WISE Teaching: Teachers Customizing Online Science for Distance Learning

April 14, 2020

K-12 science teachers worldwide who find themselves suddenly giving lessons online are turning to the Web-Based Inquiry Science Environment (WISE), a free, open-source, standards-based inquiry science curricula that also provides peer-to-peer support and professional development.

From Shandong Province in northeastern China to Durham, N.C., to Northern California, WISE researchers at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education are hosting weekly online office hours and working with teachers over email and phone to create web-based distance learning curricula for their students.

WISE, which has been developed by GSE Professor Marcia Linn and her research group over the past 25 years, has mostly been used to augment in-class instruction. But with the increase in online learning during the current public health crisis, many teachers are discovering ways to adapt WISE units to meet the needs of their students for distance learning: to create connections with and among students through online discussions about their science ideas; to provide adequate scaffolding for all students to be able to engage and direct their learning process; to motivate students to critically examine science issues using interactive models; to provide personalized activities and feedback; and to give structure by setting timelines and milestones.

“Our science classes at College Park High (Mt. Diablo Unified School District) are very interactive and student-driven, and WISE allows me to keep that going even from a distance,” said Dylan Bland, Chair of the high school’s science department, and Berkeley alumnus ‘14 MA Earth & Planetary Science.

“Since student responses are all recorded, I have the chance to give feedback to each student individually and clarify any misconceptions that come up. There are also solid interactive models for my students to use, which definitely helps establish a deeper level of understanding of complex science learning concepts.”

Bland is leading his Biology colleagues to customize a WISE unit called “Genetics of Extinction” (Fig. 1). This unit was developed by student Emily Harrison, a GSE student in the Graduate Group in Science and Mathematics Education (SESAME) program, to teach students about natural selection and biodiversity.

Specifically, the unit includes tools such as automated scoring and teacher commenting, which allows Bland to see his students' thinking, assign students personalized activities, and write students comments on their work.

The Teacher Action Report tool, informed by natural language processing of student written explanations, provides a snapshot of each class period’s understanding on the Next Generation Science Standards 3-dimensional learning. Bland and his colleagues are also cognizant that some students lack Internet access and are keeping all students engaged by creating and mailing PDF’s of the lessons.

The strength of the WISE community is illustrated by the peer-to-peer support as well as the ongoing professional development.

Professor Guoqing Zhao at Beijing Normal University is using WISE in Mandarin for schools in Shandong Province, while teachers in North Carolina are doing the same in English.

Here in Northern California, Robin Cooper, a 7th grade teacher at Albany Middle School in Albany, Calif., is customizing the WISE unit “Chemical Reactions and Alternative Fuels: Making a Change” to teach students about chemical reactions and natural resources (Fig. 2).

Cooper has teamed up with Abel Vanegas, a 7th grade teacher at Riverview Middle School in Bay Point, Calif., and a Berkeley alumnus ‘97 BA Geology who has experience using WISE and has customized multiple units to support his students, many of whom speak a language other than English at home.

Cooper is using a version of WISE that was previously customized by Vanegas to support her students in leading self-directed investigations about climate change. One possible lesson would have students reflect specifically on data regarding CO2 emissions during the shelter-in-place, versus normal times, using an interactive model of fuels and climate change. Cooper, however, is still gauging her students’ comfort level with using the current public health crisis in their lessons, recognizing that for some students, the topic may add to anxieties about the pandemic.

Either way, the lesson is multidisciplinary: students will use evidence from the model to write a letter to their Congressional representative with a recommendation on local policy for fuels.

“The teachers’ compassion and creativity for reaching each student using WISE is inspiring!,” said Libby Gerard, a WISE research director. “Although physically isolated, WISE offers a community. Teachers are connecting with one another and with WISE researchers to create web-based experiences that combine what they would do in the classroom with the features of being at home.”

“Building innovative lessons together gives us a sense of agency in connecting with the students and families during this difficult time, and a feeling of connection with our education community,” Gerard said.

The dynamic nature of WISE has allowed the curriculum and platform to remain relevant over the years as educational standards evolve, new scientific discoveries are made, and the necessity of online learning keeps growing.

“We are thrilled that these open-source materials, developed with funding from the National Science Foundation, can help so many students and their teachers develop coherent understanding of complex scientific topics including thermodynamics, photosynthesis, and the weather,” said Professor Linn.

Educators can learn more about WISE at their website, or send an e-mail to connect with the WISE community.

Interactive model of natural selection embedded in the WISE unit, Genetics of Extinction.

Interactive model of global climate embedded in WISE unit, Chemical Reactions and Alternative Fuels.