UI scientists and Iowa teachers work together to create 8th grade curriculum


Kasey Dresser & Jenna Ladd | November 3, 2017

Eighth grade teachers from around the state came to the University of Iowa’s Lindquist Center for a special kind of professional development last weekend.

The twenty-one participants worked with University of Iowa faculty and graduate students to design new eighth-grade science curriculum as a part of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) development. A large step away from traditional rote memorization, NGSS allows students to engage in self-guided inquiry about phenomena occurring in their local environment.

Chelsea Salba is a high school science teacher at Dike-New Hartford. She said, “I love it all because the old way of doing things was ‘know and understand.’ Well, science is not memorizing facts and figures. It never has been. NGSS challenges teachers to make science actually happen in their classrooms. What I mean by that is [the students] are investigating, reading, creating a claim, doing something, getting feedback and then doing it again.”

Ted Neal, clinical associate professor in the College of Education and project lead, explained that eighth grade NGSS curriculum requires education about the natural systems and climate science. During morning and afternoon breakout sessions, teachers were asked to provide feedback about lesson plans related to how and why Iowans have changed the land and how climate change has affected local landscapes. These lesson plans, bundles five and six, are a part of a six bundle curriculum required by NGSS for eighth grade students. CGRER researchers Scott Spak and Charles Stanier developed their content as a part of the College of Education and CGRER’s effort to connect Iowa educators with local climate science in realtime.

Approved by the Iowa Board of Education in 2015, the bulk of the 8th grade NGSS curriculum will be implemented in Iowa schools next semester. The Iowa K-12 Climate Science Education Initiative team has recently developed a free and public online pressbook where Iowa teachers can access course-related climate science data from CGRER researchers, as well as lesson plans and suggestions from other Iowa teachers.

Ted Neal explained, “This whole curriculum is free. Use it how you want, where you want, how you want, we’re just trying to compile this together for school districts in a time when budgeting is so tight.”

The NGSS standards require students of all ages to understand Earth’s systems. Scott Spak, assistant professor of Urban and Regional Planning, said, “Of the dozens of standards, there are 36 that from kindergarten through high school that are required to be able to understand how the climate system works.”

Spak and his fellow CGRER researchers will provide data that is relevant to learners specifically in the Hawkeye State.

Drew Ayrit is high school teacher from Waco that participated in last weekend’s workshop. He said, “I really believe in the standards because it’s very student-centered, students doing real science, students engaging in discussion based on evidence.”

Citizen Science Workshop this weekend


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Jenna Ladd| October 17, 2017

A citizen science workshop will be held on Saturday, October 21st at the University of Iowa Memorial Union. Hosted by the UI Geoinformatics for Environmental and Energy Modeling and Prediction (GEEMaP) Program, the half-day workshop will provide information about opportunities for Iowa residents to participate in research related to wildlife, water quality, and natural resource management. Dr. Kristine Stepenuck, Extension Assistant Professor of Watershed Science, Policy and Education at the University of Vermont, will be the free event’s keynote speaker.

More information can be found on the event’s Facebook page and the University of Iowa events calendar 

Attendees will be invited to sign up to participate in citizen science projects.

What: Citizen Science Workshop

When: Saturday, October 21, 9:00 am to 12:00 pm

Where: Illinois Room, Iowa Memorial Union, University of Iowa

Cost: Free, open to public

New study assesses flood risks for schools nationwide


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The impact of flooding on schools is often compounded by aging infrastructure, according to a recent study. (FEMA)
Jenna Ladd| August 8, 2017

A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts generated flood risk scores for 84,123 primary and secondary schools nationwide.

The report’s authors pointed out that flooding is the most costly and common natural disaster, affecting every region of the U.S. Many times, severe floods badly damage schools, causing them to close. For example, the study points out, floods in West Virginia in June 2016 cost $130 million in damage to regional schools.

Researchers used three metrics to generate county-wide composite flood risk vulnerability scores for schools in all fifty states including: a school’s location within a designated flood zone, the percentage of a school’s neighborhood (as represented by ZIP code) located within a flood zone, and the number of historical flood-related federal disaster declarations in that county.

