For the first time in 20 years, the Yakima School District is updating science curriculum throughout its middle schools.

By fall, middle school students will begin using a new curriculum which uses a blend of textbooks and computers, as well as more hands-on labs.

Last month, the school board approved a $788,000 budget for the new STEMscopes program, which will cover the cost of laptops, hands-on kits, online curricula, paper-based materials and professional development.

One of the biggest perks to the new system is regular updates to materials.

With the old outdated textbooks, teachers have had to turn to online sources to find scientific discoveries that students could relate to — or that occurred within the span of their life, said Shelby Lockhart-Robins, head of science and math curriculum for the district.

Digital updates in the new curriculum eradicate that issue.

“You can have daily content updates. You can have yearly content updates,” she said.

Students can access real data from around the country from their desks, she said, snapping her fingers to illustrate the immediacy. This means they can engage in science that works with real-world issues — and new discoveries can be taught in real-time.

“You know, we just got a picture of a black hole, so their content developers are scrambling right now to update their curriculum to say, ‘Yep, there’s a picture of a black hole,’ versus ‘Let’s open up that text to pictures of Hurricane Katrina, folks,’” Lockhart-Robins said, referencing the first image of a black hole captured on Wednesday.

Outdated and out of use

For many teachers, the outdated materials were close to useless, said Katie Jewell, a seventh-grade science teacher at Washington Middle School.

“Most of us aren’t using the 20-year-old curriculum … because it doesn’t have what (students) need,” she said.

Flipping through the tattered earth science textbook used in her class, Jewell found one lesson in which students are meant to learn the various layers of each planet in the solar system. The focus is on rote memorization and modeling the solar system, whereas today students should be learning about the orbiting motions of the planets and how the sun interacts with them, she said.

STEMscopes teaches students to engage, explore, explain, elaborate and evaluate as they learn topics. While the old curriculum focused heavily on the scientific method — building a hypothesis around a testable question, testing it and stating a conclusion — the new program also emphasizes engineering and technology.

This means rather than adding materials to the old curriculum to bring the district in line with Washington State Science and Learning Standards implemented in 2013, the materials provided to teachers already encompass these 21st century learning standards.

“As director, I feel like it’s my job to make sure (teachers) are not up at midnight trying to find those materials. So I would rather have them spending any extra time they have making their instructional routines more robust versus just trying to find basic resources,” Lockhart-Robins said. “So I’m excited they won’t have to do that leg work so much.”

New resources

STEMscopes also offers Spanish language support materials for the district’s English language learners — which accounts for 30 percent of students districtwide. A STEMscopedia provides Spanish explanations of topics and vocabulary, while online students can use a text-to-speech tool in both Spanish and English to hear about topics, rather than reading about them, as needed.

While previous curricula emphasized reading content, the new materials will challenge students to both think and act like scientists, mathematicians or technicians, Lockhart-Robins said.

“(Middle-schoolers’) brains are really working hard on those practices and the content, and then add the fact that our brilliant kids are learning two languages at the same time,” she added. “So there’s a lot going on and … what I heard teachers say is that this was a really good fit because it supported all that (the) kids had to accomplish in a science classroom.”

The STEMscopes curriculum was among six final contenders for the district, and was selected with input from middle school representatives, teachers, district officials and some parents, though Lockhart-Robins said she had hoped for more parent feedback.

Over the coming summer, middle school science teachers will be trained in the new materials. The curriculum will be used in the roughly 30 middle school science classes districtwide, beginning with the new school year.

District developments

The middle school change comes after preschool and K-5 classrooms took on STEMscopes curriculum this academic year. A curriculum committee is now deciding which new STEM science curriculum to implement in high schools in coming years.

“The idea being that within a year or two, hopefully not three, we have a preschool through 12th grade, clear and viable, STEM curriculum for Yakima School District,” Lockhart-Robins said.

If all goes to plan, she hopes to pilot new curriculum in some high school science classrooms this fall, she said.

Already, the updated curriculum is making a difference in student learning, said Andrew VanQuill, a fifth-grade teacher at Gilbert Elementary School. Students are more engaged in the STEMscopes curriculum and “a-ha” moments are constantly popping up in class, he said.

“It hits home with them, and so it makes learning that much more important,” he said of the new curriculum. “It’s really exciting to see it’s related to the time we live in today for the kids … It’s 21st century science.”

The old curriculum focused heavily on textbook reading and modeling, VanQuill said, whereas the new material probes scientific phenomena and engages students in more hands-on explorations of scientific concepts.

“That’s what they need,” he said.

On Friday, he had his students measure the shadows of tether ball poles in the playground throughout the day, making note of the time and shadow length to learn about how shadows change throughout a day. Back at their desks, students input the data into the STEMscopes program on laptops, noted findings and answered questions — was the sun moving throughout the day?

An “a-ha” moment happened then.

“The sun doesn’t move,” one student said to VanQuill from their desk. “It’s the Earth.”