Adapting to Change: Benefits of Inquiry-Based Science Education for Students and Teachers

In October of 2019, the Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) was awarded an early-phase Education Innovation and Research (EIR) grant from the U.S. Department of Education. We were excited to begin our project providing Smithsonian Science for the Classroom curriculum and professional development to teachers. How could we have predicted that mere months later a global pandemic would wreak havoc on classroom learning worldwide?  

When schools abruptly and indefinitely closed their doors in March 2020, our project bringing inquiry-based science curriculum to third, fourth and fifth-grade students in rural North and South Carolina was turned upside down, along with everything else. Our best-laid plans to understand how Smithsonian Science for the Classroom curriculum and robust professional development (PD) impact student achievement in science, math, and reading suddenly seemed like a far-off dream. When we finally launched our first workshop in the spring of 2021, it was with renewed purpose to combat learning loss and build connections. 

Katie Gainsback, Assistant Division Director of Professional Services presents at the 2023 Summer Professional Development in Florence, South Carolina, as part of the Smithsonian Science for North and South Carolina Classrooms program. Photo Credit: Madeline Gray

The PD we held in March 2021 was completely reimagined for our new normal of online convenings, and much different from the big kick-off in-person introduction we had planned. Teachers were, understandably, swamped trying to serve students who might be in the classroom one day and at home the next.  

Despite these challenges, we’ve seen teachers’ confidence in their science instruction grow over the past three years, first in the virtual environment and then when we resumed in-person PD. Does change like this happen overnight? Absolutely not! But just as our workshops have evolved to meet changing needs, so have teachers’ attitudes. By our last PD in summer 2023, we received positive feedback from teachers and participants in the program, “WOW! I was so engaged in these PD lessons and feel more empowered to take on instruction on these new 4th grade science standards.”

At the start of our most recent Content and Pedagogy Professional Development, we asked teachers when they last took a chemistry or physics class. Some couldn’t remember if they ever took one, while others mentioned a class 10+ years ago. Although there was some apprehension about not being subject-matter experts, teachers asked questions, shared their classroom knowledge and weren’t afraid to be vulnerable. During the workshop, teachers participated in activities and simulations to address misconceptions and explore different teaching strategies. By the end of our two days together, teachers felt energized and confident in themselves and their ability to guide learning alongside their students. 

Teachers watch a Good Thinking! video during Summer 2023 Professional Development in Morganton, North Carolina. This video series explores common student misconceptions about a range of science topics. Click here to watch the episode the teachers watched, “Conceptual Change: How New Ideas Take Root”. Photo Credit: Carolina Gonzalez

Resource Example: Good Thinking! - https://ssec.si.edu/conceptual-change-how-new-ideas-take-root 

To better understand the effect on students, our third-party evaluator, the Center for Research in Educational Policy (CREP) at the University of Memphis, is currently analyzing student assessment data. We eagerly await a better understanding of the impact of Smithsonian Science for the Classroom curriculum and accompanying professional development on student achievement in science, math and reading. While we’re excited the preliminary analysis is very positive, the project has bolstered more than students’ scores. We’ve seen teachers’ attitudes and confidence related to science learning and instruction bloom and directly translate to students’ excitement about science. 

“The curriculum is very engaging to the students. They love the hands-on activities, they take leadership while working in groups, they’re pulled into discovery and the joy of the discovery when they do the experiments,” said Andrea Walter from Polk Central Elementary School. “They also enjoy the reading selections because it brings a global perspective to their lives and they make connections to what they’re learning in social studies.”  

While the Smithsonian Science Education Center and our incredible collaborators might not have known what was in store when awarded the grant in 2019, we have made the most of the opportunity to serve teachers and students in rural districts across North and South Carolina. The fact that all 37 of the schools who first signed on to participate have remained in the project is a testament to their tenacity and resilience as much as it is the resources we have to offer. We look forward to sharing more with supporters after the official publication of the analysis and, until then, continue to showcase the holistic benefits of inquiry-based science education on student outcomes. 

About the Author

Ariel Waldman & Katie Gainsback

Ariel Waldman, Program Assistant

Ariel Waldman is a Program Assistant in the Professional Services Division assisting primarily with a $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education “Smithsonian Science for North and South Carolina Classrooms”. Prior to joining SSEC, Ariel designed and implemented programs at museums, including the International Spy Museum and National Museum of the United States Army, where she served as a member of the grand opening staff. She is passionate about finding creative solutions to modern problems, accessibility, and education as a means for social change. Ariel earned her MAT in Museum Education and BA in Sociology and American Studies from The George Washington University.

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Katie Gainsback, Assistant Division Director of Professional Services

Katie Gainsback is Assistant Division Director of Professional Services. In this role, she manages programs promoting inquiry-based learning and STEM education across the United States for science teachers, administrators, and community partners. Most notably this work includes the Smithsonian Science for North and South Carolina Classrooms program, funded by a $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Before joining the Smithsonian in 2012, Katie facilitated school and public programs in informal education spaces including the National Geographic Museum and at the U.S. National Archives. Katie earned her BA in History from the College of William & Mary and holds an MA in Museum Education from The George Washington University.