UI wins National Science Foundation grants to expand earth sciences curriculum, add and train teachers
Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The University of Iowa is leading a movement to change the way science is taught at K–12 schools statewide.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, educators at the UI are revising the science curriculum and recruiting and training teachers to better educate Iowa students in the sciences.

The aim: A new approach for students to learn physics, biology, chemistry, and earth and space sciences—and to think about how to apply those subjects to meet existing local challenges, from water quality to climate change.

“It’s teaching in a way that attaches an Iowa child to real-world relevance,” says Ted Neal, clinical associate professor in the UI College of Education who’s helping to lead the curricular changes. “At that point, the child is hooked. She or he cares.”

The curricular changes are being driven in large measure by Iowa’s adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards. The NGSS seek to shift student learning in the sciences from rote memorization to formulating questions and testing them with evidence. The new standards also emphasize integrating the sciences. The state board of education adopted the NGSS in 2015; Iowa is one of 26 states in the country to develop the new standards.

At the UI, faculty and graduate students at the College of Education, the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER), and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences have been surveying K–12 science teachers statewide to determine what curricular adjustments they would be most interested in.

“We want to understand what teachers need the most and what we can provide most readily to accelerate and enhance the ability of our schools to not just meet these new standards, but to help them effectively bring this transformative set of ideas into their classrooms,” says Scott Spak, assistant professor in the UI School of Urban and Regional Planning and a CGRER scholar who has a doctorate in atmospheric and oceanic sciences.

Neal says that central to the curricular change is teaching students to think like scientists. This means educating Iowa school children how scientists approach an issue by asking a central question, conducting experiments, and analyzing whether the results answered the question—or raised new ones.

“We want our children to understand that process better by doing it themselves in the classroom,” says Neal, who has written a new book for teaching eighth-grade science. “The top 10 jobs in the world for kids don’t even exist yet. How do you teach kids for a job that doesn’t exist? You teach them how to ask questions and come up with solutions. We want to honor soft skills with the changed curriculum. There’s equal value to measuring kids’ abilities to learn with the content they’re learning.”

Along with changing the curriculum, the UI is bolstering the K–12 teaching ranks. One initiative, the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, offers $12,000 annually to earn a Master of Arts in teaching.

Magdaly Santos Villalobos teaches at West High
“We need teachers who can motivate or help children to go into the sciences,” says Magdaly Santos-Villalobos, shown here in an Iowa City West High School classroom. “There’s so much we have to do for our country and our world. If I can help, then that would be awesome. The experience has been amazing.” Photo by Tim Schoon.

Magdaly Santos-Villalobos is in the first group of Noyce scholars from the UI who earned master’s degrees this spring. Santos-Villalobos moved with her husband and three children to Iowa from Puerto Rico three years ago. Santos-Villalobos, an electrical engineer, was searching what to do next; her research led her to the Noyce scholarship.

“I thought it was awesome,” she says of the prospect of teaching as a second career. “I could combine my engineering knowledge, and science generally, within a teaching environment, where I could share what I know with children and get them interested in STEM fields.”

Santos-Villalobos spent the fall teaching science to students who also were learning English as a second language at Iowa City West High School. She says she enjoyed the challenge of educating the new immigrants, who are from Congo, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, China, and Vietnam.

“We need teachers who can motivate or help children to go into the sciences,” says Santos-Villalobos, who this fall will teach AP courses at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids. “There’s so much we have to do for our country and our world. If I can help, then that would be awesome. The experience has been amazing.”

Nicole Becker, assistant professor in the UI Department of Chemistry, won the NSF grant for the Noyce scholarship program. She says the UI is partnering with Kirkwood Community College to recruit students into the Noyce pipeline—tapping an underrepresented population that may not have considered teaching as a profession. 

“It’s a scholarship with an education,” says Becker, who joined the UI in 2014.

Another NSF-funded initiative aims to establish or build the earth science/geoscience curriculum in Iowa schools, especially at the secondary-school level. High school students are required to take three subjects before graduation; most take physics, biology, and chemistry. Some secondary schools in Iowa don’t offer earth science/geoscience as a subject.

Brad Cramer argues that earth science/geoscience should be treated as a capstone subject that’s a culmination of the other science disciplines.

“It’s how all the sciences work together in a way that actually impacts your everyday,” says Cramer, assistant professor in the UI Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. “So, when the question is about the water you drink, the state of the soil you farm, the air you breathe, those are all geoscience questions.”

With the NSF funding, the UI offers free, online and field-based courses in earth science/geoscience to K–12 teachers in Iowa.

Marissa Erickson is taking the online geosciences class this spring. Erickson, who teaches anatomy, biology, and physiology at Ogden High School in central Iowa, says her school decided to add geosciences to its curriculum this fall to help students meet earth-science requirements under the revised NGSS.

“For me, I didn’t remember everything I learned in college,” says Erickson, who graduated in 2003 from Iowa State University with a degree in biology. “It was a good refresher, and it’s focused on Iowa. As a teacher, I can reference things that students are familiar with.”