Among the study’s major findings are that flood risk is distributed across diverse regions of the country. Schools with the highest flood risk scores were located in the Atlantic Coast, Gulf Coast, Mississippi River corridor, and southwestern Arizona. Similarly, those schools with the highest composite flood risk scores were located in both coastal and inland regions. Those 100 counties with the highest composite flood risk scores include 6,444 schools that serve almost 4 million students.

The study made some recommendations for steps policymakers can take to increase flood resiliency for schools. They included generating up-to-date local flood maps, developing pre-disaster flood plans for schools, working to leverage federal assistance, and relocating schools out of floodplains if possible.

The Pew Charitable Trusts full analysis can be found here.

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The highest flood risk areas are scattered across many regions of the country. (Pew Charitable Trusts)

On The Radio – PCB sources located in schools


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Researchers found concentrations of PCBs to be higher indoors regardless of the school’s location. (Gordon Lew/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| July 31, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses a recent University of Iowa study which revealed that dated building materials in schools release PCBs into the air.

Transcript: In the largest study of its kind, UI Researchers recently made important discoveries related to the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in schools.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Led by the Iowa Superfund Research Program, the study tested indoor and outdoor air samples from six schools for PCBs. PCBs are a class of manmade organic chemicals known to cause cancer as well as immune, endocrine and reproductive system problems in humans.

The study found that regardless of the school’s location, from Columbus Junction in rural Iowa to heavy industrial areas of East Chicago, concentrations of PCBs were higher indoors. PCBs were commonly used in construction and manufacturing through 1979. The research article, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, points to old window caulking and light ballasts as likely sources of PCBs in schools.

Research has shown that exposure to PCBs during childhood can cause significant neurological deficits, visual impairment and learning difficulties. Schools in the U.S. are not currently required to measure PCB concentrations.

For more information or to read the full study, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Iowa teachers lead development of Next Generation Science curriculum


Teachers work in small groups to develop curriculum plans that align with Iowa’s new science standards. (Left to right: Taylor Schlicher, Southeast Junior High; Zach Miller, University of Iowa MAT Science Education; Susanna Ziemer, University of Iowa MAT Science Education; Ted Neal, Clinical Instructor, University of Iowa; Courtney Van Wyk, Pella Christian Grade School; Stacey DeCoster; Grinnell Middle School)

Jenna Ladd| June 22, 2017

Science teachers gathered at the University of Iowa’s Lindquist Center on Tuesday to develop new curriculum for eighth grade students.

The working group was hosted by the UI College of Education and the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) as a part of the Iowa K-12 Climate Science Education Initiative. The joint initiative seeks to make the transition to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which were approved by the Iowa Board of Education in 2015, easier for Iowa teachers. Clinical instructor Ted Neal along with education graduate students Susanna Herder, Andrea Malek and Zachary Miller have begun developing curriculum bundles for 8th grade science classes that meet the NGSS standards.

Many of the NGSS standards require students to explore how the Earth’s climate system works. For its part, CGRER plans to make some of its members’ climate science data available to Iowa educators. Using an open inquiry approach, students can answer their own questions about topics such as land use or weather patterns in their local environment.

During the day’s opening remarks Ted Neal said, “The research is very clear that if we do open inquiry with kids, the learning is off the charts.”

Neal and his team of graduate students presented an eighth grade science course plan that included six curriculum bundles, with each bundle meeting certain NGSS benchmarks. Bundles five and six have already been developed by the College of Education team and CGRER member Dr. Scott Spak. Tuesday’s goal, Neal explained, was for the seven teachers in attendance to take the lead on the development of the four additional curriculum bundles.

Bundle five provides students access to aerial maps of their communities from throughout history. Students are free to observe how land use in Iowa has changed over time and what effects that may have on natural systems. Chelsie Slaba teaches science at Dike-New Hartford High School and tried the map lesson with her students last year. Slaba said, “I was surprised. I heard it here and thought, ‘I don’t know if that will really work.’ I tried and who knew maps could be so interesting to them?” She continued, “They looked at their own family farms, because a lot of my kids live on farms or their grandparents’ [farms] or a special place to them to hone in on.”

Slaba used only NGSS with her ninth grade students last year and plans to implement the standards with her physics students next year. She added, “It was really empowering as a teacher.”

The Iowa K-12 Climate Science Education Initiative plans to begin developing curriculum bundles for grades five and six in the fall. Ultimately, Neal explained, the group aims to host a free online database where all curriculum and related scientific data are available free of charge to Iowa educators.

