Transforming science education through research-driven innovation

EdReports recognizes Colorado Springs science program creator with ‘all-green’ ratings

By: Nick Sullivan, The Gazette

A Colorado Springs-based national textbook organization received a first-of-a-kind accolade for its newly released biology program.

Curriculum developed by BSCS Science Learning, a center for research and development in science education, is the first and only high school science program to receive all-green ratings from nonprofit instructional reviewer EdReports. The ratings indicate BSCS meets EdReports’ highest quality standards across the board in three areas: coherence and scope, usability and alignment to the Next Generation Science Standards and a curriculum standard adopted by 20 states and the District of Columbia.

“Districts and states are reviewing curriculum materials more carefully than I think they did historically. A lot of schools and districts don’t have the resources to conduct these thorough reviews themselves, so they rely on EdReports and other organizations to do so,” BSCS Executive Director Daniel Edelson said. “EdReports is an acknowledgement that we succeeded in what we set out to do. … It’s going to be very powerful in getting these materials into the hands of teachers and students.”

The program, titled BSCS Biology: Understanding for Life, marks a shift from the traditional teaching approach, said instructional material developers Cindy Gay and Lindsey Mohan.

Rather than framing lessons around teacher lectures and memorization, BSCS begins each unit by investigating a current real-world phenomenon. Why, for example, do antibiotics sometimes not work in treating infections?

Students ask questions and lead the discussion on why these sorts of events occur, and through the course of investigation they discover concepts of natural selection at play in bacteria. Students learn not just the words and definitions attached to biology, but also how to talk about these concepts and apply them to their daily lives.

“We move away from a culture of one right answer,” said Gay, BSCS senior science educator. “If you were a really good student in a traditional classroom, and you were used to the teacher telling what you needed to know, and you could memorize and spit it back, and suddenly the teacher’s not giving you the answer anymore, and you’re having to figure out and revise your thinking, that could potentially be really uncomfortable for you.”

“After formal schooling, you’re never going to be asked to read a textbook and memorize definitions again. That’s not a useful skill to have in your life,” added Mohan, the project director for the program’s development. “But you are going to need to have conversations with your doctor. You are going to be prescribed antibiotics, and you are going to need to understand how and why you need to take those antibiotics.”

The program pulled input from 60 experts across a range of specialties, from educators to doctors to experts on inclusive language and imagery. BSCS began field testing its work in the spring of 2020, when COVID threw a wrench into its collaborative and discussion-based method by forcing classes online.

Still, the developers found enough teachers, schools and districts interested in testing out their new program and pushed forward. Student voice was critical, too, as they provided feedback as to which of their key questions were left unanswered and which real-world examples most caught their eye.

Engaging biology courses are critical for all students regardless of their post-secondary aspirations, Edelson said. Traditional science education has failed in that it focused primarily on preparing students for college and careers while undervaluing its use in their personal lives. BSCS considers both, he said.

“We are facing challenges in our society that require scientific understanding, and we have a lot of misinformation circulating currently,” Edelson said. “People need to be informed both for decisions they make in their personal lives and decisions they make in their civic lives.”

Dani Booth, a science teacher who teaches emerging bilinguals at Colorado’s Steamboat High School, said the program’s accessible approach to contemporary issues embeds literacy strategies for students who are learning English as a secondary language and those who read below their grade level. Her students are communicating about school topics in ways she has never seen before, she said, and synthesizing information in other subjects.

“On this little planet, our problems are increasingly complex. Our resources are finite, and the challenges we face are getting bigger and bigger all the time, and we often seem more and more divided about solving these problems and making decisions. The green light from EdReports confirms the path this program is taking in order to give students the skills and understanding they need to tackle these solutions,” Gay said. “It gives me huge hope for the future of these problems.”

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…

Read the full article on

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…

Read the full article on 

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…

Read the full article on 

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…

Read the full article on 

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: