Region 16 putting greater focus on science

REGION 16 — With new national science standards on the horizon, Region 16 officials are looking to get the most out of the new, but minimally-used, science labs at the district’s two elementary schools.

When the region, which oversees schools in Beacon Falls and Prospect, built Prospect Elementary School and renovated Laurel Ledge Elementary School, the project included standalone science labs at each school. More than two years after the new school opened and the renovations were completed, the labs are seldom used, including for some science lessons, enrichment programs and by parent-teacher organizations.

Region 16 Board of Education Chairman Robert Hiscox said the labs were built with an eye to the future. Now, officials are preparing to move ahead into that future.

The region is planning to hire a full-time certified science teacher for the elementary schools next school year as part of the district’s five-year strategic plan. The science teacher would run in-depth science labs for students in grades three through five. Another certified science teacher would be hired in the 2019-20 school year to provide labs for all elementary students, under the plan.

“It would be utilizing the science labs to what they were created for, and the labs would be more involved at a higher level,” Superintendent of Schools Michael Yamin said.

Laurel Ledge School Principal Regina Murzak said having more in-depth labs would absolutely be a benefit for students, adding the important piece is having a teacher certified in science.

Typically, elementary schools don’t have teachers that focus on one core specific subject.

Hiscox said having a certified science teacher to run labs would free up more time for regular classroom teachers to focus on helping students in reading and math. He said elementary teachers have so much on their plate already.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” he said.

The push for certified science teachers at the elementary schools is about more than utilizing the new labs. Schools are also working to meet the new Next Generation Science Standards.

“I think [science is] an area where we need to focus a little more attention on it,” Yamin said.

Schools across the state will be field testing the Next Generation Science Standards assessment this spring. The test will replace the current Connecticut Master Test and Connecticut Academic Performance test in science and go into full effect in the 2018-19 school year.

Director of Curriculum Michele Raynor said the new standards adopted by Connecticut in 2015 are part of a national movement to teach not only the content of science, but how scientists work and discover new ideas in the real world.

Traditional science classrooms took a cookbook approach to labs, Raynor said. Get out the beaker, pour in the salt, and follow the steps to achieve the expected result.

New science curriculum focuses more on teaching students through experiences, having them come up with their own experiments and construct their own meaning from what they observe.

The new standards encourage students to look at case studies and think like scientists, Raynor said, asking questions and using models to understand what’s happening.

“That’s very very different than the way that science has been taught in the past,” Raynor said.

Hiscox said the concept of standalone science labs at elementary schools may be a new one, but he expects it to become commonplace.

“I think you’re going to see a great emphasis (on science) at the elementary level,” Hiscox said.

Aside from hiring the new teachers, Yamin said the district is also planning to buy new science curriculum for grades five through 12 to help meet the new standards. He said the district plans to start next school year with curriculum for grades six through ten.

Hicox, a retired high school science teacher, said the elementary science labs would offer a great opportunity for students to explore science and work collaboratively. However, he said, there are some challenges, namely budgetary constraints and fitting a science lab into an already crowded school day.

Yamin said funding and schedule issues are why the district waited to implement the plan for the labs.

The average cost for a teacher is about $60,000, including benefits, and the new curriculum for 2018-19 will cost $17,000, he said.

As for scheduling, Yamin said, there’s only so much that can fit into a school day, especially with the state requiring 160 minutes of English and 60 minutes of math each day.

“It can work,” Hiscox said. “It’s a matter of the logistics.”

The Republican-American contributed to this article.