To build a new curriculum around COVID-19, Vice Principal Nandanee Sawh invited a former student, and now emergency room doctor, to speak with 9th grade teachers at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute, a high school in East York, Ontario. Sharing his experience with the virus helped Sawh kick off the development of lessons expected to launch by mid-May that tie real-world phenomena into classroom learning.
“The rubric is how will you be able to access student learning so it’s authentic learning, so students get excited about learning too,” said Sawh, one of three vice principals at the school. “In that way, they’re not just passive sponges for information but are creating questions that will direct their instruction.”
Bringing real-world phenomena into science classrooms, from the COVID-19 outbreak to garbage pickup in a community, is a method experts believe can better engage students. In doing so, teachers may also be able to stave off the age-old question from pupils of why they need to learn a particular lesson.
But these kinds of lessons also provide a unique opportunity for helping guide science students in developing critical thinking skills and knowing how to find credible sources of information around topics they’re learning, including the current pandemic.
“You want to have students who are informed and making informed decisions,” Sawh said. “And if they don’t know the answers, they know who to ask and where to look.”
How to find real-world phenomena
The pandemic also sparked educators like Mike Szydlowski at Columbia Public Schools in Missouri to work with the University of Missouri, Columbia, in retooling existing curriculum to focus on the virus for 10th grade biology classes. An original lesson, on cells and mutation related to cancer, changed after the district adopted COVID-19 curriculum materials co-developed with funding from the National Science Foundation.
“We did the same thing through the lens of the pandemic, with COVID-19 part of it,” Szydlowski, a coordinator in the district's science department said. “The lesson involves a lot of research and simulation, taking into account how a pandemic spreads and using a lot of statistics and spread analysis.”
Columbia Public Schools grounds its lessons in place-based learning, meaning teaching is taught in terms of location, whether that’s a school yard, a community, a city or the world. And lessons are taught not only through an environmental lens, but also through an economical and cultural one.
Another recent Columbia Public Schools program took into account real-world concerns involving the rate at which the local landfill was being filled. Students encouraged the district to launch a trash auditing program, and in five schools collected trash from the cafeteria and classrooms. The result: They discovered 80% of the trash in those buildings stemmed from school lunch, with a lot of it being uneaten food.
“Every spec of trash, except from the bathroom for hygiene reasons, was saved for one day and put in a store room,” Szydlowski said. “Students and people from the city went through the bags, decided what was truly trash, what could be reused, composed and recycled, and ran a report with their results.”
The use of real-world phenomena in science classrooms is something Jennifer Childress Self, a senior research associate at WestEd and science review lead at WestEd’s NextGenScience, said she sees growing. Self works with instructional materials that support this aim, including those developed by her organization and designed around the Next Generation Science Standards.
“However, because this is different from the way most teachers learned, there is still a need in many districts and states for more professional development for teachers and administrators to help them understand the importance of this education shift and how to implement it,” she said via email.
Supporting teachers as they shift to real-world examples
That’s the crux of the work being done by Xiufeng Liu, who works with the National Science Foundation’s Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings as a program director with the Discovery Research K-12 program. Liu noted the idea of science literacy has changed and agrees that educators need support with this shift.
“It used to be that science literacy was to recall factual information, Newton’s laws or defining what energy is,” he said. “Now, we define it as the ability to investigate real-world problems and being able to make sense of what is happening in everyday life.”
Liu was involved on the very project Szydlowski adopted for Columbia Public Schools. That teaching unit, which also involved the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, looks at how COVID-19 spreads, defines what a virus is, and also has students examine the social, political and moral issues around decisions to wear a mask and how vaccinations are used.
Gregg Solomon, also with the same National Science Foundation division as Liu, added it’s crucial for teachers to feel supported as they adopt new curriculum for students.
“You look at teachers being told this is how you should teach one year, and told now, this next year, it’s an entirely different way,” Solomon said. “If teachers are going to implement a new program, we want them to know they’re going to be supported.”
To Lin Andrews, who helps develop curriculum with science teachers around real-world phenomena as director of teacher support for the National Center for Science Education, educators have a big responsibility in directly addressing science in detail — but in a way that empowers students rather than alarming them. So whether classes are studying climate change or COVID-19, teachers should be thinking of how to phrase lessons in terms of solutions, not just the problem at hand.
“You have to be factual but also help these kids interpret the world,” Andrews said. “They want to know, ‘Should I be worried about the environment?’ And the answer is yes. But we also want to have them look at what we can do to fix it, and what they can do to help.”
How real-world phenomena changes students
Wendy Binder and Tricia Shelton also believe bringing real-world phenomena can help students approach science from a problem-solving perspective, much as scientists and engineers do, and consider how they can effect change in the world. From looking at local concerns, like the Brood X cicadas hatching this spring throughout the Eastern U.S., or widening to examine how water behaves in space, students learn to ask questions and think about solving problems rather than producing rote answers.
Binder, STEM professional learning program director for the National Science Teaching Association, develops lesson plans called the "Daily Do," designed to immerse students in real-world phenomena, like a recent one that looked at why water forms a spherical shape in space. It included video clips of astronauts playing with water.
“Students discover that water molecules have an affinity for each other and form a particular attraction,” Binder said. “That is hard science reframed in terms of real-world phenomena.”
Other recent lessons have included looking at how a helicopter can fly on Mars and tracking COVID-19 across the U.S. Educators can tap up to three resources a month for free from the site — or pay for a membership and have unlimited access. And all pull real-world phenomena throughout the curriculum.
“The way we used to leverage real-world phenomena was as a kick-off to motivate [students] initially, and now, in contrast, real-world phenomena are chosen very intentionally,” Shelton, NSTA’s chief learning officer, said. “Hopefully, kids can feel in science that they can not only be knowers, but be the doers.”