Science Teaching Undergoes A Shift

Bailey File PhotoAs part of an effort to meet new state standards, city students learning about cells in science classes will now take a look at the cell’s structure under a microscope first before they learn the exact terminology for what they’re seeing.

That flip from the way that science has been traditionally taught is one example of instructional changes being rolled out across New Haven’s public schools.

In response to new state science standards, teachers will seek to have their students figure things out on their own, rather than accepting material as a given before they see the proof. That means prioritizing time for experiments and discussion first, rather than lectures and reading.

Simply put, students are learning by doing.

At a Board of Education meeting at L.W. Beecher School on Tuesday night, the district’s science supervisor, Richard Therrien, said the change should reverse a downward trend in standardized test scores and open up careers in STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.

“This is what we want our kids to get out of school: how to think, how to express that, how to come up with their own explanations,” he said. “We don’t care about them memorizing a bunch of facts; they can look that up. We care about them knowing how to think.”

The science curriculum is just the first subject areas that district officials are overhauling this year, said Ilene Tracey, an instructional director and candidate for superintendent. A systemwide review will aim to boost literacy, math skills and attendance.

The driving question: “What are we doing to support this person to become a graduate who will be a critical thinker, a critical reader as they move into the world of college, career and life?” Tracey said. “Supervisors are teaming up to look at what high-quality instruction looks like.”

Kickstarting the process, Therrien explained that the district is aligning its instruction with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), approved by the state in 2015. That framework, developed by the National Research Council and the National Science Teachers Association, has been adopted by roughly 30 states (with some alterations for climate-change deniers and creationists).

The standards are supposed to better reflect the way science is done in the real world, especially by teaching students to model and analyze mathematically, Therrien said. Much of the curriculum’s pure science has been “boiled down” to the essentials, he said, and replaced with more about how science is relevant to their lives, with units on climate change, biotechnology, electronics and more. Therrien added that should better accommodate students’ different learning styles.

Why Airplanes Can Fly

At the school board meeting, he tried an example on the attendees. He asked everyone to hold up a piece of paper to their chins and blow over the top of it. Mayor Toni Harp ripped a sheet from her notebook and puffed out a deep breath. The paper’s far edge rose slightly — proof of a physics principle that helps explain why airplanes can fly.

“All right, turn and talk to someone and explain why that happens,” Therrien instructed. Carlos Torre, a board member, turned to her and started chatting. After a moment, Therrien said, “I don’t really care if you can explain what happened.”

He explained, “The act of what you just did is science. We want our students to think about experiencing something, playing around with it and then coming up with an explanation,” Therrien said. “How does it change if you’re getting more information? You can do two sheets of paper. You can blow harder. You can change the angle. We can take all sorts of measurements and we would be doing science. That’s what we want for our students.”

Therrien contrasted that format with the prior state standards. “In the old way, a teacher might have had kids look up the meaning of air pressure, or something called the Bernoulli effect and maybe they saw a picture of an airplane wing and asked them to discuss (with the teacher) how the shape caused the airplane to fly, then they ‘proved it’ by blowing on the paper,” he said. “In the new way, the experience becomes a jumping off point for their own investigations and discoveries.”

Beyond asking students to regularly carry out the scientific method, teachers are also prioritizing the way that students communicate what they’ve learned — a common connection with the district’s literacy goal.

As the schools rolls out the changes, classes will reflect the new emphasis. Elementary school students will receive 100 minutes of instruction a week, taught through science kits. Middle schoolers will get a daily lesson from a grab-bag of fields. High school freshmen will start off with “PhyChem,” a cross-cut about science’s role in society. That will be followed by mandatory biology for sophomores and chemistry for juniors. Most seniors will take physics.

