Podcast: Science Instruction Insights from Past NSTA President Dr. Karen Ostlund on Teachers in America

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Photo: Past NSTA president and HMH Into Science Texas author Dr. Karen Ostlund

Welcome back to Teachers in America, where we celebrate teachers and their lasting impact on students' learning journeys and lives.

Today we are joined by Dr. Karen Ostlund, author of HMH Into Science Texas and past president of NSTA, the National Science Teachers Association. In this episode, Dr. Ostlund will talk about best practices to engage students both in the physical and virtual science classroom. Plus she'll share exciting new changes to the TEKS and what it will mean for teachers and students in Texas.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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Noelle Morris: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, where we celebrate teachers and recognize their triumphs, challenges, sacrifices, and dedication to students.

I am the Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris. Each episode, I meet a new teacher friend to learn about the latest lessons and innovations from the classroom.

Today we welcome Dr. Karen Ostlund, past president of NSTA, the National Science Teaching Association.

Throughout her education career, Dr. Ostlund has taken on various roles—from elementary and middle school educator in Minnesota to college professor at the University of Texas. Dr. Ostlund has also authored numerous science curriculum series, books, articles, and activities, including HMH Into Science Texas. Her key writing contributions for HMH Into Science Texas were lessons in physical sciences and life sciences.

In today’s episode, Dr. Ostlund shares best instructional practices in science and gives insight on what Texas teachers should expect with the new science TEKS. Now let’s get to the episode!

Noelle Morris: Karen, welcome to Teachers in America. I'm so glad to meet you, one of our authors for our Into Science program. Just like we like to do in Teachers in America, we like to take everybody back to their teacher journey, so let's start off. Will you share with us your teacher journey, where you started, and where you are now?

Dr. Karen Ostlund: Where I started and where I am now. I started in Minnesota as an elementary and middle school teacher. Then, I went on to teach at the college level at the Texas State University, which was Southwest Texas State University when I began. And I ended up at the University of Texas at Austin after a stopover in the University of Texas at Arlington, where I was recruited to be their director of science education and start all their science education programs.

Noelle: Wow. What would've led you from elementary and middle to, okay, I'm going to go teach college, and not only go from Minnesota but to Texas?

Dr. Ostlund: So that was part of the journey. I loved teaching in Minnesota, and I loved learning. And I was a science teacher, so I loved learning science, and I enjoyed learning how to teach science to students and seeing the results. And as a result, I stayed connected to the University of Minnesota with a lot of the people who were doing great research on what helps students learn, such as cooperative learning with the Johnson Brothers. And so I was their person in the trenches that they could get to do their research. And so I was always connected to the university, and so I was always taking classes, and I was always learning. And pretty soon, I had a PhD. And I actually stayed in the classroom because I just had a blast teaching. I loved it. But then it got to the point where my son was going off to college, and I was thinking, "Well, why don't I go off to college too?" So, I ended up teaching in Texas.

Noelle: Oh, I love that. Did you have a favorite grade that you taught? Or do you remember a specific set of students that just really cemented why you went into this profession?

Dr. Ostlund: I really enjoyed sixth grade, the challenge of teaching them and bringing it all together, and eventually, it all comes back together. But I think it was just so much fun to teach them. At one time, they're like a little kid; then, at the other time, they show some tendency toward becoming an adult. And so you're aiming, you have a moving target where you're trying to teach them, and so every day was a challenge. It was never boring. It was always interesting. And the kids come with all of their backgrounds, and it's fun to find out about it and then learn how to teach to it.

Noelle: I taught middle school, and I agree with you spot on. I see that you were the president of NSTA. I definitely want to know what it was like leading educators across the country as president of NSTA. Why again was that another part of your journey, and what you learned from that?

Dr. Ostlund: Well, to begin with, NSTA stands for the National Science Teaching Association. And I was president at a very exciting time. It was when the Next Generation Science Standards were released. And so, NSTA had a key role in launching NGSS. And so I had the opportunity to go all over the country and introduce teachers to the idea of 3D learning, which is very similar to the new TEKS, so you might have a little different name of what they call it, like crosscutting concepts or recurring themes and concepts. Really, they're talking about the same thing. So, I had an opportunity, and I learned so much about teachers and how eager they were to really find some great instructional strategies that they could use in their classrooms to help all students learn science. It was a very rewarding experience to be on the cutting edge of implementing the NGSS.

