Lessons learned from shift to project-based science instruction

San Francisco Unified is seeing significant improvement in scientific knowledge in middle schools by switching to a project-based model.
By: and | March 7, 2022
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Devin Krugman (left) and Renée Marcy of the SFUSD.

It’s been seven years since our district set out to design, develop, and deliver a project-based middle school science curriculum that would help students acquire deep content knowledge and vital skills. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been well worth the time and effort.

On any given day, during a visit to a San Francisco Unified middle school, you might see sixth graders working to engineer a device that maximizes thermal energy transfer and warms up their lunch, or even bakes chocolate chip cookies. Seventh graders might be passionately discussing their school’s carbon footprint and how to use more sustainable practices in the cafeteria, and eighth-graders might be presenting well-researched ideas for reducing antibiotic resistance to a group of outside experts.

We can’t help but smile when we step into classrooms and see students who are deeply engaged in science learning and developing essential skills that will support them academically and beyond the classroom.

Need for change

Let’s face it: Science education in U.S. schools can use improvement. Science scores on the most recent administration of the Nation’s Report Card, the gold-standard assessment given to students across the country, declined in elementary grades and were flat in middle and high school. At the same time, students need more opportunities to develop the skills that high-quality project-based learning fosters. A recent report on the future of work by McKinsey and Co. found that students need opportunities to learn how to work well with others, practice time management, think creatively, apply knowledge to different contexts, and ask good questions—all skills SFUSD students work on every day in our project-based science classrooms.

We also love how engaging project-based learning can be for students. A key component of project-based learning is that it engages students in authentic issues that are relevant to them. For example, one of our eighth-grade classrooms studying physics and Newton’s laws of motion looked at real-life collisions in San Francisco and how to make their neighborhoods more pedestrian-friendly, particularly for children walking and cycling to school.

Following the evidence

By the end of 2020, the curriculum was up and running in all middle-school grades. We printed the final textbooks last spring and delivered them to classrooms before the start of this year. So, we’re still measuring the impact, though our high school teachers report students entering their classrooms who have had experience with the curriculum are highly engaged in and knowledgeable about science, motivated to learn, and have developed a host of competencies that are helping them navigate high school.

The approach itself rests on a strong evidence base. When setting out to design a new science curriculum, we were particularly encouraged by two studies conducted in sixth-grade science classrooms in San Francisco Bay Area schools by Stanford University researchers. The first was a three-year study showing that students learned more in classrooms with project-based learning than those learning in traditional classrooms. A second study also examined the effect of a sixth-grade project-based science curriculum in a dozen schools and found students in the project-based classrooms outperformed peers on science, math, and English language arts assessments. In addition, students learning English as a second language did better than peers on a language proficiency test when they had access to the project-based program.

Addressing inequity

True to its name, our curriculum, Equity in Science Education, is rooted in a deep commitment to eliminating opportunity gaps among our students. Nationally, students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, and English language learners are less likely to experience approaches like project-based learning that are deeply engaging, ask enough of them, and develop student ownership over learning.

The SFUSD curriculum uses a framework developed at Stanford University that improves collaborative learning experiences and makes learning more equitable. It calls for strategies that enhance student discourse and encourage equal participation during group work and equitable collaboration among peers. Good collaborative experiences can have immense benefits. For example, research shows collaborative learning experiences are among the factors that can contribute to positive changes in the academic trajectories of Black students.

Also important from an equity perspective, we provide instructional materials, like lab resources, for all our classrooms, so teachers don’t have to spend their own money on supplies—a problem that contributes to opportunity gaps in schools around the country.

Tips for getting started

Since Equity in Science Education is an open and free resource for anyone to use or adapt—it’s available on the Sprocket portal on the Lucas Education Research website— we’re getting inquiries from around the country. We’re thrilled to have these conversations and often share some of the following lessons learned.

  • A big instructional shift should fit in with a district’s broader priorities and reforms. Our move to a new science curriculum coincided with a need to align our instruction to new state-adopted science standards, an overall middle-grades redesign effort, a shift to block scheduling, and an emphasis on student-centered practices.
  • Give staff time, space, and support to do this important but challenging work. We gave a team of teacher-leaders who helped write the curriculum in partnership with Stanford University experts, time away from the classroom to devote to this effort.
  • Transparency and open lines of communication are critical. A STEM administrator served as a point person for our curriculum development work and provided regular updates to district leaders.
  • If you opt to create your own curriculum, devote sufficient time and resources, and engage external partners. The broader community can provide resources, expertise, or research support.

It took a strong coalition and a clear alignment of priorities to make this important change in our district. Now that we’ve done it, there’s no going back. These have been challenging times for students and teachers, but this new approach to science instruction has been a bright spot in our schools—one that we believe will help serve as a strong foundation on which bright futures rest.

Devin Krugman is the Director of Professional Growth and Development at SFUSD, working to support the district’s K-12 content teams. Renée Marcy is SFUSD Supervisor for Science, which includes K-12 curriculum and instruction and field studies experiences for elementary students at the SFUSD Environmental Science Center.

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