Students will take state standardized tests in 5th, 8th and 11th grade, all of which will factor into the school performance index. “The standardized test is the big unknown,” said Chris Willems, a science teacher at Metropolitan Business Academy and member of the New Haven Educator’s Collective, which has called for teacher-generated performance assessments. Compared to online tests like the Smarter Balanced Assessment Test, “There are better ways for students to demonstrate competence, as well as inspire them to enjoy learning,” Willems added.

In recent years, a little over half of New Haven’s students have tested proficient on the science portion of the standardized test. “It’s not great. I’ll be honest with you,” Therrien said of the scores. “We are certainly doing better than we were in 2008, but we dipped a little bit in the last couple of years in certain areas.” From 2014 to 2017, proficiency fell by roughly five points at all three stages.

However, Therrien pointed out that the district’s been able to decrease the achievement gap with the rest of the state for high school sophomores by nine points over the last decade, down to 21.8 points last school year from 30.9 in 2008.

Recent data also shows that New Haven’s alumni who go on to complete college are more likely to graduate in a STEM major than national averages: 39 percent of all students, and 58 percent of those who participated in Yale’s Pathways to Science program. And that’s based on 2011 data, before the New Haven Promise was fully implemented. “We’re doing one of our major goals, which is getting our students ready for STEM careers,” Therrien said.

While Therrien noted that he could use more help rolling out the changes, in the form of coaches to train 125 secondary-school and 400 elementary-school teachers, he said that he’s making progress in professional development.

He also asked for parents to also pitch in. “We need you to treat doing well in science as a given, that it’s not something special,” he said. “The worst thing you can do is tell a student, ’Ah, you know what, I was really bad in chemistry in school.’ ‘Oh yeah, your physics homework looks really hard.’ ‘Wooh, that fifth-grade science stuff, I could never understand that.’” Instead, he requested, “Speak positively about science.”

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posted by: Timothy G. ORourke Jr. on October 11, 2017  8:03am

So, nominalism has finally entered the domain of positivism, which was already a truncated view of reality.  Now we will teach our children to think critically without a shared linguistic standard because that is just too hard a place from which to start.

posted by: SLP on October 11, 2017  10:23am

As described with the “blow over the paper” example, this approach sounds both fine and fun. But really, it is just a formalization of what any worthwhile teacher in any academic area should have already been trained to do and therefore already be doing in his or her classes: finding creative, energetic ways to pull kids in to new subject matter. That way the students are (as much as possible; can’t win ‘em all) intrigued and motivated to proceed to the nuts and bolts that underpin the new concepts.

If NHPS wants to see more pursuit of and excellence in science, it also needs to stop the NHPS-specific requirement that all students detour into “Phy-Chem” in grade 9. Is it a good class, and does it have its place? Quite possibly. But does it hold back highly motivated and/or capable students who want to fast-track into advanced science? Yes, because it forces them to spend their 9th grade science credit on a squishy “science in society” class at the expense of an earlier start on biology or chemistry. The earlier start in bio or chem allows a student to get to physics or AP sciences sooner and to be better and more broadly prepared for college.

Furthermore, even students who don’t want to fast-track their science find themselves at a disadvantage thanks to Phy-Chem. Many NHPS seniors who want to pursue nursing, e.g., are shocked to learn—too late—they are disqualified from many programs because they haven’t taken physics (a subject NHPS is notoriously weak in, and also an indication that academic and guidance counseling is lacking, but that’s another story).

No other school system funnels all its students into a bottleneck and potentially time-wasting science class like this—why do we?

posted by: RichTherrn on October 11, 2017  10:57am

Mr. Rourke, I would dispute this instructional philosophy as nominalism at all, but more that of constructivism, which posits that the learning comes from the internal modeling and sense-making of the experience. The shared language (scientific vocabulary) comes from in reconciling each other’s models and thus connects the scientific language to a more fundamental understanding. Research has shown the vocabulary first method of science instruction for concrete thinkers (below age 16 or so), only results in non-transferable rote memorization of definitions rather than an understanding of concepts.

