Carolyn Jones/EdSource
Fifth graders in Torrance Unified practice the Next Generation Science Standards.

As schools nationwide take on the most comprehensive overhaul of science standards in 20 years, a school district in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles has become a pace-setter.  Without relying on outside funding, or major grant money, Torrance Unified has trained more than 500 teachers and has unveiled the new standards to all 24,000 students in the district. 

By devoting thousands of hours to teacher training, the district has shown teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade how to explain a scientific phenomenon in a new way to their students — by letting the students discover the answers on their own, instead of memorizing facts from a textbook.

“We feel science is the center of a good education, so this has been a priority for us from the beginning. But there are fundamental things we’ve done that all districts can do,” said Amy Argento, one of three classroom science teachers the district assigned to train their colleagues. “What we’ve done is replicable anywhere. Any district can do this.”

Torrance is an ethnically mixed, middle class city of 145,000 a little over 20 miles south of Los Angeles. Twenty-five percent of the students in its public schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 16 percent are English learners.   About 29 percent are Latino, 29 percent are Asian,  22 percent are white, 8 percent are Filipino and 4 percent are African American.

The new standards, called Next Generation Science Standards, were introduced nationally in 2013, in response to concerns among science educators, political leaders and many others that K-12 science instruction in the United States trails behind many other industrialized countries.

So far, 19 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards, California was among the first. Stressing hands-on projects and critical thinking, the new standards represent a significant shift for most teachers — not just a change in subject matter, but to a new way of teaching, with less emphasis on textbooks and classroom lectures and more on open-ended scientific inquiry.

That shift has required additional professional learning for even the most veteran teachers. Districts across California are preparing teachers now, either by sending them to off-site seminars, sitting in on colleagues’ classrooms or going to multi-day workshops over summer or school breaks.

At the trainings, teachers learn the standards’ core ideas, such as “cause and effect” or “relationships in ecosystems,” which are incorporated into all grade levels, as well as practical tips such as how to make lesson plans and oversee regular science experiments in class. The goal is for students to understand the broad scientific concepts that link all scientific disciplines and to learn those concepts through hands-on classroom projects.

In California, all students are expected to be taught using the new standards by spring 2019, when schools will administer standardized tests based on the new standards.    Students in some grades have already begun taking a pilot version of the test

Torrance’s jumpstart began with a handful of science teachers, who were impressed with how the new standards focused on “doing science, not just listening to a teacher talk about it,” said Marissa Stillittano, a former classroom teacher who’s now one of the district’s Next Generation Science Standards trainers.

California had not updated its science standards since 1998, and some states hadn’t revised theirs since the 1980s. The new standards include recent scientific research breakthroughs as well as technology and engineering components, which were lacking in the previous standards.

“There hadn’t been a lot of attention given to science education until Next Generation came along,” Stillittano said. “To see this national focus on science education and everything it could be was just very exciting, a chance to clean the slate. It was like, ‘OK, we can get this right.’ ”

Stillittano, Argento, colleague Tera Black and other science teachers pushed the district to get an early start on training. The district agreed to fund two new positions to oversee the training and pay for substitutes so teachers could attend training throughout the year.

Stillittano, Argento and Black started by learning the new standards themselves, then began organizing trainings in the district. They hold several trainings a week for small groups of teachers, divided by grade or subject matter.

They try to keep the trainings focused and practical, encouraging teachers to collaborate, share curriculum ideas and resources, such as beakers, scales and microscopes for classroom science projects.

They also give teachers materials they’ll need for classroom projects, such as balloons or baking soda, and give teachers tips on how to share supplies and where to buy materials at the lowest prices.

But the most important aspect, they said, is the element of fun — the same thing that makes the new standards so popular with students. To help colleagues feel welcome and relaxed, Argento, Stillittano and Black wear matching outfits (during one recent training, all three wore black dresses and yellow sweaters), bring baked goods and lead the teachers in the same science experiments they’ll be overseeing in their classrooms during the school year.

That means teachers make their own topographical maps of California using homemade play dough, or go outside to learn about energy transference by tossing dried pinto beans at each other.

“You don’t learn swimming by reading a book. You jump in the pool. So we jumped in the pool,” said Katie Schenkelberg, a former science teacher and current principal at Carr Elementary, who was among the original teachers who championed the new standards.

There are also evening sessions for parents to learn about the new standards, and trainings for other districts as well.

In a 5th grade classroom at Towers Elementary, the new standards were in full swing on a recent Wednesday afternoon. Students were learning about properties of matter by dragging Q-tips soaked in iodine across Russet potato slices.

One student, Gavin Ashley, dropped his jaw and gasped when his potato turned from creamy white to ashy gray.

“I was not expecting that!” he said, scribbling his observations in a notebook. “I thought it would turn orange, the same color as the iodine. … I like how in science there’s so many different things you can try. It’s not boring.”

Torrance Unified has drawn the attention of the nation’s science education leaders, who praised the district’s efforts to fully implement Next Generation Science Standards ahead of schedule and on a limited budget.

“I haven’t heard of another district of that size that has completed multiple trainings for all of their teachers,” said Chad Colby, spokesperson for Achieve, an education research nonprofit that helped craft the standards. “Torrance Unified — the educators, school leaders, the superintendent and school board — should be commended for making science education a priority.”

Torrance is not the only district to get a jumpstart on the new standards. Elsewhere in California, eight other districts and two charter organizations are part of an “early implementer” program overseen by WestEd, the research and consulting firm headquartered in San Francisco, but Torrance has made its advances on its own.

