Using COVID to change science education

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April Luehmann and other researchers are turning racial inequities exposed by COVID-19 into an opportunity to nurture science teachers. Their efforts are part of a project that confronts the mistrust for science felt by communities, especially those of color, during the pandemic.

“We need science to be relevant to kids’ lives,” Luehmann says. “What’s more relevant than the decisions that we’re trying to make every day for our circle of safety?”

April Luehmann

Luehmann, an associate professor at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, is the principal investigator on a three-year study that recently received a $1.5 million Discovery Research PreK-12 grant from the National Science Foundation. The NSF’s DRK-12 program seeks to significantly enhance the learning and teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics by preK-12 students and teachers, through research and development of innovative resources, models and tools, UR says. 

“The idea of how can we address societal inequities in science education is kind of central to what we do and COVID created an opportunity. … (COVID is) something that deeply affected the lives of students, not only in Rochester, but all over the country and created inequities and showed inequities,” says Eleanor Coonce, a science teacher in the Rochester City School District. “So, it was almost a perfect anchor point for us to take and run and create a justice-centered science unit to kind of kickstart the work of doing that across studies.”

Coonce is part of a network of science teachers working with Luehmann and science educators from the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education and the University of Washington’s IslandWood Graduate Program in Education for Environment and Community

The plan: to capitalize on a new COVID-19 science unit developed by Rochester educators to support justice-centered science teaching.

“When you look at society at large, science doesn’t serve people the same across different racial groups, across socioeconomic groups,” Coonce says. “Justice-centered science teaching is really acknowledging that and saying, ‘OK, well, if science could be doing a better job of serving certain communities, if there’s practices in science that aren’t being used or communicated in certain areas of society, we need to tackle those and to make sure that the science that we’re doing in the classroom is responsive to a broad range of race, class, disability groups.’”

The project team, UR says, will implement a common kickoff COVID-19 unit, developed by Luehmann last year in collaboration with teachers and doctoral students in Rochester to teach science concepts, aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards, to build students’ understanding of the science around the pandemic. The 2020 unit grew from an online learning opportunity for educators.

“From that shared experience, then we had a ‘what if’ conversation,” Luehmann says. “What if we created a whole new way to start our classrooms that was a shared experience across school districts, to engage kids in doing science to learn science, but also to challenge science? And in so doing, to keep their circles safe. So, science for social transformation.”

A series of eight lessons, starting with students’ identities, were created. Students were invited to debate, model and create their own investigations with community-facing elements. They also had an opportunity to partner with medical mentors from the UR Medical Center.

The three-year study has two elements; one is a unit taught in many Rochester schools and in Connecticut and Washington. Researchers will identify and name the practices used during that shared experience. The second element is a professional learning network of educators like Coonce in Rochester, Washington and Connecticut who work together, analyzing experiences locally and nationally.

“The goal in year one is to, for sure, live this unit and be in contact with each other and try to make sense of how we did it to do it very well,” Luehmann says. “But then, to use those practices during the rest of the year, meet every other week … and see how do we practice these justice-centered, ambitious science teaching practices in a way that we can name them, and roll them out in other places.”

The group will also identify a second unit to practice in the same way. In year two, Luehmann hopes to have 15 different second units in implementation, going beyond the COVID learning. During the first two years, the team is expected to engage 20 learning communities.

“Year three, we’re going to partner with all the teachers who are core to this authoring work, and we’re going to disseminate all the things we found nationally through webinars and podcasts and blog posts and things like that,” Luehmann says.

Making science meaningful to students could encourage budding scientists. Coonce believes her peers are excited to rise to the challenge: teaching science by doing science.

“What I’m seeing is a critical mass of teachers that want teaching to change, especially rote memorization, worksheet-based, printed-off-the-internet science teaching. (It) is not working for anyone anymore,” she says. “It’s not teaching kids what science is.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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