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Scientific Method

MCHS's Zarley excited about changing science standards

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013 5:00 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Herald Photo by Jeanne Millsap)
Morris Community High School students in Angela Zarley's chemistry class do research on chemistry calculations. Pictured clockwise from top left are Zarley and students Shelby Berard, Alexx Herrera, Eric Robinson and Jake Bezely.

Science teaching standards will change for public school teachers from kindergarten all the way through high school next year.

Morris Community High School chemistry teacher and science department chairman Angela Zarley is already ready for them.

In fact, she’s excited about them.

They are exactly what the students need, she said, to develop a true and deep understanding of science that will take them through the rest of their lives.

And hopefully bring up their competitiveness among other developed nations.

“I firmly believe this is the way teaching should be done,” Zarley said. “I am so excited about it. It will help students to conceptually understand science, without teachers just lecturing to them. . . I personally understand science so much better now by using these tools than I did just five years ago.”

Science is a complicated subject, and one that seems to become more difficult to understand as technology advances. And what makes it even more important to grasp is that those advances have become part of our daily lives and can be a consideration in some of the major decisions we will make in our lives.

Pandemics, energy shortages, health care, retirement planning, and even issues regarding family planning are becoming more complex over the years.

“In this fast-paced, quickly changing world,” Zarley said, “students need to come out of school being able to think analytically.”

We can’t just have them memorize facts or tables or bones or elements, she said, because they can look that information up in an instant on computers and other electronic devices. How to determine what that information means and how to responsibly use that information is the key.

The changes in teaching that Zarley has already instituted into her classes are in advance of what’s called, “Next Generation Science Standards,” or NGSS. According to the Illinois State Board of Education’s web site, www.isbe.state.il.us, Illinois is one of 26 states that is working collaboratively to update science standards.

These new standards are designed to set the stage for a major shift in how science and engineering will be taught.

The final plan of the NGSS is expected to be wrapped up this spring and put into schools in the fall.

According to a state board of education statement, “The U.S. system of math and science education is performing far below par, and if left unattended, will leave millions of young Americans unprepared to succeed in a global economy.”

The U.S. is ranked 17th in science globally and 25th in math, according to ACT Readiness Benchmarks.

One thing Zarley said the standards will change is inclusion of more technology in the classroom. Kids learn differently today, she said, and teachers should adapt to that.

To pilot the program, the high school’s principal allowed Zarley to have enough netbooks in her classroom for each student to have his or her own every day while in her class.

They use them in small groups when they’re not doing lab experiments.

“I use them as tools to instruct,” she said, “as part of the students’ daily work.”

One recent assignment involved the students doing computer research on trends in the periodic table of elements. Zarley said she could have just lectured to them on the trends, but rather than spoon feed it to them, the students looked the information up themselves and made the discoveries themselves.

“I want them to get the data, analyze the data, and make their own conclusions,” she said.

Zarley said the process takes longer than when a teacher stands before the class and talks, and there is a certain amount of material she has to leave out each year to make time for the new way, but it’s better in the long run.

“They are thinking at a higher level,” she said, “and I can see with time it’s only going to get better.”

Being in the small groups is also better for their communication skills, she said. Rather than sit quietly and listen to a teacher, they learn to talk about the subjects at hand among each other and toss ideas back and forth.

Even in the lab, students aren’t told what the results should be or what they mean until they try to work it out themselves. A recent lab involved learning about atomic fingerprints of the elements. Students tested known elements and then were given an unknown element to figure out.

The teaching changes won’t be sudden for most of the high school’s science teachers, though, Zarley said. Many of them have been making such advances little by little over the years.

Zarley said she began incorporating them into her classrooms after she learned about the advantages of the teaching methods during post-graduate coursework she took at the University of Illinois.

“I have seen the value of these different ways to teach,” she said. “The kids are doing the thinking, rather than the teachers telling them what to think. They are acting more like scientists.”

MCHS science teachers are also at the forefront in that they assign independent research projects, work on better communication among students, and have even implemented hydroponic labs, Zarley said.

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