent, approach the contraption. Emry braces her fingertips on the table and uses her other hand to guide the tinsel near the cans that the water poured through. Deb hovers beside her, and they both let out an “Ah!” when they see the tinsel move toward the water. 

Another pair of teachers decide to test the LED light. They fasten its coils to the end of the metal clasps. The teachers are supposed to be taking turns at the contraption, and working at their table in the meantime, but everyone rose from their seats to crowd around the pair. 

“I thought we were doing this independently,” jokes Calvin Atkins, another teacher from Bellingham. 

Finally, a faint spark emerges from the bulb — the water molecules need time to create an electric charge — and the whole room coos.