Feature stories

The ‘wonder’ years

Getting students to ask ‘why’ is science teacher’s goal

Travis Sloane says his ultimate goal as a science teacher is to produce studentsJonathan FickiesTravis Sloane says his ultimate goal as a science teacher is to produce students who “want to be scientists.”

Since 1966, researchers have been asking elementary school students to draw pictures of scientists in a study that’s come to be known as the “Draw-a-Scientist test.” Children regularly produce drawings of adults in lab coats surrounded by beakers, goggles and complicated formulas.

Travis Sloane, a teacher at PS 267 on Manhattan’s Upper East Side who sports tattooed arms and a flashy magenta streak in his hair, is not that kind of scientist. And by transforming the way he teaches the subject, he hopes to change the picture of science that his students have, too.

To learn about the structure and function of body parts, a 3rd-grader intently sJonathan FickiesTo learn about the structure and function of body parts, a 3rd-grader intently studies a crayfish.

“We’re moving away from that old paradigm of the ‘flow chart’ scientific method, where you ask a question, formulate a hypothesis, test it and go back to the drawing board,” says Sloane, who serves on his school’s UFT membership team. “Very few scientists actually follow that procedure.”

Instead, Sloane’s conception of science is “phenomenon-based.” Rather than exploring scientific ideas in isolation, students start out by observing real-world phenomena. Kindergartners, for example, may watch a time-lapse video of leaves on trees changing throughout the seasons.

“They look at things that happen on the planet on a regular basis and ask why,” Sloane says. “Then, they conduct investigations and explorations. They’re asking questions to find answers, like real scientists.”

A 2nd-grade student measures her rye grass.Jonathan FickiesA 2nd-grade student measures her rye grass.

Sloane was part of a group of 24 teachers from across the city who worked collaboratively to update the city’s science scope and sequence and recommend a new curriculum for grades K–5, Amplify, based on the new Next Generation Science Standards.

Like many teachers in the city, Sloane, who’s taught science in New York City public schools for more than 10 years, is currently using the FOSS curriculum. FOSS (Full-Option Science System) emphasizes hands-on learning through investigations and comes with a wealth of materials — too many, according to Sloane.

“I try to go deeper with less content instead of trying to cover everything,” he says. “There’s less of a focus on activity management and distributing physical materials, because science is more than just experimenting. There also needs to be discussion and analysis of data.”

This year, Sloane has been modifying the FOSS curriculum to include that discussion and analysis with an emphasis on metacognition, as students learn to make connections between concepts that span scientific disciplines — what the Next Generation Science Standards refer to as “crosscutting concepts.” Next year, the city’s new Amplify curriculum will incorporate those elements.

Two 5th-graders record evidence about whether pill bugs prefer dry, moist or wetJonathan FickiesTwo 5th-graders record evidence about whether pill bugs prefer dry, moist or wet soil.

As Sloane’s 2nd-grade students prepared to observe the rye grass they’d planted in plastic cups in a unit on new plants, for instance, Sloane drew their attention to the crosscutting concept of stability and change by asking, “What’s stable in our plants and what has changed?”

The following period, Sloane’s 5th-grade students pondered the concept of stability and change, too — but this time in an investigation of whether woodlice and pill bugs prefer to burrow into dry, moist or wet soil.

“When we ask questions, he doesn’t give us the answer, but instead he gives us clues so we can find out new ways to do things,” said Piper, a 5th-grader, who was preparing to release four bugs onto a soil “runway” constructed from foil.

In each class, Sloane worked to tease out his students’ ideas both about the phenomena they were observing and the scientific practices they were using, such as planning investigations and constructing explanations. The intersection of the topic’s disciplinary core ideas — the content itself — with scientific practices and crosscutting concepts gives rise to what’s known as “three-dimensional learning.”

“It puts the onus on students to explain their own thinking rather than engaging in simple recall,” Sloane says. “That higher-order thinking needs to take place.”

Sloane, who sees each class at PS 267 twice a week, also works to support classroom teachers so that science isn’t taught in isolation inside the science lab.

“He has a wealth of knowledge and he’s incredible about giving us resources so that science becomes part of our classrooms,” says Kendra Mednick, a 2nd-grade teacher at PS 267. “And, in turn, he’s incorporated a huge writing component so that writing from the classroom is supported in science.”

Sloane’s emphasis on deeper scientific analysis is profoundly engrossing for his students.

Third-graders learning about the structure and function of animal body parts, for instance, recently observed and documented real crayfish. Over the course of one period, students who first approached the crayfish with trepidation found themselves closely studying its pincers to describe its movements more accurately.

“You have to build in time for getting immersed in something for the pleasure of learning,” Sloane says. “The world is full of amazing wonders, and there has to be that wonder and awe in the experience.”

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