Noelle: When you talk about a best practice, the strategy, what immediately comes to your mind?

Dr. Ostlund: I think instructional strategies that engage students in the learning process and that get around barriers that students might have to learning. And so, research shows you need high-quality instructional materials. So you want something that allows students, no matter what their challenges are about learning, that students are able to see it, hear it, and do it in order to learn the concepts of science. So you need a program that's going to give teachers instructional strategies to hit all of those modes.

Noelle: So when you think about the interesting things and other changes that have been happening in science education, what are some of the most exciting parts about the new TEKS and relating that even if I'm a teacher who's not in Texas, what can I glean from what you're going to share?

Dr. Ostlund: Well, just like NGSS, the new TEKS have engineering practices. And not only do they have scientific and engineering practices, but they have it integrated into the content. And then I also like, as I mentioned before, the idea of reoccurring themes and concepts, and to me, I like to think of your mind as kind of a filing box. And so you're learning all these science concepts, which may seem in some cases to be isolated. But what recurring themes and concepts do is they give you a way to file that. Oh, this is patterns. It's like patterns that we have in life science, physical science, and Earth and space science. And so you have a way to retrieve that information. Scientists say that everything we could ever learn is out there; we just don't have the retrieval system to get it out. And so, to me, that gives us that retrieval system and allows us then to apply those concepts, which, as I said, can be isolated to solve a problem, say, in engineering.

And also, we have the content, of course; it's not just, as I say, isolated. Now, the content is integrated with scientific and engineering practices, and it's all pulled together with recurring themes and concepts. I think this idea of 3D learning, we didn't see that in the last set of TEKS. But it's kind of following the lead of NGSS, seeing what we had in that, that might've worked, that we might apply now to our new TEKS.

Noelle: What are you envisioning that's going to be the conversations happening in districts to support getting teachers ready?

Dr. Ostlund: Well, with recurring themes and concepts, I think it's a way of thinking. These cut across all the science disciplines. And so it's a way of organizing it and being able to use it. So, for example, patterns or cause and effect, we have them in all areas of science, so if I do this, this is going to happen. That's a cause and effect. So it's just kind of a way of organizing and making sense of all the concepts that we have in science.

Noelle: When was the last time that TEKS were changed or updated?

Dr. Ostlund: 2017.

Noelle: 2017, so six years ago. What's the mood? What are you seeing in the field? What are you hearing from teachers?

Dr. Ostlund: I think some of the things that are exciting for teachers is it's not a textbook anymore, that it is digital. And we know that's how kids are interacting now, digitally, and so they understand that environment. And it offers so much more. It's not static anymore; it's dynamic. So, if we take a look, we can embed a video into it. We can have a virtual lab where they move things around on the screen. And best of all to me is students are given little bites of information, and then there's some sort of a feedback mechanism, so they interact with a checkpoint, and they get feedback about it. And I think then that helps you learn it when you get the feedback on it, and you're checking off. You're not giving a whole big amount of information; you're giving little bites and then having them check that they got that one. And then we go on to the next one. And so I think the digital world is something that teachers are looking forward to.

Noelle: Very exciting. So when you think about that digital side, what are you envisioning are the sounds of the classroom and how the instruction is introduced? How are students sitting together and working independently and also working collaboratively?

Dr. Ostlund: So I'll start by saying the role of the student is going to change. The student is going to be an active participant in their learning, and they're going to be able to direct their learning, too, in different ways. The teacher is going to be more in the role of a facilitator, a guide, and maybe a co-learner with the students as well. I still envision students working collaboratively, and I hope that's the case. The classroom is set up so they can work collaboratively together because they learn from each other. So, I envision small groups of students interacting in digital media. I envision the teacher going around asking questions and interacting with the students, and the students are interacting with not only their own group but other groups as well.

Noelle: You say that just as a teacher, when I read the new TEKS, when I'm understanding and looking at my new curriculum, what do I need to think about all my learners? How do I need to think about my most needed students who might not be reading at grade level, my multilingual language learners? Is there anything in there that I need to be aware of or barriers that I need to begin to think about as a teacher and also working and having conversations with my leadership?

