A new species of science class takes hold in Chicago high schools

For the People…around Chicago

Medill Reports on what’s working and what’s not

A new species of science class takes hold in Chicago high schools

by Catherine Guiles

Interview with Steven McGee, a research associate professor at Northwestern University and director of the Meaningful Science Consortium, one of three science instructional development systems being used in the Chicago High School Transformation Plan.

Good-bye dissecting frogs, hello saving endangered tortoises. That’s what you’ll find in a Meaningful Science Consortium class. McGee described for Catherine Guiles how schools are adjusting to the curriculum and what it means for students’ futures.

Catherine Guiles: Do you still do dissections in biology class?
Steven McGee: Well, we don’t really do a lot of dissections, because I mean, dissections are for courses that are more traditional, where it’s important to really delve into and let’s look at, what is it that, you know, this species? Let’s look at the function and the structure and really delve into phylum and classification. So of course we cover classification, but it’s in the context of studying evolution.

Guiles: What does a typical day in one of these classes look like?
McGee: What we try to help the teachers structure, as a typical day, is one in which you start off the class with what people in Chicago schools call “bell ringer,” which is as the students are filing in and the teacher’s taking attendance, there’s usually an assignment on the board. Students will sit down and complete the assignment, and then after the attendance is taken and all the students are in the class, the teacher will go over that with them. The purpose of the bell ringer is really to provide a transition from what they did the day before to what they’re going to be doing during the period.

We also provide a lot of support for the fact that the students come into high school with very low levels of literacy, so we have a whole series of literacy strategies to help students with being able to comprehend the text, process the text and use the text for answering questions and applying it in their project. And then usually, towards the end of the class period, we like to have the teachers pause within the last five or ten minutes and sort of wrap up and say what have we accomplished today and what can we expect to work on tomorrow.

Guiles: What really sets the Meaningful Science curriculum apart from other curricula?
McGee: What we did in formulating the Meaningful Science Consortium is identified some inquiry-based curricula, and also not only inquiry-based, but ones that are focused on project-oriented instruction. The other thing that sort of sets us apart is we decided to step back from the traditional sequence, which typically in a lot of CPS schools is ninth grade biology, 10th grade chemistry and then 11th grade physics. We sort of looked at what are the students expected to know by junior year for the statewide Prairie State Achievement Exam and built a sequence around what the expectations were. So it’s about a third of the exam is earth and environmental science concepts; about a third are physical science concepts, and about a third are biological concepts. So our sequence is ninth grade-earth and environmental, 10th grade-they take one semester of chemistry and one semester of physics, and then 11th grade-they take a biology course.

Guiles: Did you want them to have biology in 11th grade so they would have it more fresh [for testing]?
McGee: In the planning phase, it just really felt like biology would be a great capstone course for the students. To really teach biology well, it involves environmental, it involves physics, it involves chemistry. So, giving them the basis in those subjects before they taught biology would allow our teachers to be able to teach biology at a much higher level.

Guiles: Can you explain a little more about what “project-oriented” means?
McGee: Project-oriented means that students have a project or a problem or a design scenario that they’re working on over an extended period of time, and then they engage in learning activities that help them with specific aspects of the project. So for example, right off, starting in freshman year, very early in the course, they’re introduced to a scenario of a hypothetical school in Florida that is overpopulated, and they need to build a new school, and the land that the school district has available to them unfortunately is home to a number of the species of tortoise called the gopher tortoise. And it’s an endangered species and really serves as a keystone species for the entire ecosystem.

So what the students have to grapple with is how can we accommodate the human needs for additional space for a school but yet minimize the impact on the environment and make sure that the gopher tortoises can still thrive. So what they do is they spend most of the first semester learning how to analyze population growth so that they can make projections to make sure that the school building that they build will actually meet the needs of the school district for many years to come. They have to look at resource use around land, and then they examine ecosystems and how to analyze to serve those ecosystems, to then build all of that into a very solid proposal to the school district.

Guiles: What kind of homework do they usually get?
McGee: Homework is a struggle in Chicago schools. One of our teachers reported that when she asked one of her students about the homework that was due that day, his response was, look, I’m struggling for survival getting from my home to school. I can’t think about homework. In some of our schools it’s very difficult to actually get the kids to do their homework. They don’t really have well-established out-of-school environments that give them a safe place to actually think about their schoolwork. So typically, the things that they are able to give out as homework might be extra problem sets or to have them do the readings at home or answer some of the analysis questions.

Guiles: What kind of technology do they use?
McGee: The district is aware of what each program’s technological requirements are, and so then they make sure that the schools actually have all the technology available. Dell is the vendor for all the technology, so all the schools in the IDS program are provided with some modern, brand-new, either Dell computer labs or they have wireless laptop carts.

