Lower School News & Stories
In 2012 the Next Generation Science Standards were released, and they were the inspiration for Riverdale’s decision to vertically integrate the science curriculum across both campuses and all three divisions. Karen Fierst, the Lower School’s Assistant Head for Curriculum and Academic Programs, and Michele Blum, then-Chair of the Science Department, worked with a professional development planning team consisting of science teachers in all three divisions, including Phoebe Coles, John Saunders, Debbie Wing, and Jyoti Gopal, among others. These teachers, along with Fierst, Blum, and current-Chair of the Science Department Kelly Tracy, continue to meet several times a year to discuss ways to enhance and improve Riverdale’s science curriculum.
Fierst notes that in this model the process was “more faculty driven than top-down,” allowing the science teachers to shape the curriculum.
Re-examining the science curriculum across the divisions provided an opportunity for the team to discuss what outcomes were expected at each grade level, as well as what practices were good to emphasize. Through it all, faculty wanted to be sure they were linking content to learning principles that serve the desired outcomes.
Tracy says that as she enters her second year as chair of the science department, she has been “starting to think about the way in which we teach science in the Middle and Upper Schools. It had been more info-driven, and we want to change the approach to science so that it is student-centered, inquiry-driven, and constructivist.”
Two-pronged approach to science
To do that, Riverdale is using a two-pronged approach. “There has been an exponential growth of information in science, and with this rapid increase in content knowledge we need to be selective with what we teach, content-wise,” Tracy says. The inquiry-driven approach to uncovering content (instead of just telling it to students) means it takes longer to teach a topic but the reward is that the knowledge is more enduring for students.
“How do we make decisions about what’s most important to teach? We need to build on what they are already learning so the science experience is more cohesive,” Tracy explains. “We need to all be in alignment. For example, if we think photosynthesis is important—and we do because we need to solve the issue of global warming—we need to build the groundwork in the Lower School and build on it in the Middle and Upper Schools. We are working on making that happen with this vertical science integration.”
The other piece is that with rapid changes in technology and the explosion of content available 24/7 on the Internet, it is more important than ever to think like a scientist and analyze critically. “Students need to think about science as a process, not a collection of facts,” Tracy says.
The beauty of vertical integration is that while students are building on top of things they’ve learned when younger, they don’t do the same activities in the Lower School and Middle School. So while they may delve more deeply into a subject they have encountered before, they don’t do the same labs or go over the material in the same way.
And while the new standards have helped Riverdale develop a core curriculum, they have also left room for some flexibility so that teachers with specific passions can teach the required science skills using content that they enjoy teaching.
Tracy is excited about the implementation of the new standards and curriculum. “The new biology curriculum this year is a new instructional model built around a series of steps. Teachers access students’ prior knowledge, uncovering misconceptions, and then engage interest with a real-world scenario/connection. Classes are largely discussion-based, with the students driving class. It’s more interesting for them that way.”
The physics classes are already inquiry based, so next on the agenda is the chemistry curriculum, which is scheduled to be implemented for 2016-17. There also are continuing discussions about integrating the Middle School science curriculum rather than focusing on earth science in sixth grade, life science in seventh grade, and physical science in eighth grade (as the curriculum is currently structured); plans are to implement the Middle School science curriculum in 2016-17 as well.This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2015 edition of QUAD, Riverdale's alumni/parent magazine.