The morning session concluded with teachers broken up into smaller groups brainstorming ideas for bundles one through four. The educators rattled off phenomena related to the standards that still resonate with eighth-graders: cell phones to explore energy use, tennis shoes to explain resource extraction, driving cars to investigate physics.

Slaba said that some teachers are afraid to allow for more student-led lessons due to the pressure they feel for their students to perform well on standardized tests. However, her experience thus far may assuage their worries. She said, “Over the three years, my Iowa assessment scores have just gone up by a few percent each time.”

New climate science standards require Iowa students to engage in scientific process


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Ted Neal (right) and Kris Kilibarda (left) explain the Next Generation Science Standards at the 2016 Iowa Climate Science Educators Forum. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd| June 16, 2017

Iowa educators will soon adopt new science education standards, with help from the University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) and College of Education.

The Iowa K-12 Climate Science Education Initiative, an effort of CGRER and the College of Education, aims to ease the transition for teachers to the Next Generation Science Standards. Rather than require educators to teach that human-induced climate change is occurring, the standards provide an opportunity for students to reach that conclusion independently.

The Iowa Board of Education approved the new standards in August 2015. They include four primary domains: physical science, life science, earth and space science, and engineering. Of the dozens of standards, thirty-six require students to explore the climate system.

According to University of Iowa clinical science instructor Ted Neal, students will be given relevant data and asked to formulate their own research questions. In an interview with Iowa Watch, Neal said, “They will look at facts relevant to those questions and draw conclusions that answer their questions.”

In short, students will be challenged to engage in the scientific process. Kris Kilibarda is the science consultant for the Iowa Department of Education. She said, “We’re saying here’s evidence, here’s how you determine if the evidence is valid, and here’s how you develop a scientific argument. You determine what the argument would be. We would never say there’s only one way it can be, but we will say here’s the scientific evidence.”

A fall 2016 survey revealed that teachers felt they needed access to observations and data, help aligning lesson plans and materials with climate science education and the Next Generation Science Standards in order to most effectively transition to using the new science standards. The Iowa K-12 Climate Science Education Initiative is tackling all of these requests.

Currently the group is working to develop tools for 8th grade teachers. The group recently introduced a four to eight week pilot lesson called “How Iowans Use Their Land.” The curriculum hits on nine of the 25 total 8th grade science standards including one that requires students to “develop a model to describe the cycling of water through the earth’s systems driven by energy from the sun and the force of gravity.” Next, the initiative plans to work with sixth and seventh grade teachers before eventually moving onto high school curriculum.

The standards will not be mandatory for another few years, but many Iowa teachers are ahead of the game. On an NGSS EnvIowa podcast episode, Neal said, “One of the nice things about Iowa and Iowa teachers is that they care so much they’re trying to get ahead the game. They’re not looking at this with apprehension.”

EnvIowa Podcast: Dr. Betsy Stone discusses upcoming annual Iowa Climate Festival


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Jenna Ladd | October 13, 2016

The third annual Iowa Climate Festival will take place at the University of Iowa’s Museum of Natural History on Saturday.

As with previous festivals, the event will be split into two parts. First, The Iowa Climate Symposium will feature three presenters followed by panel discussions with audience members. Dr. Betsy Stone, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Iowa, organized the first Iowa Climate Festival in 2014. She said, “The theme of the symposium this year is: Now that we have a growing consensus on climate change, where do we go from here? So this is really looking toward the future.”

Following the symposium, participants will be invited to participate in interactive experiments that are related to climate change at the Climate Science Fair. Stone said, “We have a lot of really exciting hands-on experiments that people can explore and use to understand more about climate science.” She added, “A lot of these [experiments] were developed with elementary or middle schoolers in mind, but we’ve done these at lot of different events and adults get really excited about it too.” The event is scheduled to begin at 2 pm and is free, open to the public, and family friendly.

This year’s Iowa Climate Festival is sponsored by the American Chemical Society (ACS) and is hosted by the Iowa section of the ACS in partnership with the University of Iowa Department of Chemistry, Museum of Natural History, Office of Sustainability, and Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER).

To learn more about the festival’s featured speakers and specific exhibits at the Climate Science Fair, listen to episode two of EnvIowa above or find it on iTunes.