“What sets Torrance apart is that, I far as I know, they did it without major grants or outside funding,” said Kathy DiRanna, statewide director of WestEd’s K-12 Alliance, which provides professional development workshops to  science teachers. “I know they have a dedicated group of science leaders that have helped pave the way. They are to be commended for the advancements that they have made.”

Although all students are now learning the new standards and nearly all teachers have undergone multiple trainings, the process is not complete, said Ramona Chang, the district’s curriculum director. Because science is always changing and teaching techniques constantly evolve, professional development — especially related to something as nuanced as the Next Generation Science Standards — should be ongoing, she said.

“In a perfect world, this would never terminate,” she said. Over the next few years, the district plans to pay for continued teacher training using state funds designated for this purpose in its Local Control Accountability Plan and small grants to teachers from the Torrance Education Foundation, as well as bond money to build science laboratories in its elementary schools. “We have been fortunate to have the support of our community.”

West High School biology teacher Nikki Chambers, who was on the science expert panel that helped California adopt the new standards, said switching to Next Generation Science Standards is not a simple or fast shift. Extensive teacher training, patience and administrative support is crucial for a rollout to be successful.

“These standards are not what we were taught as children, and the teaching style is not the way we were taught to teach. It is a monumental change,” she said. “But what validates it for me is the buy-in from kids. The sense of wonder I see in my kids’ faces makes it worth every moment. I am convinced that this is the right way to teach science, and for districts, it’s the right thing to do.”

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  1. Wayne Bishop 1 month ago1 month ago

    The Next Generation Science Standards form of competent science content has been part of the ed industry wish-list for decades; only in our generation have they been imposed on nearly all students in the country, and California dropped its good ones of 1998 in deference to this national push. Competent, testable content remains important and hands-on confirmation can be great and always has been but most real science is far beyond elementary school … Read More

    The Next Generation Science Standards form of competent science content has been part of the ed industry wish-list for decades; only in our generation have they been imposed on nearly all students in the country, and California dropped its good ones of 1998 in deference to this national push. Competent, testable content remains important and hands-on confirmation can be great and always has been but most real science is far beyond elementary school hands-on confirmation (too big, too small, too hot, too cold, too radioactive…). Not incidentally, we did the iodine/potato thing in my one-room country school house some time in the last millennium.

    For genuine science success, all STEM studies in fact, strong mathematics is more important than elementary school science along with reading but a different style of reading – possibly very slow but reading very, very carefully with every critical word almost digested.

  2. Lisa Radeski 1 month ago1 month ago

    Your article is right on! I teach TK in Torrance and I am thrilled with the training we are receiving. It is developmentally appropriate for my young learners, expands their vocabulary and gets the materials into their hands. We are setting the stage for student scientists who ask questions and and have the desire to find out how and why things happen. Something not mentioned in the article is that panels of classroom teachers got … Read More

    Your article is right on! I teach TK in Torrance and I am thrilled with the training we are receiving. It is developmentally appropriate for my young learners, expands their vocabulary and gets the materials into their hands. We are setting the stage for student scientists who ask questions and and have the desire to find out how and why things happen.

    Something not mentioned in the article is that panels of classroom teachers got together in workshops with our trainers to determine what materials, tools, even the types of furnishings would be included in our new elementary science labs. We will have “ownership” for our labs and the contents; the new lessons we present will be meaningful to the children because they can fully implement and explore each topic. Many thanks to our staff for their professionalism and their enthusiasm for a subject that seems to get pushed aside when teachers are not prepared and/or suffer from a lack of resources and materials!

  3. Don Wehbey 1 month ago1 month ago

    Reading this article caused me to remember way back when I was a very young child and student, and with a heart of pure gratefulness. I was fortunate to have been raised in Northern California and attended Westside Elementary School, on Fulton Rd in Healdsburg. I attended the small four-room country school, and I was blessed with attentive teachers keen to the benefits of a student's active participation. We were not taught only … Read More

    Reading this article caused me to remember way back when I was a very young child and student, and with a heart of pure gratefulness. I was fortunate to have been raised in Northern California and attended Westside Elementary School, on Fulton Rd in Healdsburg. I attended the small four-room country school, and I was blessed with attentive teachers keen to the benefits of a student’s active participation. We were not taught only from books and tested only by standardized True/False or multiple choice questions. We were taught to present and explain to the team and class, and to empirically observe and test and develop solutions.
    I can still recall each of my teachers there, and two of the best were Mrs. McKay and Mr. Sonello. Both were tough, had high expectations of us students, and we knew it, especially with Mr. Sonello. As students from this little school in the middle of beautiful country, we were challenged with all the core and basic studies, but pressed further in applications of scientific methods, mathematics, and other to test, create, develop, and prove, write about and present our findings. We were effectively challenged to apply ourselves with our new knowledge, and we were encouraged to experiment.
    All of these lessons at such an early age are everything needed professionally. I am blessed for their teachings, wisdom and keen applications of their skills to all – especially me – at this school and time of my life. Applying the new knowledge and skills and building a foundation of wisdom, such is school, such has been my profession, and such is life. My pure and heartfelt gratefulness to great teachers!

  4. richard Moore 1 month ago1 month ago

    There it is:

    “give teachers tips on … where to buy materials at the lowest prices.”

  5. ann 1 month ago1 month ago

    ‘That means teachers make their own topographical maps of California using homemade play dough, or go outside to learn about energy transference by tossing dried pinto beans at each other.’ We’ll see where our students are in about a generation. If they remain among the lowest performers in the world, then what?