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Dr. Brian Donovan Discusses How Genetics Is Taught in Schools Today on BBC Series

The Curse of Mendel

Released on: December 19, 2022

Bad Blood is a BBC series that traces the development of the eugenics movement from the United Kingdom to the United States, to Nazi Germany. It was written and produced by Adam Rutherford and Ilan Goodman. In episode 5, “The Curse of Mendel,” BSCS Senior Research Scientist Brian Donovan discusses how Mendelian genetics education unwittingly plays into eugenic thinking and what genetics educators can do about this problem. Click here to listen.

The Art of Making Science Accessible and Relevant to All Students

By: Catherine Gewertz

On the island of Oahu in Hawaii, 2nd graders weave mats, baskets, or other objects from the local hala plant. In northeastern Oklahoma, middle schoolers investigate why light makes some surfaces work like windows and others like mirrors.

Thousands of miles apart, those projects have something powerful in common: They were designed with equity in mind. The lesson writers deliberately chose, as anchors for the lessons, natural phenomena that all students know equally and can see in their own lives.

Centering science lessons on phenomena that are universal—like light—or deeply rooted in a region’s culture or location—like the hala plant—can make science more relevant and interesting for students. But they can also have a powerful role in building equity, since all students begin with something they know.

“I’m not going to have students investigate the chemical reaction of the family silver tarnishing, because not all kiddos are going to have that experience in their lives,” said Rebecca Morales, the science-curriculum coordinator in the Broken Arrow, Okla., school district. “I try to get my teachers thinking about choosing phenomena that all students as humans can consider.”

Conversations like these are unfolding across the country, as more than 40 states implement the Next Generation Science Standards, or standards based on their underlying Framework for K-12 Science Education.

Equity is woven through the NGSS and their framework; the documents frame expectations for all students, not just those aiming for science careers. Phenomena-based instruction is…

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Video-Based Teacher Collaboration Helps Teachers Find the ‘Story of Science’

By: Sarah D. Sparks

For isolated or overwhelmed science teachers, it can be tough to take a step back and ensure that the daily lectures and experiments guide students to a cohesive understanding of the subject.

One expanding professional development program hopes to give rural teachers the support to examine their practice in depth through video collaboration with local and faraway peers.

The Science Teachers Learning Through Lesson Analysis program, or “STeLLA,” uses a “lesson study” model, in which teachers attend a two-week summer boot camp on science content. Then groups of five to seven teachers post monthly videos of their classroom lessons, analyze them together online or in person, and develop future lesson plans focused on tying classroom activities to threads of “big ideas” in science that are carried through the year. The approach evolved from the next generation science standards and from an international observational study of science classrooms.

For example, in one district’s standard 5th grade unit, a teacher might begin by introducing the three states of matter and the molecular models of solid, liquid, and gas.

“They begin with content representations of those very abstract ideas and progress from there,” said Jody Bintz, an associate director for BSCS Science Learning (formerly Biological Sciences Curriculum Study) in Colorado Springs, who leads STeLLA professional learning and leadership development.

Teachers in the training, by contrast, start by presenting students with a beaker of boiling water and a question: Can we make the water disappear?

“We begin with a phenomenon. … Kids speak through the observation of that beaker of boiling water. Kids begin to talk about what they’re seeing. They make observations, they make their thinking visible through classroom dialogue,” Bintz said, noting the lesson aligns to the NGSS. Students learn about the concept of different states of matter by observing, creating, and talking through the changes they can make in the physical water.

A series of pilot studies (Taylor, J., et al., 2017; Roth, K. J., et al., 2019 on STeLLA and Reinvigorating Elementary Science through a Partnership with California Teachers (RESPeCT), a sister program applying the model to urban, high-poverty schools, found teachers who had been randomly chosen to participate in the training performed significantly better than a control group of teachers on tests of science content knowledge, and their students significantly outperformed their peers in assessments of scientific reasoning and the ability to apply scientific concepts in new contexts.

This summer, the program received a five-year, $8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s innovation and research program to expand the training to rural elementary teachers and continue to study it with help from the American Institutes of Research. Part of that scale-up will involve creating more online training to make the current 88-hour professional development program more sustainable for cash-strapped districts. Read the full article on

Teachers Nationwide Now Have Access to Open Source Science Curriculum

By: Sarah Schwartz

When Susan McClarty’s district made the switch to open educational resources, the 6th and 7th grade science teacher at Centennial Middle School in Broken Arrow, Okla., initially struggled to find quality materials aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards. “We were kind of wading through water, trying to create something out of nothing,” she said.

But last school year, her school participated in a field test for a new, open-source middle grades science curriculum: OpenSciEd. The units were easy to use and emphasized hands-on discovery, she said, and using them took the pressure off of teachers to shape a coherent curriculum.

McClarty is one of the many teachers who have found it difficult to find materials that answer the NGSS’ call for science instruction based on questioning and discovery.

Now, OpenSciEd is slowly rolling out one of the first full, OER curricula that claims alignment to these standards. Three units are currently available to the public: 6th grade thermal energy, 7th grade metabolic reactions, and 8th grade sound waves. All three were rated high quality by the peer review panel at Achieve, a nonprofit organization that helped states write the NGSS.

OpenSciEd, backed by funders including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, plans to release the remaining units in groups of three every six months. The full sequence is projected to be out by winter 2022…

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Genetics Lessons Can Spark Racism in Students. This Change Can Prevent It.

