In San Diego, Bringing Local Science Research into the Classroom

Dr. Dale Stokes, a researcher from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, shares data collection methodology with Sweetwater district science teachers. (Photo by Melanie Villanueva)

San Diego is perhaps best known for its beautiful beaches, sunny skies, and world famous zoo. But it is also home to world-class scientific institutions. From UC San Diego to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, from the Salk Institute to Qualcomm, San Diego has an abundance of scientific and engineering prowess. Locally, however, most San Diegans are unaware of the region’s considerable wealth of scientific and engineering talent.

This disconnect between scientists and our local San Diego community is precisely why researchers and educators at the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence (CREATE) along with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) and partners at the San Diego Science Project, SPAWAR, and the National Marine Mammal Foundation, have been working to bring together researchers and high school science teachers to work in small teams to translate local scientific and engineering research into San Diego’s high school science classrooms.

Funded by a generous grant from the Office of Naval Research, and led by Drs. Susan Yonezawa and Monica Sweet of CREATE and Cheryl Peach of SIO, the “ONR REAL: Creating, Scaling and Sustaining NGSS-Aligned, ONR-Informed Research in High School Science Classrooms” grant is in its second of three phases. The work links 80 high school teachers with 18 researchers over a three-year period, to create 18 research-derived science lessons that could be used by high school teachers for years to come.

ONR-REAL started a new cohort in February, with 24 San Diego teachers from 19 different large, comprehensive high schools across four districts – Escondido Union High School District, San Diego Unified School District, Sweetwater Union High School District and Vista Unified School District. Six local scientists worked with the teachers – explaining, debating, poring over data, perusing videos, and discussing the novel research studies underway by the scientists and their research teams. And as the two-day workshop launch progressed, both scientists and teachers began to see how the fascinating research of our local scientists could also make science cool for kids.

As Professor Matthew Alford from UC San Diego described what he studies – skyscraper-sized internal waves in the ocean – the five Escondido teachers working with him immediately realized how compelling studying the giant waves might be for their students. Alec Barron, Escondido district’s science resource teacher, noted that “Traditionally our kids are not studying big systems-based phenomena. Instead we [the education establishment] shove them into classes where there is a defined answer… and they have to crank it out. That’s unfortunately what happens.” Megan Ziegler, a science teacher at Escondido High School, asked, “How many of our kids understand tides?” Another teacher asked, “How many even know they can study the ocean and make a living?” And all the teachers agreed with Professor Alford’s comment: “I think it’s accessible for kids – crazy big waves, it’s a gee whiz moment.”  Waves that are powerful enough to suck down a scuba diver and a submarine? Yeah, we think kids will be intrigued too.

ONR master teachers and CREATE staff at Qualcomm’s Thinkabit Lab. (Photo by @Thinkabit_Lab)

Across the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab, gracious host of the two-day learning experience, UC San Diego, Scripps, and Navy partners (professors, scientists, post-docs and graduate students) huddled together with their teacher colleagues and connected the scientists’ work to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the new science and engineering standards the teachers are implementing in their classrooms.

Sweetwater district teachers, led by Melanie Villanueva, investigated Drs. Grant Deane’s and Dale Stokes’s work studying biodiversity. The group buzzed with excitement as they planned to give the students photos from the researchers’ explorations; they focused on the critical importance of encouraging students to learn how to make scientific arguments based on evidence. Deane argued that turning qualitative data into quantitative statements that students are expected and able to defend is practicing “real science.” The teachers agreed wholeheartedly.

We can have “students design their own hypothesis and then share out their own information from their own design,” Deane said. “But then we share what is actually done in the fieldwork and can then maybe refine their hypothesis.” He later added, “And once they determine that yes, they really believe these are different hypotheses, we hit them with WHY?” Deane said he was especially heartened by the skill and thoughtfulness of the five teachers he worked with, especially given the beating that science has taken recently in the political fray.

Lan Nguyen, a biology teacher from Olympian High School, maps out a lesson study plan with her group and Dr. Jim Rohr, outreach scientist at the National Marine Mammal Foundation. (Photo by Melanie Villanueva)

The two days of work also tapped the energy of four other teacher groups (five teachers per group). Vista Unified educators studied dolphin diabetes with Dr. Stephanie Venn Watson’s research team from the National Marine Mammal Foundation. One teacher team from San Diego Unified studied biofeedback mechanisms with Dr. Matthew Yanagi from SPAWAR; another team of SDUSD educators designed a way that students could use data from SIO researcher David Sandwell to develop a model of convection. A sixth and final teacher team from the Sweetwater district spent their time diving into SIO researcher Eric Terrill’s work, shared by two graduate students, about the impact of El Niño and La Niña on reefs in Palau.

At the end of the two days, the six teacher teams left both exhausted and motivated about the lessons they were designing. They felt armed with new content and with ideas on how to build up their students’ scientific practices. The teams had more work to do – to refine the lessons together over the next several weeks. Additionally, all teams had “teach days” planned, where they will regroup – with their researcher as well – to teach the lesson repeatedly to refine them in high school science classrooms.

The researchers left energized and impressed as they had learned too about the intricacies of detailed and thoughtful lesson planning from their public school teaching colleagues. They had also learned about the Next Generation Science Standards, which they were pleased to see align much more with how they themselves “do science.”

Giant internal ocean waves, biodiversity in Antarctic sea life, convection models, and infrared biofeedback sensors, defeating diabetes with dolphins, and protecting dying ocean reefs: San Diego teachers and researchers are coming together to create great science education for San Diego kids. It’s not just the sunny weather and beaches that make San Diego great – it’s the educational institutions and the people in them too!

If you are interested in learning more about this project, or attending the ONR-REAL Showcase on April 20, 2017, 6-8 PM at Green Acre Campus Pointe where completed lessons will be revealed, please contact