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Bath, ME (December 8, 2021) - There’s not an inch to spare on the walls of Sarah William’s 3rd grade classroom at Phippsburg Elementary School. Every space is filled with the physical evidence of learning: sheets of paper documenting observations, facts, and questions about Williams’s unit on environmental change focused on bison; a brand-new pilot project from the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance (MMSA).
MMSA, in collaboration with BSCS Science Learning, received funding in May of 2020 to launch the pilot project, called PeBLES2 (Place-Based Learning for Elementary Science at scale) from the National Science Foundation. The goal of the project is to develop and test a model to support 3rd – 5th grade teachers across the country in incorporating locally or culturally relevant place-based connections into curricular units that meet the expectations of NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards). MMSA STEM Education Specialist Kate Cook, Ed. D. is the project’s principal investigator.
Williams began working with five other teachers (from schools as far away as Colorado and California) in August to learn the philosophy of PeBLES2 and launch the project in her classroom. Husband-and-wife team Leonard and Lisa Kenyon, Ed. D, are two of the MMSA staff working with the teachers, guiding their progress, and receiving feedback. Both Leonard and Lisa are STEM Education Specialists; Lisa is focused on developing the PeBLES2 curriculum and conducting research, and Leonard is William’s professional learning contact.
Two units are in development as part of the PeBLES2 project.
“In developing the first unit, our team had to figure out what anchor phenomena we would choose as our focus,” Lisa said. “What are kids going to wonder about? We chose a life science unit with a focus on bison for unit 1, and earth science, with a focus on weathering, erosion, and deposition for unit 2.”
The bison unit began with a look at Yellowstone National Park, and the problem of bison interacting with cars at road crossings. By investigating Yellowstone’s ecosystem and the other animals involved with the bison, students are working on possible solutions to the bison's plight. The difference between PeBLES2 and a normal unit? Williams isn’t giving out all of the answers.
“PeBLES2 is a shift from passively learning about something to actively figuring things out,” said Leonard. “The teacher isn’t talking all the time. Instead, students build their own questions and do the investigative work to answer them as the unit progresses.”
A long list of “Driving Questions” on sticky notes next to Williams’s classroom door showcases her students’ queries. “Why do bison travel in packs?” asks one. “Why do they stampede?”
“I’ve never seen this level of excitement before when it comes to science and social studies,” said Williams. “One student, who is very quiet, has begun speaking up about the connections she is observing. Everyone in the building knows what we’re doing, and there is already excitement from the second graders to be a part of the unit next year.”
As students ask their own questions and drive toward answers, they are subconsciously learning how to make generalizations; how to find patterns and identify similarities.
“Too often we teach in a silo. What Sarah is really teaching her students is how to model their understanding and apply it to other ecosystems, organisms, etc.,” said Lisa.
At the end of the year, Williams’s feedback will be used to update the PeBLES2 curriculum, which will be redesigned and expanded into more classrooms.
PES Principal Sandra Gorsuch-Plummer said she is proud her school can be part of the development of a nation-wide curriculum. “To see students so engaged is every teacher’s dream,” she said. “I look forward to watching PeBLES2 evolve and am so glad Mrs. Williams is playing a part in it.”
Photo: Sarah Williams in front of her class’s “Driving Questions” board.
The Maine Math & Science Alliance (MMSA) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization established in 1992 that finds inspiring new ways to get people excited about science, technology, engineering and math today, so that our youth can become the innovators and workforce of tomorrow. MMSA supports educators to teach science, technology, engineering and math in more meaningful ways by:
- Developing professional development experiences for K-12 educators
- Conducting research and evaluation of STEM learning experiences
- Building relationships and networks to sustain systemic statewide improvement