By: Sarah D. Sparks

Discussing human diseases is a common way to engage middle and high school students in genetics. But a series of experiments suggests how teachers approach the discussion could either break down or reinforce students’ racial biases.

Many middle and high school biology units highlight inheritable diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs, and sickle-cell anemia—which disproportionately affect those of European, Ashkanazi Jewish, and African descent, respectively—as case studies of genetic influences. Students can trace these diseases using the traditional Mendelian punnet square, making them easier to analyze than say, breast cancer, which can also be inherited but which involves significantly more genes and environmental influences.

But that simplicity has a downside.

In a series of studies, researchers led by Brian Donovan of BSCS Science Learning found that it leads students to overestimate how much human beings actually differ genetically Students whose biology classes associated specific diseases with race were significantly more likely to consider people of different races to be more genetically different, and to use genetics to explain differences in academic achievement between students of different races…

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Designing Citizen Science for Both Science and Education

By: Nina Friedman, SciStarter

In January 2017, eleven field science advocates gathered in an unlikely location: indoors. These individuals were educators, scientists, and web platform developers participating in the Designing Citizen Science for Both Science and Education workshop, hosted by the BSCS Science Learning (BSCS) in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The workshop focused on georeferenced field studies, which are projects that involve the collection of data organized by location.

Led by Dr. Daniel Edelson, Executive Director of BSCS, participants discussed the relationship between data collection and education in citizen science. “There is conventional wisdom that the two goals are in tension with each other,” Edelson explained. Some project organizers believe that in order to collect quality data, their tasks must be too rigid to allow for exploratory learning. Additionally, they may believe that, in order to provide a dynamic education to participants, projects must sacrifice some data quality. With this workshop, Edelson and his colleagues set out to debunk the myth that these two goals contradict each other.

They started by outlining the benefits of citizen science. What makes it such a unique teaching tool? And what is so special about tasking the community with collecting data as opposed to leaving it to trained scientists? Edelson said that workshop participants found that “people believe in citizen science for education because it’s a highly motivating context. It’s real world data that people have a personal experience collecting.” When learners leave the classroom to collect never-before-seen information, they remember what they learn.

If these data are widespread and plentiful, enlisting local passionate people not only engenders support from the community, but it also increases project scope to field locations that may be difficult for scientists to access. These locations may be distant from the scientist’s lab, require a technical approach, or may be on private property. For example, FrogWatch volunteers record croaks from throughout the United States, mapping the locations of different frog species. If this project relied on trained scientists, the data likely would be limited by lab resources.

Sarah Kirn, a workshop participant, managed Vital Signs from 2002 through 2012. Vital Signs, a project based out of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, encourages students to map native and invasive flora and fauna in Maine. By partnering with middle school teachers, Vital Signs project organizers are able to access a large volunteer base while also educating young volunteers. At the workshop, Kirn explained the nuances of working with teachers’ public learning standards, emphasizing the time constraints teachers have when they are developing new lesson plans: “We realized that if we wanted to see teachers incorporating authentic investigation into their curriculum, we had to do our part to facilitate the process.”

Through bringing together project leaders like Kirn who have expertise in both the data gathering and curricula aspects of citizen science, the workshop was able to produce a cohesive, example-driven report uniting these goals.

Along with publishing this report for broader use, BSCS plans to use information gathered to improve upon FieldScope, an interactive platform for network field studies. Currently, FieldScope lowers the barrier to entry for citizen science project organizers, allowing volunteers to upload data directly to personalized, self-updating graphs and mapping visualizations. Organizers can use this tool as a template to build on when developing their own websites. To benefit both the public and FieldScope, Edelson aims to make the report “a living database” that will grow to incorporate strategies from new and old citizen science projects.

As the Designing Citizen Science report and database evolve, BSCS plans to evolve FieldScope to fit the design needs of project organizers. With sponsorship from the Pisces Foundation, BSCS created this report for current and future citizen science project leaders. Now they need your input, reactions, and ideas to apply these design strategies to fit a wider variety of projects and benefit georeferenced field studies. As BSCS and its collaborators develop more tools, be on the lookout for further ways to add to this repository of information!

Read this article on Discover Magazine’s “Citizen Science Salon” blog.

Video-Based Training May Help Teachers Make Science Lessons More Coherent

By: Sarah D. Sparks

It’s hard to collaborate and get perspective on science lessons when you are the only teacher in your subject on campus. But a new project is working to use classroom videos to develop more in-depth virtual professional development groups, particularly for rural teachers.

The Science Teachers Learning Through Lesson Analysis program, dubbed “STeLLA,” is based on the model of lesson study: Teachers attend a two-week in-person training with other science educators. Then, each month, groups of six to seven teachers post videos of their classroom lessons, analyze them together online or in person, and develop future lesson plans focused on tying classroom activities to threads of “big ideas” in science that carry through the year.

The training is intended to help teachers identify and analyze student thinking on scientific concepts and frame lessons to develop an underlying narrative of science. Chris Wilson said the program was developed in response to a 2006 video study of science classes from five countries participating in the Trends in International Math and Science Study. Researchers led by Kathleen Roth, a senior science educator at BSCS Science Learning (formerly Biological Sciences Curriculum Study) in Colorado Springs found U.S. science courses were less coherent than those of higher-performing countries, concluding…

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A journalist joined one of BSCS’s STeLLA professional learning sessions with high school biology teachers in Louisville, Kentucky. Check out the resulting TV segment: