Melanie Brown is the Science Curriculum Specialist at Sweetwater Union High School District in California, the largest secondary school district in California with 28 schools and 41,000 students.
Tell us about Sweetwater Union High School District. What are the challenges and the advantages for your district?
Our population is about 80% English Language Learners, a large portion of our students are socio-economically disadvantaged and we also have a large special education population.
We have a 1:1 iPad initiative, and all of our students from grades 7, 8 and 9 have an iPad to use in the classroom and to take home.
How do you use Gizmos to help with challenges in Sweetwater?
Gizmos are user-friendly, and we use them mostly on the iPad, which all of the students have access to. We can also put them on large screens for our visually impaired students. Teachers have also translated them into Spanish versions for use with our English Language Learners (ELL’s).
Some of our socio-economically disadvantaged students haven’t been exposed to many experiences outside of their own communities. With Gizmos, they don’t have to go on a field trip somewhere. Gizmos brings everything to them and are easily explained.
How did you find out about Gizmos?
I work for NSTA as a curator on their NGSS@NSTA website and I was sent to attend the NSTA Conference in Charlotte, NC. I was looking around for interesting technology and probe-wear at the exhibit hall. When I saw Gizmos, I stopped in my tracks, I was so excited that I took the information down and I got on the website. I gave the free trial card to some of my science teachers to try. I wanted to make sure I had the backing of my teachers before I went forward to the superintendent to purchase the product, he tried it and loved it and it was all a go. We now have some middle school math teachers using it as well and all high school biology teachers.
How do you use Gizmos to engage students?
It’s my job to make sure that students are interacting with the curriculum and the teachers are comfortable with it. When they’re using a Gizmo, it’s very quiet and I see the students typing away because the students are very excited to complete a Gizmo activity. For example, you can’t really go out and see the planets because they’re so far away and so large, but using the Solar System Gizmo it’s like you’re right there. So the students were very excited, when I observed a class using that Gizmo last week.
Gizmos also give teachers a chance to preview a lab. They can preview a wet lab using a similar Gizmo beforehand. This will give the students background information: A popular 7th grade Gizmo is looking at different white powders to investigate chemical changes and physical changes. The teachers assign this Gizmo before the students do the wet lab with actual baking soda and vinegar, so when they do the actual wet lab it’s very smooth and they’re able to actually see the physical and chemical changes because they’ve learned about it from doing the Gizmo.
Sometimes I’ve seen teachers do the lab first and then use the Gizmo for reinforcement. There’s so many different ways that you can use Gizmos. We also use them for after school tutoring and makeup work.
When the teachers have all done the same Gizmo that week, sometimes they will use the assessment questions at the end of the Gizmo for their common formative assessment. It’s easily imported into their grade book. The teachers have seen positive improvement with their student assessments.
How are you planning for the new science standards in California?
We have already adopted the NGSS in the state of California, and in my district we decided to start early implementation. We have selected the preferred integrated middle school model for the Next Generation Science Standards in 7th and 8th grade. We put the topics and the performance expectations in the order of how we’re going to teach them, and we have made grade level and content level instructional guides listing the suggested Gizmos by NGSS Performance Expectations.
Chemistry is in 7th grade now, and some of my teachers were having trouble since they hadn’t taught chemistry before or that was something they hadn’t taken since college. Gizmos help teachers because they’re aligned to the standards. If a teacher needs a chemistry Gizmo on matter, they can go on the website and search easily by that performance expectation or key words and grade level. All of the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices for example: modeling, and argumentation from evidence are also embedded in the Gizmos, as well as the performance expectations that are the overarching topics.
If teachers are not familiar with the topic, they can go in and read the background information in the Teacher Guide. Some of the teachers are even having their students annotate the Teacher Guide, bringing in some of the Common Core reading and literacy strategies.
If we’re talking about modeling, with Growing Plants we’re modeling what it looks like to have plant growth. With argument from evidence, we’re finding the evidence from a graph in a Gizmo that graph can be the piece of anecdotal evidence inserted into a lab report.
Tell us about how you’re using Gizmos to create performance tasks?
Every state that has adopted NGSS will be performing some kind of assessment. Some of the pilots look similar to Gizmos and some of the assessments wil be online. We have performance tasks that are teacher-created based on Gizmos.
For example, our 7th grade performance task is the Food Chain Gizmo. The teachers are doing parts “a” and “b” as a concept task or for practice, and the student will have to do parts “a” and “b” to understand part “c.” Part “c” will be the actual performance task. That’s the test portion that will be their grade on a 1 – 4 rubric scale and will be recorded into our data management system.
The Gizmo assignments can be edited in word. I was able to add the science practice “argument from evidence” based on the graph in parts “a” and “b.” When the students will have completed parts “a” – “c,” they will interpret the data, to find the evidence. Students also have to use another science practice “modeling” to see what is interpreted in the graph.
As the teachers are entering performance task scores I will get anchor papers, an example of a one, two, three and four on the assessment. I will put the anchor papers up on a district-wide learning management system so all of the teachers are able to use them for calibration of scoring. The Gizmo performance task assessment is district-wide, so thousands of students are going to have data from these assessments.
In 8th Grade, they’re going to be using the Evolution Gizmo on the Peppered Moth and doing the same process for a district wide assessment. In Biology next year, all of the biology students will use a Gizmo for their performance task, Spring semester. It’s never been done before, but I’m really excited to share the data from these performance tasks.
How do the teachers in Sweetwater feel about Gizmos?
Gizmos fit perfectly with what we’re trying to accomplish. When teachers use Gizmos, they say, “Oh, I see what’s happening. I see what I need to do to understand and what I need to teach my students.” The ease of use really translates down to the students. If the teachers are happy, the students are happy. And then everybody is happy.
A lot of my teachers know now what to do when they have a sub…. Gizmos! Gizmos are so easy-to-use, a substitute teacher can do them! And it’s a good lesson. The students have a great day of instruction with the Gizmo. The kids love Gizmos, and they’re familiar with it already. So it is a win-win.
Melanie Brown is the Science Curriculum Specialist for Sweetwater Union High School District. She is also an NSTACurator, and Natonal Board Cerified Teacher.