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Smarter Science Backgrounder
Science Education in Ontario
In 2007 and 2008, the Province of Ontario’s Ministry of Education introduced revised curricula for science and technology (grades 1-8) and science (grades 9-12), which featured a renewed emphasis on the development of investigation (inquiry) skills. Although these skills had been part of the curriculum for many years, a perceived emphasis on understanding basic concepts (i.e., science content) in the 1998 edition meant that the development of inquiry and problem solving skills was reduced to an afterthought in many grade 1-12 classrooms for nearly ten years. As a result, many students’ science experience involved listening to the teacher, reading from a textbook, copying notes from overhead projector slides, and memorization of concepts, facts, and vocabulary. If there was a “hands-on” component, it was typically a recipe-type activity for which the outcome was already known, described in the textbook, or even provided by the teacher. Not surprisingly, many of these students described science as boring, irrelevant, difficult – and not something they were interested in pursuing beyond the mandatory grade 10 course, let alone in post-secondary studies or as a career.
Lack of Training
Few curriculum changes are introduced with any significant training, resources, or support, regardless of jurisdiction. School boards, schools, and teachers typically receive the new document and possibly a brief presentation outlining the changes, but are largely expected to manage implementation on their own. The revised 2007/08 Ontario science curricula were no exception, despite the fact that for teachers who began their careers from 1998 to 2008, teaching science through inquiry was at best, an approach explored during teacher training. For most who started earlier, it was a distant memory.
In March 2008, the Province of Ontario through the Ministry of Research and Innovation (now the Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation), announced a $3.5M investment in Youth Science Canada – to increase the level of science fair participation at all levels across the province, ensure that Ontario’s top young scientists had access to national and international youth science opportunities, and support the hosting of the Canada-Wide Science fair in the province in 2010, and again in 2011 for the event’s 50th anniversary.
Through discussion with the Ministry, it was agreed that the most effective long-term strategy for increasing science fair participation – and contributing to an innovation culture in the province – was to provide classroom teachers with resources and training to support the learning of science through inquiry and investigation. YSC identified Smarter Science, in London’s Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB), as the best practice upon which to build a province-wide initiative; committed $1M of the provincial funding; and in September 2008, seconded Mike Newnham from the TVDSB as Program Director for the initiative.
Changing the Culture of Science Education
Changing the culture of science education is no trivial challenge, particularly in Ontario, where the scale is immense. With about 65,000 teachers expected to teach science to approximately 1.9 million students in 55 school boards across southern Ontario – “daunting” is barely adequate to describe the task. Since 2008, YSC’s approach has been to provide teachers with top quality resources and training, at little or no cost.
Teacher response to the materials and the workshops has been extraordinary, with word of mouth serving as our most effective, and gratifying, marketing strategy. Despite the enormity of the challenge, and just one full-time staff person on the program, YSC’s strategy of changing “one teacher at a time” is having a significant impact. Smarter Science was officially launched at the November 2009 Science Teachers’ Association of Ontario conference. Just two years later, 19% of the conference sessions (43 of 230) were based on Smarter Science – presented by teachers from across the province.
Recognition for Smarter Science
In its 2010 State of the Nation report to the Minister of industry, the Science, Technology, and Innovation Council (STIC) highlighted YSC’s Smarter Science initiative as an exemplary practice:
Inquiry-based learning is an innovative method of teaching that allows students to question their way towards useful findings and solutions through experimentation and the accumulation of data. Students learn how to effectively problem-solve rather than simply ‘memorize the facts.’ While there are variants of the method of inquiry-based learning, a global curriculum is in practice in many countries. Individual schools and networks of schools in Canada are increasingly adopting inquiry-based learning programs.
Smarter Science is a framework for teaching and learning science in grades 1–12 and for developing the skills of inquiry, creativity, and innovation in a meaningful and engaging manner. (STIC State of the Nation, 2010, p.58)
In the 4 years since its official launch, Mike Newnham, YSC’s Program Director for Smarter Science and founder of the initiative, has traveled across Ontario presenting professional development workshops to teachers in 30 of southern Ontario’s 49 English language school boards.
In 2011, Dominic Tremblay, YSC’s French Language Services Coordinator, delivered Éducasciences workshops to three of the six French language school boards in southern Ontario (CSDCEO, CEPEO, and Viamonde) - as well as to French immersion teachers in two public school boards. As the range of science education materials available in French is relatively limited, Smarter Science has been especially well received in the francophone education community.
