To match with the scientific advances, the science department goes through a schedule change.
This year at American High, rather than taking the familiar classes labelled as “Physics” and “Biology,” the freshmen are placed in corresponding classes called “Physics in the Universe” and “Living Earth” that have been established based on the new standards adopted by our science teachers.
These classes have been brought to the school because of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Instead of simply putting the focus on one aspect of a scientific subject, NGSS strives to combine its many parts to cover a wider range and to introduce a variety of topics, with one example being the Physics in the Universe class.
“It concentrates on physics and some geology and some astronomy tied together to…help students see what’s going on in the natural world around them that uses the physical sciences,” explained Physics in the Universe teacher Mr. Benn. “The first part of it is a little bit more on the geology part. The second part is more like a traditional physics class.”
It’s not just the subjects that are changing, though. The methods of conducting labs and gathering data have also evolved to get students to interact more when receiving their education.
“We don’t want to say ‘Okay, today we’re going to prove x.’ Now, it’s a little bit more inquiry-based where it’s like ‘Okay, let’s look at this. What do you think makes the difference?’ And then we share out and use that to actually come to the same conclusion,” said Mr. Benn. “You put a lot more emphasis on the data of whatever you’re doing.”
Similarly, Mrs. Sharma, a science teacher instructing Living Earth classes, mentioned how the teachers involved have taken a different approach when setting up labs for the purpose of improving the students’ abilities to take in and comprehend lessons.
“The students are learning how they have to themselves analyze a situation without the teacher giving them the answer,” described Mrs. Sharma. “They have to try to come up with the answer. The teacher’s there to support and kind of give them little nudges in the right direction.”
Instead of the students solely depending on their teachers for the receiving of information, they are able to have a more hands-on experience with the class as a whole. They are allowed more freedom when carrying out experiments and are provided opportunities to back up their conclusions with evidence.
“It’s like thinking [outside] the box. Instead of me telling them that the answer can be only a, you can have the answer as b as long as you can justify it with evidence,” stated Mrs. Sharma. “We are analyzing graphs. We are analyzing data. We are coming up with data to support a claim that we might have.”
Not all of the teachers were able to experience a smooth transition from the previous way of initiating lessons to the new way, but they were able to persevere and figure out what worked best for students.
“If you want a student to learn something on their own, you sort of have to give up a little bit of that authority as a teacher, and you have to give it to the students,” explained Mr. Benz, a Chemistry and Physics in the Universe teacher, as well as co-chairperson for the Science department. “Most teachers realized that in the end, when students take responsibility for their own learning, you remember things longer and you remember how to apply them better.”
Linking together the presence of different topics underneath a general subject and the slight alterations in lesson plans, there is an overall goal in mind for the science department.
“We’re hoping for three years of curriculum. You’ll have physics, earth science, and then you’ll have a little more earth science but mostly biology and some chem in the second year,” said Mr. Benn. “The idea is that hopefully students will see how these things are all connected and get an overall idea of how science works.”
Besides this plan for the future, though, why now? What drove the district to add Living Earth and Physics in the Universe as subjects to take? One word: modernization.
“Our standards that we had for biology, they were very old. They were fifteen years old. And science progresses every day,” elucidated Mrs. Sharma. “If you want to stay current in science, if you have to have effective science teaching, you have to have the standards that apply to today’s society.”
Although these new standards have been brought to have a positive impact on the students, not all of the parents of the students shared the same opinions.
“I think it’s two reasons. [The students’ parents] grew up in a system, and they went through the system and it worked for them. So, if it worked for them, it should work for their children,” said Mr. Benz. “The other reason is that they feel…that if their students have to take three years of science, their student won’t be able to take as many AP science courses. And they’re right.”
Even with these many changes and conflicting thoughts, there doesn’t seem to be any interference with how the freshmen receive their education in their science subjects.
“There was a lot of debate about that last year with parents that didn’t want [changes from Biology to Living Earth], but it’s cool,” commented Amani Shah, a freshman taking Living Earth this year. “[The district] just wanted the standards to be more recent with the new discoveries, and science is always changing.”
Instead of looking at the replacement of biology as a negative action, Shah turns it around and introduces the differences in a positive light.
“So, originally, they wanted us all to take physics…but then later in the year, because a lot of parents were asking them to change that, they let us choose between physics and biology,” described Shah. “I was pretty happy that we got the choice.”
Because Physics in the Universe and Living Earth are still seen as new classes that have been implemented, there is always the possibility of doubts circling around. However, when asked about her thoughts on being one of the first students to undergo such a process, Shah confidently replied:
“I kind of feel like guinea pigs because everything is new and they’re still trying things out and seeing what works…But it’s fun. It’s fine. The teachers know what they’re doing.”
Caption: The students in Mrs. Sharma’s sixth period class all work together in groups and collaborate on answering questions while carrying out a lab about biodiversity. “When I see them working sometimes, they come up with ideas of approaching a problem that maybe even I never thought of before. It’s nice to have another point of view to a situation, and they bring their own twist into it…We’re learning from each other,” said Mrs. Sharma proudly.