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SFUSD takes research-based approach to science

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A mother walks her daughter to class on the first day of school at Bret Harte Elementary School in San Francisco’s Bayview District. (Jessica Christian/2014 S.F. Examiner)
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Today is our first day of school. And this morning our students and staff, like many in our country, hope to see a solar eclipse.

In the last few weeks, we have received a few calls asking if we were closing schools so families could witness the eclipse.

These calls had me scratching my head. “What, and miss out on helping our students experience this fantastic opportunity to teach a science lesson?”

In fact, our science department has distributed 22,250 NASA-approved glasses donated by Google, the Exploratorium, Multiverse and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific so our students can safely watch the moon move in front of the sun.

But Dr. Matthews, you ask, what about the fog?

Glad you asked. We thought of that, too. Our schools are ready to show students the eclipse one way or another and are prepared to show live streams from NASA and the Exploratorium

NEW APPROACH TO TEACHING SCIENCE

To join in the learning, I am visiting Buena Vista Horace Mann, a kindergarten through eighth grade community school in the heart of the Mission District. The staff there has been hard at work to create opportunities for students to examine this solar phenomenon from all aspects — art, movement, research, discussions, and of course, observation.

This multi-sensory, multidisciplinary approach is how all of our students will be learning science as we roll out the new SFUSD Science Core Curriculum based on the Next Generation Science Standards.

What Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) do is take science beyond memorizing a series of facts. Instead, they focus on making observations, asking questions and eventually solving real world problems — just like adult scientists and engineers do.

For example, this morning BVHM students will be gathering information in many ways, including their observations while looking at the sun (with those NASA-approved eclipse glasses) and using pinhole projections to see the shadow of the partial eclipse.

To help make sense of what is causing the eclipse, they will be taking a basketball, a ping pong ball and an even tinier ball. Then, with a flashlight that will be the sun (the basketball) they will imitate the motions of the sun, moon and Earth to see for themselves the scale and proportion of our earth to the sun, and how it happens that the moon can pass in front of the sun.

I gotta tell you: this is way more fun than reading some dry paragraphs from a textbook. And, as studies show, our students holding the “moon” and “sun” will begin to understand this complicated process in a way that will stick with them for years.

But the lessons aren’t stopping there. Older students will be showing younger ones how to write down their questions about the eclipse. Then, after it happens, they all will make claims (a conclusion that answers their question) with scientific data they gathered during the eclipse.

I’ve been an educator for over 30 years. I’ve seen lots of different kinds of teaching and learning during that time. I’m thrilled to see SFUSD embarking on a research-based approach to teaching science across all schools. It starts today.

Vincent Matthews is superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District.

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