Guiles: Is there a lot of memorization involved?
McGee: Yes and no. There are basic concepts that students are expected to know. They have to study definitions, learn vocabulary. But there’s less of a need to rely on raw memorization when you’re working in real-world contexts.

Guiles: Why do you think this approach is well-suited especially to Chicago, with so many schools that are having problems?
McGee: Well, our approach is really well-suited for students and schools at all various achievement levels. We’ve really thought through what are the needs of the lowest-level performers, which a lot of it has to do with low levels of literacy. We also think through very carefully with our special education teachers how to adapt this for special education students. But it also provides a tremendous amount of rigor all the way up through the most advanced, high-performing students. Part of what allows that flexibility is the project scenarios. The project scenarios are so concrete and realistic that the lowest-performing students can really connect to them and then what the curriculum provides is the flexibility to vary the level of complexity surrounding that particular problem.

Guiles: Have you done any research to see how effective this curriculum is? Do students do better on standardized tests?
McGee: You know, it’s still too early to tell. We’ve been two years with some of our schools, and the ultimate test is how prepared are the students when they reach their junior year to perform on the Prairie State Achievement Exam. So our first round of students are sophomores. They’ll be entering their junior year next year. And that’s when we’ll start to get sort of the first baseline data.

Steven McGee shares what goes on in the classrooms using the Meaningful Science Consortium.

Guiles: How have teachers generally reacted?
McGee: We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from our teachers and actually overall. It was just reported recently, some of the surveys that the district has done found that pretty much 90 percent of the teachers involved across the board, across all the math, science and English programs, would recommend this program to their colleagues.

Guiles: What’s been the most surprising or memorable thing that you’ve seen?
McGee: I think the thing that we didn’t necessarily anticipate is the level of support that would be needed for teachers. Just our cohort of teachers this year, almost half of the teachers that we’re working with are first-year teachers. Almost all of them are five years of teaching experience or less. We’ve sort of had to adapt our methods and our approaches to provide additional support to a lot of the beginning teachers.

Guiles: Like what kinds of issues?
McGee: Helping them with classroom management. In general, when even for experienced teachers, if you’re used to a certain style of teaching, you’ve sort of adapted all your classroom management strategies around the way that you teach. So if it’s one in which you do a lot of class presentations and very teacher-driven environment, and now all of a sudden, you open it up and there’s a lot of student work, there’s a lot of different projects, people at different places, working on different aspects of the project, there’s a whole different set of strategies for how you create the freedom for students to engage in a project-based context but also maintain some kind of order and discipline so that it’s not sheer chaos in the classroom.

Guiles: How will this program help students when they get to college?
McGee: I think in terms of sort of general strategies, our literacy strategies are really geared towards helping students be effective readers and effective readers for understanding, which is really a key fundamental strategy when you get to college. There’s large textbooks that you have to read, and oftentimes the professors expect you to read it and understand it, and they don’t lecture on it in class. We help students with basic ideas of annotating the text, to be able to highlight key ideas within the text, how to take notes on the text using what we call double-entry journal. There’s different varieties, but it’s things like writing down the main idea in the left-hand column and then writing down what are the supporting ideas. We also have claims and evidence, so we’re looking for claims that the article is making and finding evidence in the article. And then the third aspect is summarization.

Guiles: Have you seen any big differences between boys and girls [in their response to the IDS]?
McGee: It’s hard to dissect it down at that level. I think in general, boys get to high school, they’re too cool for school. You tend to see across the board that girls tend to be more participatory. But with a project-based curriculum, it’s much more difficult to be too cool for school, to sort of hang out and not participate because everyone needs to participate in the projects. The kids hold each other accountable. I’ve actually seen in some of the classes where somebody would ask a question, and the response was, ‘Hey, if you were here yesterday, you would’ve known that we studied that yesterday!’

Guiles: Thinking back to what we talked about, what do you think is the most important thing to emphasize?
McGee: I think the biggest walkaway point is to understand the context of Chicago. You have a number of schools that have students coming to their school from very disadvantaged environments. They come to ninth grade with very low levels of reading. They may not have had much science in their elementary and middle school background. We’ve seen schools where you have science labs that there’s very few resources, not even running water, to be able to run experiments.

So, what the district has done is to create a program where they can make sure that these schools have all the necessary resources that they need. What we’re providing through our IDS program is making sure that the teachers have all the support that they need to make the transition to have high expectations of students and to have the support to actually help the students to achieve those high expectations.

This is a long-term initiative. Hopefully, the general public would understand that this is going to take a long time to have significant change, and to build the structures that will allow those changes to sustain. What we see too often across our country is a lot of excitement – there was a lot of excitement when we first started – but now that things are getting tough is when you really need to sort of redouble our efforts and say this is important.