Science studies in focus for SFUSD youngsters

Emphasis remains on ‘providing students with real-world phenomena’


We are committed to giving all of our students more options and opportunities, and that includes continuing to improve distance learning instruction while also preparing to welcome our students back to school buildings.

We know our community is extremely diverse and families have different preferences for how to proceed while in the midst of this pandemic. There are families who desperately want their child to return to in-person learning and there are families who want to stay in distance learning at this time for a variety of valid reasons.

When I was a student at McAteer High School, one of my favorite classes was Mrs. Pearson’s physiology class. I actually enjoyed all of my science classes. I love how science connects to the world around us. Today, I’m going to share with you how our San Francisco Unified School District science teachers are creating interactive experiences for students learning remotely. They are using multimedia, simulations, recorded demos of lab experiments, and guest speakers to bring science learning into students’ homes.

On a recent Friday, over 1,000 elementary students were part of a virtual Q&A event presented by the district’s science team featuring Kent Laudon, the State Wolf Scientist, a specialist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife who studies the Lassen wolf pack. The event specifically supports third graders’ studying the Inheritance and Traits unit where they are learning about the Lassen wolf pack, the only wolf pack in California.

At the elementary level, the science team is supporting teachers by providing weekly inquiry-based lessons for teachers in K-5. They help provide local connections and culturally relevant, real-world examples to support students’ connections to the science all around us.

In addition, SFUSD has an Environmental Science Center naturalists’ Neighborhood Nature series and produces an original educational TV show SF Loves Learning that integrates science into the daily content SFUSD’s youngest learners and their teachers may access.

In the secondary grades, SFUSD has curated resources for teachers to engage students in project-based learning and inquiry. Teachers in all 6-12 grade schools use a 5E instructional model (the five Es are: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate and Evaluate) within the SFUSD Core Curriculum.

In distance learning, science projects are modified by teachers from the in-person curriculum with simulations and some demonstrations of recorded laboratory experiments from teachers’ homes. The instructional emphasis remains on providing students with real-world phenomena and connecting the learning to the real scientific problems in the world.

For instance, SFUSD high school biology teachers are using microscope cameras for students to see in real time what happens when aquatic plant cells are flushed with salt water (hypertonic solution), demonstrating the movement of materials across cell membranes. They have also set up student-suggested investigations in their remote classrooms to demonstrate when model cells are placed in different environments. Students use a laboratory simulation where they get to extract DNA from cells. They then collaboratively analyze photographs from different samples to determine if DNA is a characteristic of all living things. The world of science reached our classrooms in another way when astronomy students watched the Mars Rover touchdown in real time.

SFUSD is committed to a district-wide implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) through a core curriculum that positively impacts science learning for all students. The NGSS call for a shift in the way that science is taught, with an increased focus on the doing of science and engineering through making sense of rich phenomena and solving real-world problems. Students are led to build mastery and personalize their learning in their approaches to real-life tasks.

The SFUSD Science Core Curriculum continues to evolve as teacher and student feedback has been incorporated starting with the initial field tests and continuing through its introduction into science classrooms throughout SFUSD.

We emphasize continuous improvement in our district, for all of us staff and our students. To that aim, teacher and student feedback will continue to be sought out to improve SFUSD’s instructional materials. I hope we may have inspired you to delve into learning more science this week.

Vincent Matthews is the superintendent of schools for the San Francisco Unified School District. He is a guest columnist.

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