Martha Kurtz, professor and chairwoman of Central Washington University’s science education department, traded her college classroom for high school classrooms throughout Central Washington during a sabbatical this past school year.

Her research, supported by the Educational Service Districts in the Wenatchee and Yakima areas, focuses on teaching and learning in secondary science classrooms. Kurtz’ data will help the ESDs better plan professional development opportunities for teachers and help teachers be more strategic about professional development.

The sabbatical has given Kurtz the opportunity to see curriculum being used in high school classrooms and how best practices are implemented. The research will help Kurtz in her work with CWU students who are training to be teachers.

Kurtz has worked with the ESDs, which provide professional development for teachers, for the past five years. During her sabbatical, she collected baseline data on what science education looks like in classrooms. The ESDs supported Kurtz’ research plan and paid for her travel expenses.

It’s been a while since Kurtz has spent time in secondary classrooms, she said, and it was good to look at what curriculum high schools are using today. The opportunity helped her connect with teachers so CWU students have good placements for student-teaching assignments.

Observations

Kurtz observed science teachers in sixth- through 12th-grade. She also surveyed teachers, asking questions about their background and support from administrators. She interviewed principals about the level of support they have for science teachers. She is reviewing state test data, how many students take upper-level classes, and how many students are going to college.

“Hopefully, in the end, we can say what’s out there,” Kurtz said.

Kurtz is done with her classroom observations, but her data analysis and report writing will spill over into the summer. In the fall, as part of the requirement for going on sabbatical, Kurtz will present a report of her research to CWU’s Office of the Provost. She also will report to the two ESDs, who will share her results with their teacher leaders so they can make a plan for their science teachers, Kurtz said.

Teachers are taught to differentiate their instruction — challenge students who already know the material, but also engage students who need to be brought up to speed. During her time in the classrooms, Kurtz witnessed first-hand how difficult it can be.

“It’s really hard to do, and I knew this,” Kurtz said. “I’ve seen classes of 30 kids. When you have 30 kids, it’s really hard to engage the ones who are struggling, and to still challenge the ones who are already finished.”

In some classrooms, teachers differentiated their instruction effectively, Kurtz said. On another positive note, she said, there’s a lot of good inquiry going on in the schools.

“Kids are getting to ask their own questions,” Kurtz said.

Thinking about learning

She hasn’t seen much metacognition — awareness and understanding of one’s own thought process. Brain research says for a person to understand his learning needs, he needs to go back and think about what he knew in the beginning and what he knows now, and how that changed, Kurtz said. Students who think about themselves as learners take more control over the way they learn in the future, she said.

“In science instruction, we haven’t done that a lot, traditionally,” Kurtz said.

In most of the schools she’s observed, students get 50 minutes of science a day. It’s difficult to elicit the students’ prior understanding, do a science activity, have students make some conclusions about science, make sense of what they did, and then have them think about themselves as learners in that timeframe.

“There’s just not enough time to do that in 50 minutes,” Kurtz said. “Teachers know that, they’re well aware.”

Kurtz visited some schools that gave teachers 90 minutes for science instruction for that reason.

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