One recent morning, teacher Katie Koressel kicked off a lesson on natural selection by asking her eighth graders, most of whom are English learners, to guess the meaning of the word “mutation.”

For the students at Denny International Middle School, it was just another science class.

But for some in Seattle, the school district’s choice of the Amplify Science curriculum — which guided Koressel’s lesson — represents a departure from hands-on learning, and from the rules that govern curriculum adoption for Seattle Public Schools.

The Denny students couldn’t turn to textbooks in search of the answer, because there weren’t any. Computers were also out of reach, backed up against the classroom walls. The only hint they had was the unit’s “catalyst” — the story they had read about rough-skinned newts, whose survival against new predators depended on how much poison their bodies could produce.

So what does “mutation” mean?

“It has something to do with being mute,” one student offered.

“OK, good guess,” the teacher responded. “What else?”

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This type of instruction — which felt like a game — has students develop conceptual understanding of scientific phenomena in their own words, based on real-world examples, instead of memorizing definitions. It’s at the core of the Next Generation Science Standards, a set of national science-education guidelines created in 2013 and adopted by a coalition of states including Washington.

Another guess: “It’s a cycle.” Koressel nodded and picked another student, who offered, “It means you can pick your own genetics.”

Koressel, who wore a dress covered with dinosaurs and plants, then changed the slide to a poster of Marvel Comics’ X-Men characters, and asked the class to describe the powers each character has. Finally, she pointed to her own eyes, which are blue.

“I have a mutation, can you guess what it is?”

***

Decisions about curricula often funnel millions of taxpayer dollars to companies that shape the set of stories and ideas taught to the next generation. They have long set the scene of culture wars nationwide.

In Seattle, the School Board is slated to vote Wednesday on science curricula aligned with the new standard. At a purely curriculum level, the debate is over whether Amplify Science, which is currently used by 20 schools, is the best choice to prepare elementary- and middle-school kids. More than 1,000 districts use the curriculum nationwide, including 35 in Washington state.

If adopted at both levels, Amplify would cost just under $4.5 million for a contract through 2027-28.

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Beyond questions about how science should be taught, district staff and teachers say the shift to new science lessons presents an opportunity to provide consistent science education.

It’s been decades since the School Board last voted to adopt a new science curriculum. In the interim, school-district officials say, teachers have shouldered the responsibility of supplementing new instructional materials and updated science, which means little continuity between schools. Wealthier schools can count on parent donations to fund new materials such as lab kits, but low-income schools can’t.

But in an age when screens are ubiquitous, other parents and teachers question the company’s reliance on computers to simulate some scientific phenomena, and whether it will mean less student engagement.

What exactly is Amplify, and has it worked?  

Brooklyn-based Amplify provides reading, math and science curricula to districts in all 50 states. Previously owned by News Corp., it was sold to Emerson Collective, a philanthropic firm founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, in 2015.

Though the middle-school program was originally developed as a digital curriculum, the degree to which computers are used in the classroom depends on the teacher’s preference, said Steven Zavari, senior vice president and manager of science curriculum at Amplify. From kindergarten through first grade, students don’t interact with computers at all.

In all other grades, the platform has options to print and hand out the homework, readings and assessments, which is helpful for schools that don’t provide a computer to every student, a practice known as one-to-one. About a third of the curriculum is hands on, so the company provides one lab kit per unit.

But there is no print replica for the computer simulations or “sims,” as the company calls them, which are animated games or videos of “invisible phenomena” such as climate change.

Aryn Trahan-Castillo and Ryan Moore, two of Koressel’s students and both 14, said the sims make the material in science class much more engaging. So far they’ve been able to mate imaginary spiders together, manipulate the positioning of the moon in orbit and play God with a pack of fictional animals called Ostrilopes: changing the length of their necks, the sizes of their bodies and the square footage of their habitats, then pressing play and seeing how they fare over time.

Both said the visuals helped them understand global warming.

“We are the generation that needs to change this,” said Moore. “So we have to learn this stuff.”

Using complex computer models is what real scientists do, said Anastasia Sanchez, who heads the science department at Denny. Showing students how to use technology in a way that furthers their education is “an act of social justice,” she said.

Because state exams have only tested for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for a couple of years, it’s too early to use standardized assessments to show if any new science curriculum nationwide is helping students improve.

But if alignment to the NGSS — developed and backed by years of research — is the measurement, many say Amplify, which was created around the standards in collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley, Lawrence Hall of Science, performs well.

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Each unit starts with a “catalyst” story, like the rough-skinned newt in Koressel’s class, that students investigate over a few weeks. That’s one of a few ways that curriculum developers can address the standards, which call for stories that engage students in science anchored to real-life phenomena, said Philip Bell, a University of Washington education professor who helped write the document that became the NGSS framework.

“Historically in science education, there was a lot of instruction focused pretty directly on learning and memorizing,” said Bell, who served on the district’s high school-curriculum-adoption committee. “[The standards] take it to a next dimension of kids becoming knowers and doers.”

A 2019 review of middle-school science curricula by the nonprofit EdReports gave Amplify high marks for usability, coherence and for meeting standards. Other textbook powerhouses such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt — another option Seattle board members are considering for elementary-school science — only partially met expectations. (Both EdReports and Education Lab receive funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

Bellevue School District recently adopted the middle-school version of Amplify, but passed on its elementary-school bundle because it was still in the early stages of development.

The district rolled out the new curriculum last year as it transitioned some schools to a model where each student has a computer. As with any new curriculum, it’s taken some time and teacher training to implement, said Jake Duke, Bellevue’s STEM curriculum developer.

Introducing technology can be challenging to teachers who are new to classroom management, said Eric Ferguson, director of instructional technology for Bellevue. The district has requested additional paper workbooks.

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“Anytime we gave them feedback, the next year they’d come up with enhancements, and fix errors they found in an online platform,” said Ferguson. 

While Duke and Ferguson said it was too early to offer any evidence of growth on state exams, they said they’ve continued to see improved scores on the incremental assessments in Amplify’s platform — a helpful feature they didn’t see in other curricula.

What’s next? 

Though the teachers, staffers and educational experts who sit on Seattle’s middle and elementary school science-curriculum-adoption committees recommended Amplify, it’s unclear what the board will decide. Over the past month, dozens of community members on both sides of the debate have argued their case.

At a May 15 meeting, board members engaged in a heated discussion with district staff over the way the curriculum was first introduced to schools: Through a waiver process that included materials donated or discounted by Amplify, and no formal board vote. Some saw this as a potential conflict of interest because they said it gave Amplify an unfair advantage over other vendors in the bidding process.

District staff, including science-program manager MaryMargaret Welch, acknowledged they should have communicated more with the board. The district’s chief legal counsel, Ronald Boy, told the board he wasn’t aware of any policies being broken.

Before the May 15 meeting, board members Rick Burke and Scott Pinkham proposed that elementary schools should instead use Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), which scored higher in one area of the adoption committee’s review.

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But upon hearing at the meeting that HMH was pricier and uses more technology, several board members seemed surprised. Jill Geary was the only member who voiced clear support for Amplify.

“I still don’t know how I’m gonna vote,” said board President Leslie Harris. “If I don’t have an ulcer by the end of this, it’ll be a miracle.”

Welch responded, “We can take our Tums together.”

The board is slated to vote on Amplify at its meeting on Wednesday, May 29, which begins at 4:15 p.m. You can watch online here.

Clarification: The Amplify K-5 curriculum was not developed as a digital curriculum.