Imperial Unified School District is encouraging innovative, multilingual strategies to advance science learning for English learners.
The district offers science exploration labs for second, third, and fourth-graders that are facilitated by high school students enrolled in the High School Explainers program, a science elective course that guides elementary school students through scientific and engineering experiments. The high school students create demonstrations and practice problem-solving lessons during their elective class held in the makerspace lab set up with tools for engineering projects. The high school facilitators move back and forth between Spanish and English in order to engage the elementary students. Teachers say the program is effective: “The high school students make the science accessible whether you speak English or not, and it does wonderful things for the high school students as well,” shares one teacher.
The goal of innovating to advance science education for English learners also drives IUSD’s partnership with the San Diego Science Project’s CREATE STEM Success Initiative. Not only do teachers engage in advanced science professional learning trainings with the Imperial Valley Regional Occupation Program, but the district has transformed science learning through the Imperial Valley Discovery Zone, a “pop-up science center” in which a team of eight K-12 teachers across grade levels and subject areas collaborate to develop a series of NGSS-aligned lessons and train 145 high school students to facilitate problem-solving science activities for elementary school students. The result is community-wide excitement about science learning. During eight full-day science instructional days, second, third and fourth-grade students rotate through five classrooms where 145 high school students wearing lab coats facilitate science experiments on topics ranging from erosion to wind energy to the solar system. The high school students create science and engineering demonstrations and practice problem-solving lessons during their elective class held in the makerspace lab. The founding high school teachers explain their approach: “We try to build an experience, not a lesson. It’s going to be something the kids will remember and something that their classroom teacher could not do in the classroom either because of expertise in their particular area or because of time. Science is effective for our English learners, and they are drawn to it for so many reasons — the experiential hands-on learning and the curiosity is universal. It’s high engagement because it’s concrete and you can really put your hands on it and be thoughtful about it.” A high school student explains how elementary English learners are supported to engage in the science lessons: “One kid, he didn’t speak English very well, so I made sure to talk to him and go over the whole thing while speaking Spanish. You could see he was excited. He was shy about not being able to speak English as well, but he was engaged.”
To prepare the second-grade students for these full-day science investigations, elementary teachers front-load vocabulary about scientific concepts. Teachers use collaborative lesson planning time to tackle challenging scientific concepts. One teacher commented, “I think working through the lessons together as a curriculum group helps because it gives you a model for developing an argument, using evidence, formulating a model, and vocalizing what that model might be.” After teachers have engaged in the process themselves, they are better positioned to provide students with the opportunities that NGSS promotes – to derive meaning from scientific and engineering experiences, analyze and interpret data, and use evidence to define and solve problems. Teachers find the program raises both student and teachers’ expectations for science education for English learners. “The high school students make the science accessible whether you speak English or not, and it does wonderful things for the high school students as well,” one teacher said. Students, both those doing the teaching and those receiving instruction, are highly engaged. The program has inspired high school students to take more rigorous science courses: 35 percent of 11th- and 12th-graders in the Explainers program take one or two Advanced Placement science courses, including AP Chemistry and AP Physics. In addition, many students take science courses in chemistry, geology, and anatomy/physiology. Their excitement is palpable – as one bilingual student remarked, “Being in this class has reassured me that science is where I want to be.”
Imperial Unified has also utilized the Local Control Accountability Plan and process to dedicate funding in ways that promote equity and advance science instruction for English learners. The district used LCFF funds to hire an English learner program assistant and to offer specific instructional strategies, including differentiated instruction for English learner students in ELD and core content areas, academic vocabulary building, and oral language development.