Current Smarter Science materials (Figure 1) include the framework poster (in various sizes), the “Introducing the Framework” guide, which describes each of the 35 process skills on the poster, and three different Steps to Inquiry poster sets, which support workshop and classroom activities.
Figure 1: Smarter Science materials (L to R): Framework poster, Introducing the Framework guide, Steps to Inquiry poster (poster 1, level 2).
Small framework posters (11x17 inch) are distributed free at workshops and conferences. Other materials are provided at cost: large framework classroom posters (doublesided English/French) (28x36 inch) at $4 + shipping; Steps to Inquiry posters (3 different sets) at $16/$12 per set + shipping. All materials are available as PDF files at no cost in both official languages on the Smarter Science website.
Current Activity Highlights
- From 2009 to 2011, seventy full-day Smarter Science workshops have been delivered in 38 school boards across Ontario (33 in southern Ontario) – to over 1,500 teachers.
- The first workshop per board per language is provided free; subsequent workshops are $400 each, subsidized by the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation (until March 31, 2012).
- In 2009, 2010, and 2011, a total of 85 introductory presentations (45 or 90 minutes each) have been delivered at the Science Teachers’ Association of Ontario (STAO) annual conferences – to over 2,000 teachers.
- Two 2-day summer institutes (August 2010 and 2011) featured workshops, best practice, and networking for over 100 teachers.
- Presentations and workshops have been delivered to other key audiences:
- Full day workshop to the chairs of all subject councils at the Ontario Teachers’ Federation Curriculum Forum, Feb 2011
- One, two and three hour workshops at the Youth Science Ontario Regional Volunteers’ conference in 2009 and 2010
- Workshops and presentations at the 2010 and 2011 National Science Teachers’ Association conference in Philadelphia and San Francisco
The program is supported by the Smarter Science web site: http://smarterscience.youthscience.ca and http://smarterscience.ca
What does a Level I Smarter Science workshop look like?
Imagine a classroom – sometimes an auditorium – at the beginning of the day as teachers file in quietly. They have heard about Smarter Science but know very little about what it represents. The facilitator begins by doing something unexpected, asking them all to rise and form a circle. One teacher in the circle is given a white Ping-Pong sized ball and asked to make one observation using their physical senses. The ball is passed and each person in the circle adds another observation. After being passed all the way around, 2 people hold opposite sides of the ball and the remainder of the circle joins hands. Startlingly, the ball lights up and makes a strange warbling tone – the circle of participants is an electrical circuit. Laughter ensues and everyone begins to relax. People around the circle introduce themselves and the tone is set for the day.
Throughout the remainder of the day, the facilitator “walks the talk” of Smarter Science. That is, alternately engaging teachers, letting them play and explore, and then examining the pedagogy behind the inquiry framework. Teachers are introduced to the 35 process skills and then work through the ‘Steps to Inquiry’ posters to develop a testable question – the first stage of the framework (Initiate and Plan) – and the basis of all inquiry. They also learn how to gradually transfer responsibility to their students for the creation of investigations.
As the day progresses, between 6 and 10 discrepant events (materials that behave in counterintuitive or unexpected ways) are introduced to teachers. They range from “mystery powders” to “fortune-telling fish,” each illustrating a particular aspect of the Smarter Science framework. The facilitator continuously suggests ideas and strategies, appropriate for the grade levels represented, which the teachers can use in their classrooms the next day.
Toward the end of the day, the teachers – in small groups assigned to one step in the process – lead the large group, as ‘students’, through the Steps to Inquiry, reinforcing the day’s learning and increasing confidence to try the approach in their classroom.
Throughout the day, excitement permeates the air as teachers realize how the Smarter Science approach to inquiry can transform their teaching. At the end, the facilitator is peppered with requests for more information on what has been presented and the participants leave wanting more.
The impact of Smarter Science and the workshops is transformative, with teachers from kindergarten to grade 12 extolling the benefits of this approach. Kay Stephen, a secondary school teacher in Ottawa, first tried Smarter Science with her grade 9 applied students – a class not known for their interest, engagement, or attendance:
As a passionate science teacher who came to teaching as a second career, the one barrier I could never smash was, “How do I get my students to think?” No matter what course I was teaching it seemed the students, who actually cared about their marks, just wanted to know what page the answers were on and had no interest in understanding the whys of science or the beauty of the universe. I’ve been teaching high school science in Ontario forever. I’ve experienced any number of Ministry-mandated initiatives, including four curriculum changes, streaming, de-streaming, transition years, TAG and don’t even get me started on professional development. My list of credentials is as long as your arm, I’ve loved every course I have ever taken or given; yet still I struggled with “How can I get my students to think?”