Good science teachers, of which there are MANY in New Haven Schools, have been using this method for years, but these new standards reinforce it as best practice.

More information on NGSS, including why topics such as weather, climate change, earth science, science/society interactions are required for all students, including high school, along with topics in biology, chemistry, physics can be found at:

-Richard Therrien
NHPS Science Supervisor

posted by: Timothy G. ORourke Jr. on October 11, 2017  2:11pm

Mr. Therrien,

One must first have an objective model, a model in and of itself, to which to refer and on which the knowledge stands before one experiences reality correctly.  This is especially true with physical science. Otherwise one’s models are just one’s models without any reference save the personal experience. Positivism is not social science which we often have no choice but to reconcile through common experience.  Rather it is a fact based discipline based on hard reality, a realty that while truncated has nonetheless been validly established through its corresponding discipline of empiricism.  Perhaps, the evidence suggests that we should not be expecting our under sixteen-year-old population to experience what they may not be able to comprehend rather than having them relativize reality.  We should not abandon learning objective knowledge, as the requisite discipline may not be required in the soft sciences but is required in positivism. Besides, the discipline of learning facts first builds the matter on which the investigation is more thoroughly experienced rather than having to reverse engineer what could easily have been learned before the experience. In fact, the model is what must be proved empirically via the sense experience *collecting facts* if it is to be proved valid.  It is not the genuineness of the experience that proves the model valid.  The problem of universals has been with us for quite some time now.  I think we fall on different ends of the spectrum.  Thank you for your response.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on October 11, 2017  6:18pm

@Timothy G. ORourke Jr: where does one learn to “relativize reality”? Maybe it’s too late for me.

posted by: 1644 on October 11, 2017  10:21pm

I am not sure what you guys are talking about.  I do know that the most lasting scientific knowledge I gained was through hands on experiments.  Notably, in ninth grade, we used the IPS (Introductory Physical Science) which had a lot of hands on experiments.  We studied the effect of diet on growth by feeding different tats different diets and weighing the rats weekly.  (Mine were protein deficient,  They didn’t grow very big.) We studied genetics with fruit flies for vestigial wings traits. (An experiment which ended when a fire drill was held when we had them anesthetized for sorting, and the ether wore off during the drill, filling the classroom with fruit flies.). We burned different metals and recorded their colors.  In biology, we directed pigs and frogs.  In physics we shot ball bearings and lasers about. We graphed ballistic trajectories and compared theory and empirical evidence. Science was fun.  The result is, whenever I drive, I think mass times velocity and plot force vectors of vehicles around me.

posted by: Timothy G. ORourke Jr. on October 12, 2017  4:56am


Relativism, the belief that there are no objective truths, which of course purports to be an objective truth itself, thereby refuting its own premise, is the prevailing way in which modern man approaches the world.  It had been confined to morality and history but now it is even showing up in physical science at least in the way by which the consideration of the validly of a particular aspect of reality first goes to man rather than the nature of realty itself.

posted by: teachermama on October 12, 2017  6:43am

Great step forward!

posted by: tmctague on October 12, 2017  12:18pm


Did you go to high school in New Haven?  Sounds like a great science education.

posted by: 1644 on October 12, 2017  1:54pm

tmct;  No, I went to independent schools, for the most part.  Those hands-on experiments are expensive, but they certainly were effective for me.  I would much rather my tax dollars go to buying the IPS program (still available) than to hire a search firm when the BoE already knows whom it wants to hire.  In biology, we also had plastic models with which we assembled DNA/RNA, molecules, amino acids etc.  It was like kindergarten with building blocks, except they represented the building blocks of life.  Being able to see and feel the concepts made them far more powerful than just reading about them would have.  I doubt we could do the rat thing today, though.  As far as what we did with them after the experiment was over, well, one of my classmates had snakes, so ....  I think we actually had some snakes in our science classroom for a while.  ( BTW, dissect, not direct. )