How This Washington State Teacher Encourages Students to Think Like a Scientist

The Smithsonian Science Education Center has started a new blog series to understand how Smithsonian Science for the Classroom is impacting students and teachers in schools across the country.

For our first story, we’re featuring Whitney Wytko, a science teacher who has over 28 years of teaching experience. She currently teaches 33 remote students and does lesson planning for five other teachers in the Moses Lake School District in Washington. We’re committed to understanding how this curriculum can help teachers, like Ms. Wytko, inspire the next generation of scientists through STEM education.


Q: How was Smithsonian Science for the Classroom (SSftC) introduced to your school?

A: As teachers, we get to put just a small amount of input but not a whole lot. We try to stay on the top edge as leaders for several districts in our area. So our teams, whether it’s the coach team or the science team, go through and take a look at the curriculum to see if it aligns with our needs, common core and of course, NGSS.

We found that the Smithsonian curriculum covered things beautifully and was what we were looking for. The other curriculums we’ve used in the past did an ok job, but the Smithsonian one really had resources lined up for us. It made it easy for teachers, especially those who may not be wild about science. So that’s why we went with the Smithsonian—for the ease and adaptations that many teachers can use throughout the program.

Q: What impact has SSftC had on your students?

A: The main thing that I find, especially for this year, is that it allows students to develop their own schema. From that point on, my subject matter knowledge isn’t as important as what they’re bringing. We end up working together and finding out about their world. It’s their own understanding and they’re not afraid after we get going to speak up as we work through the science of life. They get to draw out their own charts, come up with their own claims, and learn that it’s ok for ideas to mutate.

Q: Which parts of this curriculum have challenged you or your students to practice a new way of thinking?

A: As a teacher, you do have to let go and trust the process and the kids. It’s a very new process for the kids because they want a box to check off, don’t want to be wrong, and they have to be taught a new way of thinking. This curriculum allows us to solve problems and to make self-to-world correlations. We do a lot of metacognition so that the students believe they can do it...and they do incredible. It’s a new way of thinking completely. Learning to think, learning that we can stretch and grab things that we didn’t think were possible before.

Q: How might this curriculum inspire future approaches to science education?

A: This curriculum provides the most fair, skill-building, and applicability outside of the classroom. It’s not a fictional situation—students can explore, see and touch. I feel that this [interdisciplinary learning] is the future of science. Students are learning writing, reading, math, documentation and more. This education is going to teach them to be thinkers, not to be afraid, how to set goals, and how to discover.

Q: How has the pandemic changed the way you taught SSftC?

A: The kids were able to bring whatever resources they had, even though it’s a pandemic, and we would work with it. To transition into remote teaching, I utilized Screencastify frequently. I also encouraged them to go outside and make observations of their own. They journaled their own evidence and shared with their peers. All of them were able to contribute different things based off of what was going on in their homes and we were able to blend 3-D and 2-D worlds together as best as we could.

The digital integrations, especially the videos and worksheets that the Smithsonian offers are pretty amazing.


Learn how to implement Smithsonian Science for the Classroom curriculum in your school here: https://ssec.si.edu/smithsonian-science-for-the-classroom.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.