New California science curriculum poses difficult for distance learning

Teaching online is challenging enough. Teaching online with an all-new curriculum and academic standards is even harder.

Without updated teaching materials, many school districts have struggled to fully implement the state's Next Generation Science Standards that California adopted for K-12 students seven years ago.

This fall, some teachers finally have the materials they need -- but now they must master the new curriculum while learning how to adapt to a virtual classroom environment.

That's the case in West Contra Costa Unified, which includes Richmond and serves 32,000 students in California's East Bay. Since 2018, the district has been reviewing and piloting new science materials for all students, and this fall is phasing in an online curriculum called Amplify Science to be used in every middle school during distance learning and after students return in-person.

"Amplify is rich with digital simulations, which was a big selling point for us. It allows students to twist dials and run mini-experiments online," said John Iwawaki, STEM instructional specialist for West Contra Costa Unified. "We aren't minimizing things in test tubes and lab work, but that's not all scientists do. They analyze datasets and variables. You can do that with a simulation."

In 2013, California adopted the Next Generation Science Standards to overhaul the way science is taught across the state, emphasizing more hands-on learning and lessons based around student-led questions. But the state did not release a set of approved science curriculum materials until 2018.

That delayed adoption for districts like West Contra Costa Unified, which last year was still using older textbooks aligned with the state's previous science standards -- even as California rolled out an all-new standardized test aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards in the spring of 2019.

Statewide, less than a third of students met or exceeded standards on the new science test. And now, as California faces one of its greatest scientific challenges in recent memory -- a global pandemic -- many students are still learning from textbooks that are aligned with outdated science standards.

Some West Contra Costa Unified teachers tried implementing the new standards on their own before the current school year, but it was a struggle finding resources online, vetting them, and then finding the best way to incorporate them with the district's existing materials.

Adreinne Loftus, a 7th-grade science teacher at Cresbi Middle School in West Contra Costa Unified, said trying to teach the new standards without updated materials "did not work. I had these ideas of what I wanted my class to look like, but not necessarily the resources or skills to be able to implement it."

This year, Loftus feels more confident going into her science lessons with the Amplify materials. And she actually likes using them, she said, because the curriculum's investigative approach to learning reminds her more of own work as a scientific researcher. "I feel like Amplify does a really good job teaching science as a field of study that's actively being worked on and new discoveries are being made," Loftus said.

California's new science standards require a major shift in the way the subject is taught. Rather than focusing on memorizing the periodic table or recalling scientific facts, the Next Generation Science Standards emphasize more hands-on experiments and teaching in a way that helps students come to answers on their own through their own questions and discoveries.

"Instead of reading a paragraph and just learning about it, students have to figure out what's going on," Iwawaki said. "There's an emphasis on doing science rather than just reading about it, like analyzing sets of data and using evidence to form an argument. Those are things scientists do."

Beyond the new curriculum, this school year has brought on more challenges than anyone in the district could have ever anticipated. Classes in West Contra Costa Unified and in many schools across the state are entirely online this fall to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

And that's made teaching hands-on activities and lessons nearly impossible. "I really like some of the content from Amplify but it needs to be tweaked so it's more usable for distance learning," said Ignatius Berenguer, a 6th-grade science teacher at Stewart Elementary School.

"We can only do so much remotely." Iwawaki said, "Teachers are really struggling with activities and thirsty for something to do. Science is supposed to be fun and hands-on, and it's harder to do that now online."

For many, learning all new curriculum while teaching online in a pandemic is simply too much.

"My start of the year was horrible. I had to learn three new curriculums with a combo class and get up to speed with distance learning," said Seana Kauble, whose combo class -- which she is teaching for the first time -- includes 7th- and 8th-graders. "I took two days off in September just to catch up and try to breathe."

To help teachers get more familiar with the new materials and standards, West Contra Costa Unified has offered multiple workshops and online demos for teachers.

But even that can't always reduce the stress of an already hectic school year. "Teachers aren't sure what it looks like from the students' end," Iwawaki said. "Normally you can walk the classroom to see what struggles students have. That part has been a little bit of a challenge with the switch to distance learning, too."

Despite those issues, teachers and district leaders are coming up with creative ways to engage students in scientific thinking and discovery online.

Some classes have students learn digital design programs where they can create a keychain and have it printed on a campus 3-D printer, then pick it up at school when they are there to stock up on other supplies.

Other teachers, like Brendan Henrique, a 7th-grade science teacher at Pinole Middle School, turned his syllabi into short movie trailers to get students excited about the simulations and scientific lessons they will be covering this year. Having a standards-aligned curriculum has made it a bit easier for him to prepare for lessons.

"I can dedicate my time towards more things that matter," he said. "I don't have to wonder if it's standard appropriate. I might make a few changes, but it's freed me up to make movie trailers or other documents and try to get to know students."

This year marks Henrique's second year teaching, so all of his credential training was in the new standards and even included some online learning.

That background, he said, has helped make this unpredictable year go a little smoother.

Even though he's disappointed that he can't take his students through the same experiments and classroom activities he had hoped for, he's changed some of his assignments to focus more on communicating scientific thinking.

Rather than asking kids to go out and buy baking soda and other craft supplies to use at home, this year he's having students write an essay about whether Mars could support life or not, and use evidence to explain their argument.

"I want you to become a scientist," he said. "I don't need your camera on to do that."