Tapping Real Science for San Diego Classrooms


Each ONR-REAL teacher team created a poster and presented a five minute “flash talk” on their research-based lesson at the fall 2017 ONR REAL showcase. SIO’s Dr. Michael Latz (right) with SDUSD and SUHSD science teachers Scott Frazier, Kearny High School; Tracy Mesina, Granger Junior High School; Katie Kennedy Hendrick, Olympian High School; and Alexandra Yerka, Montgomery High School.

In mid-November, San Diego science teacher leaders, UC San Diego and local science researchers gathered to present their work from “ONR-REAL,” a project leveraging Office of Naval Research-funded science into local secondary science classrooms. Six groups of 31 teachers, representing the San Diego Unified, Sweetwater, Vista, and Escondido school districts, reunited at Stone Brewery at Liberty Station to showcase their work to turn “real science” into inquiry-based lessons in San Diego high school classrooms.

The showcase was part of a three-year grant awarded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to UC San Diego’s Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence (CREATE) and Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO), along with the San Diego Science Project (SDSP) in CREATE.

The overall, three-year grant, “Creating, Scaling and Sustaining NGSS-Aligned, ONR-Informed Research in High School Science,” linked 76 high school teachers with dozens of local ONR researchers to create 18 research-derived science lessons that could be used by high school teachers for years to come.

ONR does not traditionally grant awards for K-12 education or high school science teacher professional development. In fact, Susan Yonezawa, CREATE’s Associate Director and PI of the grant stated that “our grant was only one of two grants awarded to education and the only one that directly works to improve K-12 education specifically.”

In a “lesson study” model core to the CREATE STEM Success Initiative, ONR-REAL researchers meet with teachers to explain their science. Then, researchers learn from teachers: teachers develop cutting edge, inquiry-based, Next Generation Science Standards-aligned lessons putting that science into students’ hands. As one science teacher put it, “the main tactic (of the new standards) is to get the kids asking, ‘why?’” And another teacher from San Diego Unified noted, the lesson study model provides “a rare opportunity to share some of our practice” in both directions.

At the showcase, more than 90 guests, including visitors from teachers’ school sites, K-16 administrators, students and the broader science education community, mingled with teachers and researchers and learned about the successes and challenges of creating and teaching the new NGSS-aligned science lessons.

As part of the Lesson Study cycle, ONR REAL Master Teacher and Crawford High School teacher Danielle Vincent-Griffith observes her team’s newly created science lesson, co-taught by Lincoln High School teachers Abraham Bitton and Kamelia Farokhi (pictured), and Garfield High School teachers Adam Brugman and Bexaida Buzzi.

Describing work with SIO researcher Katherine Barbeau who studies carbon in the atmosphere, a  Garfield High School teacher from San Diego Unified noted that “When you’re with a group of enthusiastic teachers you come up with idea after idea after idea. Ours was in the end to model the carbon cycle.” Along with Lincoln High School teachers, the team came up with a lesson based around a game modeling how carbon gets trapped. To complete the “lesson study” model core to ONR-REAL, teachers had tested the lesson as a team in a shared classroom of students, honing it over several iterations with feedback from their teacher peers. “We learned from student confusions, for example, and then we reorganized our activity to front-load vocabulary,” said a Lincoln teacher.

VUSD teachers Joe Vredenburgh, Rancho Buena Vista High School and Erika Shrader, Vista High School provide a quick overview of their lesson on tectonics.

As a teacher from Vista High put it, “The lesson study process was the coolest thing — the scientists were so passionate about their activity. It really sparked curiosity and excitement in us as teachers. Doing this has really kept the fire going in me as a former earth science major!” The team designed an activity that uses chocolate and graham crackers to understand fault simulation.  “I’ve been doing this a while and this is one of the better programs I’ve worked with in 30 years of teaching,” another teacher said.