Then, in August 2010 I attended a two-day workshop on Smarter Science. I came into the conference with no preconceived notions and having no idea what Smarter Science and the Smarter Science framework were. All I knew for sure was that “getting students to think” is a universal problem in our education system. For two days I engaged in hands-on, minds-on Smarter Science activities. As a trained scientist everything they said and did made sense to me. Here was the scientific empirical method presented in a non-threatening and engaging way with well-constructed pedagogy to appeal to every age group from K–12!
Eureka! This could be the key to “getting my students to think” was my gut reaction. When school started up in September I was teaching courses and curriculum that I knew like the back of my hand. And although the names on the register change, let’s face it, grade nine students are grade nine students. Despite our understanding of 21st century learners, some things will never change about our “minor niners.” Gung-ho, I used the Smarter Science framework. They got it! They really got it! My classroom became one of the most exciting places to be in our entire school. So much so that every single day during every single class I would have to ask the students who were in the classroom that were not actually enrolled in the class to please leave the room!
My students were using the Smarter Science framework to design their own inquiries! They would identify dependent and independent variables, set up controls, predict and plan the inquires prior to starting them, measure and record all the data using appropriate instruments, analyze and explain their outcomes, communicate their results, recognize sources of error, and even extrapolate what inquiry should be done next to lead on from their discoveries! Eureka!
The students were so engaged in the scientific process it was unbelievable. As a classroom teacher who is known for taking risks, this is the biggest payback I have ever received. I had students and parents both thanking me for showing them how exciting science could be. I had teachers, administrators and superintendents visiting my classroom to find out how my students were achieving such incredible success in their science courses, my marks were through the roof and my students’ punctuality and attendance was second to none!
I have used the Smarter Science framework with university, academic, applied and locally developed science courses. The results have been outstanding!
Kay Stephen – Ottawa-Carleton Catholic District School Board
For Jo-Anne Peckham, a Grade 1 teacher in Trenton, Smarter Science first transformed her science teaching – then her entire approach:
As I started the school year I was very excited about the possibilities that Smarter Science offered for my classroom. I have always believed that science was about discovery – the wonder and the awe. Even though I have taught students to see these in me, I never really saw it in them.
With nothing to lose, my teaching partner and I dove right in. Attending the Smarter Science workshop just days before the start of the new school year, we re-planned our first two weeks to include a student discovery of WOW magnitude. The “UV Beads”, or the mystery beads as they were originally known, did amazing things. As the students asked questions and designed investigations to uncover the secret of these beads, the classroom and schoolyard came alive with the sounds of discovery and wonder. Every day there were questions; some we could answer, some needed more investigation. As the days unfolded, students began to question everything in their world. I did not realize it at first – that I was on the brink of a career changing revelation. I discovered that Smarter Science was not just a way to teach science – it was a way to TEACH!
Investigation questions morphed first from science into math, so much so that the worksheets disappeared and exploration, questioning and problem solving took over. All of my students were engaged and interested and attendance was high. By Christmas, the language of wonder had crept into the realm of Social Studies and before I knew it, finding ways to make students look at their world through new eyes was what learning was all about.
By year’s end, teachers and other students expressed wonder at the amazing transformation that had taken place as our young students became very articulate about their discoveries and their eagerness to share them with the world. I, too, am amazed at the transformation of my students, and more so by the change in myself.
Jo-Anne Peckham – Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board
These two stories are representative of the many testimonials that have been received about the impact of Smarter Science. A few more brief reflections highlight teacher enthusiasm and classroom benefits:
A science consultant in Eastern Ontario messaged on Twitter: “So if I ask for 10 teachers for PD on @smarter_science and get 48 requests to join, what do I do next? #smarterscience #goodproblemtohave
A teacher in Windsor reported: “What I am doing now, is teaching essentially, "backwards"...they are doing the labs first and with less procedure, left more up to them...I explained it to the classes I have, and they agree it makes more sense...all is good in the world. Keep me up to date! I am totally buying into this!”
A teacher in Woodstock wrote: “Already this year I have begun using the Smarter Science framework with my SVN3E [Grade 11 Environmental Science – Workplace Preparation] students and have noticed a huge increase in the level of engagement. I had them design an experiment to test the effectiveness of Brita water filters after we had learned about how contaminants can spread though a watershed. It's been so easy to differentiate for my class of 15 (13 IEP'd students) that I just had to share my success with you.”
Good teachers have always taught the skills of inquiry. Smarter Science provides a common framework, a common language, and multiple strategies to make it easier for teachers to implement inquiry in their classrooms.