Tosa to change way it teaches science

New method will emphasize critical thinking

June 27, 2012

Come this fall, the Wauwatosa School District will be teaching science in a significantly different way.

The School Board on Monday approved spending $413,584 to implement a new science curriculum that Director of Student Learning Beth Erenberger called transformational.

New emphasis

The new science curriculum, Erenberger said, will change the way students traditionally have learned science. Instead of memorizing facts that can be repeated on a test or verbally in class, students will engage in active discussions examining not only how science as a whole relates to daily life, but how various elements of science relate to each other.

"The emphasis will be on the depth of knowledge and not the breadth," Erenberger said, adding that classroom conversations will include students and teachers talking about theories and ideas they have. Improvement of critical thinking is the desired result.

The curriculum, supported by the National Research Council, is IQWST - Investigating and Questioning Our World through Science and Technology. For grades six through eight, the curriculum is intended to sequence physics, earth science, biology and chemistry instruction and build upon students' prior knowledge and experiences in the real world.

"The reason we did this is not that our students were doing badly on state exams," she said. "It's just that the exam scores were flat. We were not improving."

Doing their homework

The district tapped expertise from a variety of sources.

Erenberger and others observed the transformational science model in a Chicago suburb, and talked to others across the country.

Consultants from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Northwestern University and the University of Michigan joined others to begin redefining Wauwatosa's science curriculum.

"They also considered the results of parent surveys that indicated that their kids needed more science education," Erenberger said. "We will be working on this all summer, getting teachers prepared and setting up the program."

It will take a renewed commitment for teachers to not only learn a new way of teaching, but understand how their classes fit in the spectrum of student learning.

Superintendent Phil Ertl said he is looking forward to seeing the results.

"I am excited about the possibilities and seeing students progress over the next few years," he said. "We're also looking at our high school curriculum. We want to align the curriculum so that it is a natural progression through all the grades."

Board member Phil Kroner said Monday he hopes the curriculum could be reviewed after the first year to see what works and what needs to be changed.

Earlier thoughts

At the beginning of 2012, Erenberger and Supervisor of Student Learning Bill Anderson said science needs to be emphasized equally with literacy. They also noted the link between science and engineering.

"Engineering has been a popular subject because of the application of science," Anderson said. "We need to make sure that teachers across the district are working toward the same goals in building science knowledge."

LeRoy Lee of Madison is one of the district's consultants.

"If parents go into most schools today, they would find that the science curriculum hasn't changed much," Lee said. "Where it should be is moving away from memorization and to a more hands-on approach that helps students understand the information."


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