Scientific Progress: Envisioning a Dream Curriculum

Abby Adams, Communications Manager
Science teachers are a passionate bunch. They are also curious and persistent problem solvers.

So, when Dr. Ogle challenged the science department last year to bring more computer science into the curriculum, teachers jumped at the chance to reimagine the science program.

“We’ve had programming and engineering in our curriculum for some time through middle school and upper school STEAM classes, upper school electives and activities teachers build into their lessons,” noted Science Department Coordinator Todd Burckin.

“However, Dr. Ogle’s request prompted us think bigger and re-envision our whole science program, especially in regard to the interconnectedness of science disciplines, which is very exciting.”

Like good scientists, they immediately rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

“Our program has plenty of opportunities for engineering and computer science, but in large part they are classes students opt into,” said Brooks Park, who teaches physics and coordinates the school’s Instructional Technology program.

“We observed that this structure has mostly drawn students who already know they have an interest. Since coding is becoming a basic literacy and the problem-solving skills promoted by engineering are equally valuable, we want all of our students to get a foundational experience with them,” he added.

Initial research introduced the teachers to Project GUTS (Growing Up Thinking Scientifically). Developed by MIT and, Project GUTS integrates computer science into classrooms through computer modeling and simulation. Among its stable of terrific tools is Starlogo Nova, which combines a programming language with a powerful simulation engine and 3D renderer. Teachers immediately saw Starlogo’s potential as a multi-grade teaching device starting in 7th grade.  

Further explorations included an in-depth analysis of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Launched by the National Academy of Sciences, NGSS focuses on science and engineering practices and emphasizes the interrelationships between the four domains of science: Physical Science, Life Science, Earth and Space Science, and Engineering Design. Pacific Ridge’s existing science program shares the NGSS philosophy, and teachers were eager to see how the best parts of the NGSS framework could augment the new curriculum.

Plans include expanding the inquiry and project-based parts of the program and shifting to a more interdisciplinary form of study. This means that students will encounter multiple science disciplines in each grade, 7-10, rather than just one each year, as is typically taught. This interdisciplinary approach to science allows students to analyze and design solutions for complex, real-world problems while building a more robust appreciation for and understanding of the interconnectedness of science.

When asked to speculate upon the increased benefits the redesigned curriculum, Dr. Burckin’s team reels off an impressive list: solid exposure to computer science as a problem-solving tool, increased familiarity with science and engineering practices, understanding the interdisciplinary nature of real-life science, increased design and problem-solving skills, and better-equipped to make choices about higher-level science classes and future college and career paths.

“One of the best aspects of the new curriculum is how iterative it is,” said Mr. Park. ”Since the computer science and engineering concepts are embedded in the curriculum, students will get continuous exposure to them, rather than learning them in an isolated environment.”

After considerable planning over the spring and summer, the 7th-grade science teachers rolled out the new curriculum, replacing the Life Science syllabus with more interdisciplinary content. Eighth-grade science is transitioning from Conceptual Physics to Phenomenon-Based Science this year, with the fully adjusted, interdisciplinary curriculum launching next year. Plans for 9th and 10th-grade are underway.

Some examples of new curricular projects include:

  • Seventh graders started their year building solar cars. The hands-on project involved researching, designing and constructing prototypes, racing them, analyzing their performance and making improvements.

  • Seventh graders also deepened their understanding of epidemic disease outbreaks using Starlogo to simulate the spread of SARS, malaria and other contagious illnesses by programming varied conditions into Starlogo’s simulator.

  • Eighth graders brought new learning to their annual Rube Goldberg projects by initially designing and troubleshooting them in a CAD program called Algodoo. The finished machines were tasked with running a marble through several physics-based chain reactions timed to hit a moving target.

Students are taking to the new curriculum enthusiastically, and teachers have noticed an increased interest in programming already.

“It has surprised me who has latched onto Algodoo and really run with it,” noted Mr. Park about the Rube Goldberg project.

According to Dr. Burckin, the program is already showing value in another way.

“Creating more room for students to practice pushing themselves, to imagine, design, try and fail, and take risks has benefits beyond the science lab. It makes them better problem solvers and less afraid to try something new even though it might not work. That's real science.”