A group of teachers crowds around Jen Lewin, the Northwestern/District 65 Partnership Coordinator at Science in Society. She is spinning a vinyl record like a DJ, picking up speed with each revolution. But, despite the turntable’s recent return to fashion, there are no record players in sight. There’s only a lazy susan – the kind you’d see in a family-style restaurant – and a cone made of a plain sheet of printer paper, rolled and pinned into shape with a sewing needle.
As Lewin turns the record, the needle’s tip skims across the surface, tracing the grooves in the vinyl. As the speed of rotation increases, the sound emitted by the homemade turntable becomes vaguely familiar. Is that Alvin and the Chipmunks?
As she explains the experiment, the excitement in Lewin’s voice is obvious. “You hear the sound and wonder – what’s going on here?” Lewin said.
In partnership with Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy (SESP), Lewin helped organize and co-led a professional development day in November where over a hundred 4th– 8th-grade teachers in Evanston’s K–8 public schools district learned about the science of sound and practiced building homemade phonographs. This exercise served as an example of how observing a phenomenon leads to questions, basic problem solving and scientific investigations – and how our natural human curiosity can be translated into effective science learning in the classroom.
Lewin is familiar with the joys and frustrations of translating new concepts and pedagogical approaches into practical applications for the classroom. Before joining Science in Society, she was a master teacher in Chicago Public Schools, where she specialized in teaching elementary and middle school science.
Now, in her role with the center, Lewin is a professional STEM education matchmaker. As part of Science in Society and Northwestern’s initiative to level the playing field for under-resourced local students, Lewin works hand-in-hand with teachers and administrators in District 65 to identify opportunities to strengthen science learning in and out of school.
Then, she works with Northwestern faculty, students, and staff to put the pieces together: How can the resources and knowledge at the university be used to support student and teacher needs?
One such need: helping District 65 teachers bring the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the National Research Council’s Framework for K–12 Education into their classrooms. Developed by a national consortium of scientists and educators – including Brian Reiser, a Professor of Learning Sciences in Northwestern’s SESP – these standards propose a radical shift in how we teach science.
“In the traditional model of science education, teachers provide the answers,” said Lewin. In the new model, teachers introduce a phenomenon (like the sound produced by a homemade phonograph) and let students guide an investigation to discover the explanation. Teachers adapt lessons in real-time to follow their students’ lines of inquiry. In NGSS speak, these co-constructed investigations are called storylines.
“Rather than memorizing facts, we want students to develop scientific skills to make sense of the world and understand that science is an ongoing progression of knowledge,” said Science in Society Director and Research Professor Michael Kennedy. “We want youth – especially those whose communities have historically lacked access to STEM learning – to feel confident that they have a role to play in furthering this knowledge.”
The collaborative process between teacher and students is designed to foster a deep understanding of core scientific ideas and help students build real-world science and engineering skills. “Student ownership of the investigation is key,” said Lewin. “This process is where critical thinking and metacognition happens.”
But, for teachers accustomed to carefully planned and controlled classroom experiments, this shared process also introduces an element of unpredictability. Letting students lead an investigation while simultaneously nudging them towards the tools and resources available in the classroom, Lewin said, takes ‘teacher magic.’
“Part of the magic is in the teacher’s ability to facilitate learning,” Lewin said. “This balancing act means teachers help guide students go down fruitful paths without taking over the investigation, providing the students with a relatively organic inquiry process.”
While there’s no secret potion, Lewin has teamed up with one of the nation’s leading science education experts, Northwestern’s own Brian Reiser, to help teachers in District 65 evolve their own brand of “teacher magic” to fit this new model. “The process of ‘figuring out’ is powerful and manages to hook more kids on what is interesting and fun about science,’” Reiser said in an interview with Northwestern Now.
Many teachers across the country, however, lack access to the tools, resources, and support they need to make this pedagogical shift – a gap Reiser is working to fill. One of the original authors of the NRC Framework, Reiser is now collaborating with a national team of researchers to develop the Next Generation Science Exemplar System (NGSX). This evidence-based professional development platform equips teachers with the skills and support they need to embrace NGSS-based teaching.
Lewin and Reiser – along with members of Reiser’s team, Tara McGill and Michael Novak – are working together to bring a customized version of this resource to the schools and teachers in Northwestern’s own backyard.
In August, Lewin and Reiser trained thirteen District 65 teachers using the NGSX model. Over five full days in the summer and fall, the teachers had a crash course in the core concepts of NGSS-based teaching – namely, core ideas of science, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts which tie into investigating storylines. And they learned how to translate these concepts into practical applications for the classroom.
These teacher leaders (known as “professional development leaders” or PDLs in educator lingo) are now not only implementing the model with their own students but their also helping other teachers in their schools adopt these practices. The PDLs played a leading role in the District 65 sound-focused professional development day in November, where 100 teachers gathered to learn the sound storyline.
“The PDLs are helping train their fellow teachers to go on a scientific journey with kids,” Lewin explained. “It’s a train-the-trainer model.”
Lewin is collaborating with District 65 and the PDLs to organize several more professional development opportunities this school year for teachers to further explore best practices in science education. But the real power of this training, says Lewin, is in the network effect the teachers create as the expert leaders within their own schools.
“After experiencing the first few parts of the sound unit, I can see the wheels turning in my colleagues’ brain,” said Jamie Noll, a middle school science teacher and PDL in District 65. “The models are about more than making DNA [structures] out of candy.”
In addition to Lewin’s work in District 65, Science in Society and SESP are supporting a range of other NGSS-aligned training opportunities for local teachers. Sixteen teachers at Mather and Lakeview High Schools in Chicago Public Schools took part in a similar multi-day NGSX-aligned training program this fall in conjunction with Science in Society’s Science Explorers program. And Science Club Summer Camp helps 3rd-grade Chicago Public Schools teachers adopt NGSS best practices through a 3-week summer training program and practicum. The latter program is supported by a Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the NIH.
These efforts, like all Science in Society programs, are rooted in a deep commitment to building long-term relationships, working where the need is greatest and, of course, equipping youth with scientific skills.
“More than anything, this [new way of teaching] has changed the way my students do science,” said Noll. “They are constantly figuring out the science and then applying what they figured out to a real-world phenomenon. Even more empowering is their ability to ask driving questions and design how we will figure out the answers to these questions.”