Juneau students get new science lessons in 2019

Culturally relevant material brings learning outside and into community

Pam Garcia, left, Ted Wilson, center and Carin Smolin, the three facilitators of the new Juneau School District kindergarten through fifth grade science curriculum, speak to the JSD Board of Education on Tuesday. (Kevin Gullufsen | Juneau Empire)

A new science curriculum approved Tuesday will send Juneau School District elementary students out of the classroom and into the community.


Starting next year, guidelines for kindergarten through fifth-grade students will emphasize “place-based” and “culturally relevant” learning, two approaches taking hold in national teaching standards. The new curriculum was also written with Next Generation Science Standards, a national framework written by a group of 26 states.

A year and a half in the making, the new material got its final stamp of approval from the JSD Board of Education at a Tuesday meeting in Juneau-Douglas High School.

The 82-page document guides teachers in lesson and unit planning. It was developed with extensive input from local scientists, Tlingit elders and teachers, authors Carin Smolin and Pam Garcia said. The curriculum was last updated in 2011.

“It was a very community-developed,” Smolin said.

“The strength is that it’s very much place-based and culturally-based lessons, so it’s not just adopting state standards or the national standards; we really incorporated lessons that are place-based,” Garcia said.

In a place-based model, students are taught to use the community and environment to guide their learning. Where previous science curriculum might have started with a textbook-defined theory, the new curriculum starts with a question or an observable event, then progresses to the underlying science.

Many teachers already use place-based learning, but the new curriculum makes it easier by providing guidelines and resources that incorporate place-based techniques with state and national teaching standards.

The idea is to have science learning more closely mimic science work: the scientific process always starts with a question or an observation based in the real world. Place-based learning progresses similarly.

“It’s not about memorizing scientific facts, it’s more about thinking and acting like scientists and engineers because in the real world, you observe phenomena and then you wonder and you ask questions and you make connections to learn about how the world works,” Garcia said.

The new curriculum emphasizes Tlingit knowledge and traditional ways of interpreting the world. That’s the “culturally relevant” part of the new curriculum.

Alaska Natives have millennia of knowledge to share about Alaska’s environment. The new curriculum takes advantage of this by getting elders into the classroom. Western and traditional knowledge aren’t seen as competing ways of interpreting the world, but as outgrowths of the same process.

“It’s a key emphasis and it really, I think, makes a difference to our cultural community. It provides a lot of respect to traditional ways of knowing along with scientific, Western ways,” Smolin said.

Many states are adopting what’s called Next Generation Science Standards: a framework written by a consortium of 26 states in 2013. NGSS goal is to “shift the focus of learning about a topic to figuring out why or how something happens.”

Alaska is currently rewriting its state science standards, and districts will have to follow suit with whatever new standards the state adopts. Anticipating the statewide adoption of NGSS, the new curriculum’s authors and committees aligned the new curriculum with NGSS.

“We looked around the country and around the state at where science curriculum was going and we unanimously said from K-12, it’s here. They’re well-done, let’s adopt it,” Smolin said.

The new curriculum was developed through work with a science committee, a group of teachers, community members and administrators numbering about 45. Curriculum for grades 6-12 has been in the works for sometime and is expected to be presented at upcoming Board of Education meetings.

Sex ed educators approved in a school board first

In a separate board action, two state of Alaska Public Health nurses were approved to enter Juneau schools and teach sex ed under the supervision of district teachers.

A 2016 law passed by the Alaska Legislature requires school board approval of anyone who isn’t a district employee but helps to teach sexual education. Previous to the passing of a 2016 law by the Alaska Legislature, the board had never directly approved any outside experts or the resources teachers use in the classroom. JSD instead relied on certified staff to make that call. The reasoning went that a teacher was bound to teach to board-certified material, including its 2017-adopted sexual health curriculum, so any experts teachers brought in to help do so would be required to also teach to standards set by the board.

But conservative fear over what kind of sexual health education students were being taught in Alaska led to the enacting of House Bill 156 in 2016. It required direct board control over what non-district employees are allowed to teach sex ed.

The law has an exemption for experts teaching sexual assault and dating violence.

Those approved for 2018 are registered nurses Lindy Ferguson and Elaine Hickey.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that two nurses approved to teach sex education in schools are City and Borough of Juneau employees, due to misinformation in meeting materials provided to the public at the Tuesday meeting. Both nurses work for the state of Alaska, not CBJ. The article also stated that their approval was a first for the school board, again due to misinformation in the same materials. It's actually at least the second time the school board has approved nurses to teach sex ed in Juneau School District schools.

• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at kevin.gullufsen@juneauempire.com or 523-2228. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.




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