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Science: The Next Generation at KIPP NYC

Jay Steenhuis began teaching science at KIPP Academy Middle School in 2002, and is currently the Middle School Science Coordinator on the KIPP NYC Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Team. Jay sat down with us to discuss how he supports our teachers to build and implement next generation science programming.

Can you describe your role at KIPP NYC?

I am the “Science Guy,” of course, and as such, I develop the curriculum and pedagogical philosophy of KIPP NYC’s middle school science program. I am also called upon to support aspects of elementary and high school science – in particular making sure the science experience of our students develops continuously and thoughtfully from K-12 and beyond.

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Science class at KIPP Academy in the Bronx

What do you love most about science at KIPP?

I love that more and more kids are getting a chance to think and act like scientists on a daily basis. My wife is a scientist in NYC and she tells me that the things she sees kids doing in our classes—the writing, the drawing, the explaining, and the deep thinking — she wishes her graduate students could do that!

What does science at KIPP NYC look like?

Throughout elementary and middle school, students learn integrated science. We provide teachers with a scope and sequence and curriculum materials, but also encourage teachers to plan their own lessons. At the high school level, teachers largely teach a year-long New York State Regents, Advanced Placement or equivalent course.

We are slowly aligning our curriculum and framework to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Each unit has an overarching question with many layers of understanding. In 5th grade kids may spend 6-8 weeks coming up with a complete answer to the question of “Why can I smell the cookies that are baking in another room?” We break the question down into investigatory pieces to determine “What is air?” “What are the properties of air?” “What is the composition of air? “Why do some things smell while others do not?” By answering these questions, students explore the concepts of states of matter and chemical properties.

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Science Fair at KIPP Washington Heights

How do you support and coach KIPP NYC science teachers?

I try to visit each middle school at least once every 10 days to observe instruction and meet with teachers. I may observe entire lessons or just 10 minutes depending on the instructional focus. My time with a teacher isn’t just about watching their lesson and giving feedback – I want to see how student learning is progressing. I probe to see if the teacher ‘believes’ in how the unit introduces concepts and how students are learning. Teaching is personal, so it is important to identify if the teaching — which is much more than just executing the lessons — is sustainable. Then, finally, we can talk about the observational focus.

Do teachers collaborate? What does professional development look like?

We have a long history of collaboration across the network. During summer PD, science teachers from every KIPP NYC school met as a team to analyze units, refine lessons, and practice experiments. Additionally, coaches and deans at schools facilitate department meetings throughout the year. I think sharing best practices is one of the most important levers in helping teachers develop.

What are your predictions for the future of science at KIPP NYC?

The future is happening now as we focus on conceptual knowledge development in K-12 instruction. Over the next two years, we will be interspersing K-8 with STEM units that include a range of learning opportunities such as engineering, programming, and robotics. Part of the NGSS is making the work of science class more like what science is. We have to teach in a way that kids are able to express how the “science stuff” they learn is connected to what scientists actually do. Part of this is re-framing what we have always taught, but it’s also about practicing thinking scientifically. The way scientists speak is different than informal talk—it is explaining, debating, thought-partnering and all sorts of things beyond a hypothesis. Teachers need training on pedagogical approaches to developing student productive talk. It might seem counter-intuitive to many teachers—but if kids aren’t talking during class, they probably aren’t learning at their best!

What was your craziest science experiment or class demonstration that went wrong?

You are not taking risks if you never have an experiment go wrong! But releasing 1000 ladybugs in an enclosed playground was up there. Silver lining -— my students learned a lot about the internal structure of insects because so many were unavoidably squished.