Teachers from EUHSD and Dr. Goldie Phillips co-developed the science lesson, “The Look of Sound.” From left: Trish Stepanek, Escondido High School; Cynthia Hollins, San Pasqual High School; April Tom, Orange Glen High School; Dr. Phillips; Daniel Perrault, San Pasqual High School; and Alec Barron, EUHSD.

A team from Escondido worked with SIO researcher Goldie Phillips, who studies dolphin acoustics. In the end, a teacher noted, “Our project was about counting the largest living thing on the planet,” (whales). “We showed our students how to use a spectrogram – a visual tool to see the spectrum and frequency of a sound,” added another teacher. “Our students got really good at knowing what a sound looks like.”

For her part, Phillips – who was herself inspired to pursue science by a highly engaged biology teacher in Trinidad/Tobago – said she was “inspired to think more about my communication of science” through the project.

Another SIO researcher, Michael Latz, studied bioluminescence findings from the Salt River Bay in St Croix, Virgin Islands with a team of teachers from San Diego and Sweetwater districts. A teacher on the team summed up that “this was a great opportunity to discuss the fragile ecosystem there and threatened ecosystems generally.” In their lesson, students were asked to consider a plan for a national park station in a fragile ecosystem. Another teacher noted their lesson’s careful design: “We wanted to get students excited – so we let students manipulate the dinoflagellates. That excitement led to questions on day two. The environment is so rare it enticed students to become interested.”

Olympian High School chemistry teachers Ryan Razon and Natalio Panzarini describe how students used a refractometer to help measure water salinity for their “Wobbly Watershed” science lesson, co-developed with SIO’s Angelica Rodriguez.

Another team from Sweetwater worked with Angelica Rodriguez, a graduate student from SIO, to explore what causes differences in salinity in San Diego Bay. “Angelica impressed upon us her ‘why,’ said a teacher. None of us knew that San Diego Bay was an estuary. And estuaries contribute to our economy.” “We were able to get students engaged in using refractometers,” added another teacher. Students’ answers deepened as the teachers learned to teach the lesson in the lesson study.

SUHSD biology teachers teamed up with Dr. Dorian Houser and Dr. Jason Mulsow, ONR researchers from the National Mammal Marine Foundation to explore noise pollution effects on marine mammals. From left, Scott Tsuda, Olympian High School; Dr. Mulsow; Stacey Bilben, Castle Park High School; Dr. Houser; and Jeni Freiermuth, Olympian High School.

Finally, Dorian Houser from the National Marine Mammal Foundation noted that the project helped expose students to “real” scientists themselves: “We like to show that scientists wear shorts. You don’t have to use a lab coat!” This team had leveraged research on sound under water and how it impacts dolphins. Teachers decided to focus on echolocation, a new concept they then embedded in anatomy and physiology units that explored issues of hearing vs sight.

(Left): Drs. Houser and Mulsow explain their research and answer questions from Olympian High School students as part of the science lesson.

“Having researchers work with us on a lesson was invaluable,” said one educator. “Researchers have a different viewpoint from a teacher’s viewpoint on a lesson.” During the lesson study practice “teach” of the lesson, researchers also had helped teachers adjust the lesson in real time after teachers tried it with students. “You started to see kids’ light bulb go off.” As one teacher put it, both students and teachers wanted to meet some more local celebrities: “Our first question was, ‘when do we get to meet the dolphins!’ They are still on the hook for that!”

Teachers concluded that this was “A really unique professional development opportunity to hone our craft as teachers.”

CSSI staff and researchers at CREATE continue to rework the “lesson study” model in projects with faculty and graduate students across the UC San Diego campus. The plan for the CSSI team now is to develop online versions of the lesson so they can be more easily accessible to larger numbers of teachers as well as continue to seek and support teams of teachers to engage in this type of scientist-teacher teamwork.

For more information on the 18 lessons developed by SD County science teachers and ONR researchers, contact Susan Yonezawa (syonezawa@ucsd.edu), CREATE associate director and network coordinator for the CREATE STEM Success Initiative, and the grant’s principal investigator and/or Kathryn Schulz (kschulz@ucsd.edu), director of the San Diego Science Project.