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SMS Science Teacher Inspires Students and Teachers in Training

A Skyview Middle School science teacher’s formula for classroom success is earning national recognition. Jen Newberg planned to lead a presentation about an innovative teaching partnership at The Association for Science Teacher Education’s (ASTE) annual conference in January.

“I’m excited but nervous too,” Newberg said about the opportunity. “I want to make sure I do a good job so people see how great this is.” **Note: At the time of writing, surging case numbers of COVID-19 led to a late-breaking change of plans. Out of an abundance of caution, Mrs. Newberg’s team did not appear at the ASTE conference in person. An electronic version of their presentation was made available by ASTE.**

It Starts With an Approach

Students in Newberg’s classroom learn science should tell a story. Each classroom idea is shared in a structured sequence that connects to the next idea to create a bigger picture that makes sense for young learners.

“So, just like a good story in language arts, or history, in science we are teaching with natural phenomenons, and those phenomenons should lead to a story,” Newberg explained.

Her method also involves asking students probing questions, while challenging them to ask questions themselves, to stay actively involved in the lesson. Over the course of a school year, students learn to communicate in scientific ways in the classroom, applying methodical statements to find answers to the questions stirred by ideas unpacked in the lesson.

“We need to communicate like a scientist,” Newberg continued. “How would a scientist say that? It gives some purpose to their learning.”

The veteran teacher has used the technique in her classroom for years, and lives for a payoff that never gets old: “When [a student’s] light bulb goes off and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh. I get it. Like, I get it!’”

Teaching the Teachers Photo of Jen Newberg

In 2019, Newberg entered a tri-fold partnership with a team of teachers and the Colorado-based Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS). Working with a grant from the National Science Foundation, Newberg worked alongside BSCS on redesigning a teaching framework that puts strategies Newberg uses in the classroom into lessons for the next generation of teachers who are pursuing degrees at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

The partnership equips college students with proven techniques. During their preservice and practicum hours, master teachers observe and coach up-and-coming teachers while connecting with UCCS instructors to report on the progress of the teachers-to-be.

Newberg describes it as a groundbreaking collaboration. “It's hard to get all parties in the room and get everybody on the same page. That’s why this is a really big deal, and it’s making a really big instructional practice impact.”

The hands-on, team approach to educating new teachers is laying the groundwork for young educators to develop confidence, and experience early success.

“The big focus is teacher preparedness, specifically with science, and making sure they are the most effective they can be in the classroom. Which is huge.”

Spreading the Word

Huge enough to chronicle the effort in an academic article co-authored by Newberg. Newberg’s paper captures the process of simultaneously deploying an effective strategy in the classroom and teaching the strategy to up-and-coming educators.

Like Newberg’s lessons, the article tells a big-picture story of creating innovation in science teaching.

“We have written basically our journey and the process, and lessons learned,” Newberg said. How we collaborated as a team and got to where we are now.”

The work caught the attention of the Association for Science Teacher Education, who invited Newberg’s team to share its vision with educators from across the country at the ASTE conference in January. “One of the reasons the paper got accepted to be published is the hope that this could be replicated in other places,” Newberg explained. “It’s not just science education here in the Springs, or in Colorado, it’s about impacting science education across the U.S. It’s really exciting.”

“I’m humbled by being chosen to be the representative because there were many on our team,” she added. “To have your peers, and university faculty, and the BSCS people choose to make me lead on it… that’s kind of humbling.”

One Big Step Forward

Newberg will not take much time to bask in the glow of the recognition her team is receiving. As the school year rolls on, she and her team will continue building on the work they’ve already done.

“It’s making a really big impact in science teaching,” she said.

Assessing early results has already led to an initial fine-tuning of coursework for participating UCCS students. Newberg plans to use the positive response as a springboard to the next phase of improving a developing progress, which could come from additional grant funding.

“We want to keep going with the process, and have that longevity that even when the grant money runs out, this is a practice that keeps happening.”

Back at Home

The evidence suggests SMS is firmly on board the process and behind their teacher.

“I’ve been really lucky with all the principals I’ve had,” she said. “They've been really supportive of this work, and bringing this work in when we want to try different things.”

Recently, Newberg leveraged a real life challenge facing scientific experts as a basis for a classroom assignment: the COVID pandemic. Using available data and the inquiry/storyline strategies, Newberg’s students tackled a multi-week unit to better understand the processes of public health experts as well as the impact of a pandemic on society.

Upon reflecting on the energy it takes to fulfill a two-pronged effort to develop new teachers and educate her students, the veteran educator explained the motivation to fulfill both roles: It is rooted in the young learners in her D49 classroom.

“I have a passion for kids, and I want to make sure they get the best of the best,” Newberg said. “That's what we are trying to do with this.”

David Nancarrow