January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Middle School Integrated Science – Getting Over It!

Posted: Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

by Peter A’Hearn

6th graders design bionic hands as they study how body systems work together in a unit that was moved to 6th grade this year- photo by Peter A’Hearn

6th graders design bionic hands as they study how body systems work together in a unit that was moved to 6th grade this year- photo by Peter A’Hearn

Last spring I wrote an article/blog post that addressed the growing discussion about the decision to teach middle school integrated or discipline specific science. The article gives the rationale for the change and also some different models that were considered for how to transition.

There was a lot of feedback to that post: strongly supportive, deeply skeptical, and many follow up questions. Now that Palm Springs USD has finished the first year of the transition, I thought it would be a good time to look back and see how it went.

The middle school teacher leaders who helped to make the decision chose the “fast” transition plan below. Year 2 was what we just finished. 6th grade teachers (and kids) were introduced to structure and function in living things. 7th graders tried chemistry for the first time, and 8th graders played with waves. Everyone tried a little (or a lot) of engineering.

Three-Year (“Fast”) Integrated Middle Grades Science Sample Implementation Plan

So how did it go? Here are the benefits, the things I would think about changing, challenges, and the work left to be done:

Benefits: The energy around the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in our middle schools was much higher than in high school or elementary school. Teachers at most sites were experimenting, trying extended projects, dipping into engineering, and trying to use performance tasks. Kids were engaged and excited. The leaders of our decision to go integrated had said that the content shift would be a signal to teachers that other aspects of instruction would have to change as well, and that seems to have been true. We also have a California Math Science Partnership Grant (CaMSP) called Project Prototype that is supporting middle school teachers as they transition to NGSS and the integration of engineering and that has been a big help.

We had individual sites and teachers at the high school and elementary level who worked hard on NGSS, but middle school is leading the charge. At several sites we had teachers who had taught only one grade for years, but decided to teach two grades this year or to shift levels to learn more about content.

Chemical engineering in 8th grade will move to 7th grade under the integrated model.

Chemical engineering in 8th grade will move to 7th grade under the integrated model.

Things I would think about changing- Many of our 6th grade science teachers, as well as the 7th and 8th grade teachers at one site teach both math and science. These teachers were already facing a huge transition with Common Core math this year and were overwhelmed trying to make shifts in science in as well. We didn’t consider this in our thinking about the transition, but it might have been a good idea to wait a year to allow the math shift to happen before introducing the science shift. That said, we would have lost the benefit of all that great NGSS energy in middle school.

Challenges: The biggest was providing resources and support for teachers, especially at the 6th grade level. We are fortunate to have two science teachers on special assignment in our district, and most of our energy went to middle school and especially 6th grade. There was lots of short focused after-school professional development to support new content. To help fill the resource gap we created packets of text from another grade level to act as supplemental material during the transition. For example, we created packets for 6th grade on structure and function in living things using pages from our 7th grade CPO text along with some outside resources from sources like the Exploratorium. I still haven’t figured out if this is okay under the Williams Act, and I’m not sure anyone has an answer to that.
CCSAdB

Looking Forward: Next year is the big year but we will have the California NGSS Early Implementers Project (as well as Project Prototype) to help us with teacher PD and classroom follow up. Last year some great ideas came out of the content part of the summer institute and we are hoping for more this year. We will need to continue to make packets and look for resources for more units. The storage rooms at our sites will need to be reorganized as things like microscopes and chemistry supplies shift grade levels. 6th grade teachers will continue to need more support than most.

An important discussion will be about when education about HIV/AIDS will take place. It was in 7th grade and seems to fit with some of the 6th grade standards, but there are some concerns about 6th grader’s readiness for the topic.

Further ahead is the challenge of true integration. So far we have concentrated on shifting topic between grades. The bigger challenge is to create integrated units that combine standards from earth, life, and physical science to solve real world problems or explain real world phenomena in the true spirit of NGSS. This year in discussion about how to organize our units for this year, some great ideas came up. For example, could the concept of resources in California (oil, agriculture, gold, water) be used to organize the whole year of 7th grade science? It was decided that that might be too fast and that teachers first need a change to learn and get comfortable with new content.

So we know that many challenges lie ahead and that our journey has just begun.

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

3 Responses

  1. I saw you in Longbeach. We decided to go integrated because it made sense to us. You gave us a handout that had a series of questions that could be used to connect the cross cutting concepts to pretty much any lesson. We did alien invasion (like a snowball fight) I think in that session. I really liked your quality questions, but I can’t find my copy. Is there any way you could send me a copy or direct me to them? Thanks.

  2. Hi Heidi- The crosscutting concept questions and symbols can be found at: http://crosscutsymbols.weebly.com/

    Pete

  3. More propaganda from the author.
    The Fordham Institute offers another perspective:
    https://edexcellence.net/publications/final-evaluation-of-NGSS.html

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