X'Zashea Mayes prepares a solution during Simone Parker's AP Chemistry class at Trigg County High School. Mayes is planning on studying medicine or chemistry at the University of Louisville. Photo by Amy Wallot, Oct. 15, 2013

X’Zashea Mayes prepares a solution during Simone Parker’s AP Chemistry class at Trigg County High School. Mayes is planning on studying medicine or chemistry at the University of Louisville.
Photo by Amy Wallot, Oct. 15, 2013

By Susan Riddell

When Simone Parker was a lab technician performing basic chemical analysis on hazardous and non-hazardous waste at an incinerator in Calvert City, she was using skills that she learned in college and refined while on the job.

Now as a chemistry teacher at Trigg County High School, she is tasked with making sure her students master those real-world skills before ever receiving a high school diploma.

“All I did was learn theory,” Parker said of her experience as a chemistry student early on. “There were several opportunities to engage in scientific thinking if I looked for them (like science fairs or partnering with college professors for research).

“Now, my students are asked to plan and carry out investigations and design solutions to problems that they have determined. Students need to think scientifically, be engaged in science and do science,” Parker added. “The Next-Generation Science Standards (NGSS) give us the tools and the connections to make this a reality for our students.”

Parker, who has been teaching for 13 years after eventually running an inorganic metals laboratory, was one of many Kentucky teachers who played a key role in the development of the science standards within the Kentucky Core Academic Standards (KCAS).

“I have worked on NGSS since Kentucky joined the discussions on the Framework and later the standards developed by Achieve,” said Parker, who read and provided feedback on the standards prior to their inclusion within KCAS.

“I not only thought of what science needed to look like in my classroom based on my past experience working in industry, but what science needed to look like in all grades below high school chemistry,” Parker said. “Students must be ready and prepared to think scientifically and not just answer my questions about atoms and chemical reactions. They must ask their own questions and be able to find those answers with my guidance.”

Like Parker, Candi Rumsey, a middle school science teacher at Oldham County Middle School, and David Helm, a science content and learning and innovation specialist for the Fayette County school district, also were heavily involved in the early formation NGSS.

They agreed that working on NGSS committees helped them gauge where science education is headed in Kentucky, and how to use this work to improve their own teacher practices.

And now that science leadership networks are underway, educators are collaborating and sharing information in an effort to build capacity within all state schools and districts so that all teachers can help students master real-world science concepts.

“The networks will serve all teachers so that there is no teacher left behind,” Rumsey said. “We are all starting with these new standards whether we’re a veteran teacher or a first-year teacher. They give us the opportunity to grow together and to work as learning communities to prepare curriculum that best implements these standards.”

Hallie Booth, northern Kentucky regional instructional specialist for the Kentucky Department of Education and a former teacher in the Covington Independent school district, said the strategies and activities addressed within the leadership network are to be shared with all science teachers so that everyone is on the same page, even if that involves teachers moving at different paces within the process.

“It’s important to remember that we aren’t expecting all teachers to be implementing the standards just yet,” Booth said. “This is about building a strong foundation around the intent of the new science standards and establishing strong implementation plans.

“Some teachers have embraced the vision of NGSS and have chosen to delve into implementation confident of their understanding of the intent of the standards,” Booth added. “Others are taking the advice of KDE and taking time to thoroughly understand the foundational background on which the standards were developed prior to digging in.”

Booth said teachers are eager to use the science standards to empower students to become more scientifically literate and college- and career-ready.

“This will take a growth mindset on the teacher’s part, one that is evident in the network participants,” Booth said.

Rumsey said she plans to use the science networks to develop appropriate teaching strategies for classroom instruction.

“I am always thinking about learning opportunities for my students, but at this point the networks are taking it slow so that we do things the right way,” Rumsey said. “We are trying to really internalize these standards so that when it comes time for the lessons to be taught, we know exactly what types of activities will best meet the needs of our students.

“I think what is most important is that we don’t start doing a bunch of ‘stuff,’ but that we are intentional with what teach and how we teach it. We must have a clear objective.”

Once educators leave the monthly network meetings, they are sharing information within their home districts, but they also must share their reflections on how their work is helping move districts forward.

That type of reflection has helped Stephanie Thomas, an elementary reading and science teacher at L.B.J. Elementary (Breathitt County), who admitted she was initially intimidated at the idea of engineering standards within NGSS. Her work with the leadership network has since alleviated those concerns, she said.

“Being a part of the cadre has made me feel like I have a ‘heads-up,’” Thomas said. “I appreciate the approach of hands-on learning since I am hands-on myself. I like how the standards seem to want the students to lead their own learning and investigations. It’s getting out from behind the textbook and really demonstrating your work.”

Thomas said she is now considered a science leader in her school because of her participation in the leadership network, even though it’s her first year teaching at L.B.J. Elementary (and sixth overall).

“I appreciate the network because it gives me a chance to be with other science teachers across the state,” Thomas said. “It is nice to compare and see what works well for others. I am going to observe an 8th-grade biology class just to see that way of thinking since I have always been elementary. I received a scoring guide for a science fair from a high school teacher, and it allows me to see things from a different perspective.”

At the heart of the science standards is a movement toward deeper understanding and a movement away from basic memorization of the material, educators agreed.

“It is through the application of the content and seeing the connections through the cross-cutting concepts that students will now be using information and distinct bits of information,” Helm said. “It is not sufficient for a student to just look up information through the use of technology only to regurgitate it at a future time.

“We now want students to use the information as the foundations for asking questions and/or defining problems that will lead them to develop and use modeling to address those questions and problems; to design and carry out investigations, analyze data, gather additional information and so on,” Helm added. “It’s not a passive collecting of previous information but rather having students think and behave in a science and engineering literate manner.”

Teachers also agreed that while science standards are now more focused on deeper understanding and providing students with hands-on opportunities to make them better prepared for college and career, these students aren’t the only ones who are better off because of them. Teachers benefit, too.

“I have a unique perspective when looking at the NGSS, and I know where these standards started and how much they have developed over the past few years,” Parker said. “Our committee wanted to make sure that these standards not only built but truly transformed science education from kindergarten through high school. These standards are built to help the teacher know how to teach them, what they need to teach and why they are important.

“I feel that these standards will make all teachers who are lucky enough to teach science, better educators,” Parker added. “We have the power to teach our students to not just memorize facts but how to think scientifically, how to problem solve and most importantly make connections to math, literacy and apply those concepts to all aspects of their lives.”

Hallie Booth, hallie.booth@education.ky.gov,
David Helm, david.helm@fayette.kyschools.us, (859) 381-4000
Simone Parker, simone.parker@trigg.kyschools.us, (270) 522-2200
Candi Rumsey, candi.rumsey@oldham.kyschools.us, (502) 222-1451
Stephanie Thomas, stephanie.thomas@breathitt.kyschools.us, (606) 666-7181