Dr. Ostlund: So, well, let's talk about barriers. So, I see three types of barriers. There are emotional barriers, and those have to do with the fear of failure. And so I think in the new digital programs, students are not going to really be able to experience that as they did using a textbook and with a regular class, which may have been more lecture-based. For example, I mentioned checkpoints. So, depending on what the students choose, it may or may not be the right response, but they get some feedback on that. I wish there was a big sign in every classroom that said, "Mistakes are made here," because you probably heard the saying that FAIL means "First Attempt in Learning." So, to decrease those emotional barriers, students have to feel like, "I can do this." And I think a program that allows them to interact with it, and to try again if they don't quite have it, is going to give them the sense that I can do it. It's going to build positive attitudes.

So then, secondly, there's motivation. So, students say, "Why do I have to learn this?" And the new programs with the introduction to a new unit that deals with a phenomenon, and then students go through and collect information so that they can solve a problem or explain a phenomenon, again, that's another barrier. This keeps them motivated. And then, finally, we just have personal challenges. Every learner is unique, and so we have to hit all modalities, as I mentioned before, that students are able to see it, they're able to do it, they're able to hear it. If you do that, the challenges that students have that hold them back, barriers are just challenges that they're not fully engaged in the learning process that's going to overcome them because there's a way they can learn the material.

Noelle: I agree. When you think about digital and where our learners are, they're also seeing their age make huge revelations and not holding back. Oh, I have an idea of how you could solve this. I'm going to send this to my state representative. And I just think that's something that never would've happened in my generation growing up in the '80s. You had that textbook. You were told, "Read this section." If I would've had more of an exploratory, "Let's start with with a phenomenon; let me show you why this is important," I know I would've had a different experience. That's not how it was taught back then.

Dr. Ostlund: I don't want to get away from the fact, too, that the digital world is like a textbook because we also, after we had just textbooks, then we had all of the hands-on programs. And so you really need a combination, and so I think those need to be embedded in the hands-on activities as well are very important.

Noelle: You mean having those manipulatives, having those experiments set up where they're doing that in the classroom, not just virtually. You're saying they need to be able to touch this, see it firsthand as well, so it's a hybrid. It's a mix.

Dr. Ostlund: Yes. And sometimes, it's just not practical to do things in the real world. And then I love that there are some of the virtual labs that can be done when things are dangerous, or expensive, or too big, or too small, or whatever. We do have them virtually as well as hands-on. But I think you need a combination of all that to help students learn. So, what are my tips?

Noelle: Right. What are your tips to make sure you see that? Right? Then you don't go one way too far and not the other.

Dr. Ostlund: I hope the teachers, when they have these new programs, will see teaching as an art and a science. It's really both. And they embrace that as they're going through it. I think they need to look at the roles. Students are going to be more in an active learning. Teachers are going to be more of the guide on the side. You've probably heard that expression before. I think the new technology, we really in previous programs, this was the first time when we see what a powerful tool the technology can be and all the things we can do with it that you couldn't do with just a textbook, and you can't do it with just hands-on. I think they're going to ease out of that role as I'm the dispenser of all the facts, to the students are going to gather the facts, and I'm going to help them do that. So, they need a curriculum that's going to support the new roles the teachers have and the new roles the students have. And the research shows that high-quality instructional materials help students learn.

Noelle: Yes, because they also want to touch them, be in there, and doing it. You've got to have the whole package. So, let's summarize what we discussed. I'm a leader who's looking at the new TEKS, quick advice. What's the number one thing where I should start, what I should be thinking about?

Dr. Ostlund: So, let's start with the leader. As a leader, I consider myself, I hope I'm a leader in science education. I want teachers to understand this 3D approach that was introduced with NGSS. And now it's been refined, and it's used in the TEKS. So instead of teaching, also the engineering is coming in now, which is applying the science concepts. So instead of teaching the science practice, they call it science practices in the TEKS, and the engineering practices, that these are integrated with the content, that they go together. And I want them to understand the recurring themes and concepts. That's a questioning strategy to me. How do I use that questioning strategy to help students learn and master the skills, which are engineering and scientific practices, and the knowledge? So, as a leader, I think I want to focus on the 3D dimension because we haven't had that in our last iteration of the TEKS.

Noelle: And then I'm a teacher; I know the TEKS are being updated. I know the new curriculum is going to be out there. Where do you put my focus?

Dr. Ostlund: I think the new programs, they have to be right on without a lot of extra information; just tell me what I need to teach the first time through it. I just want some guidance. Let me go through it; then, I can adjust it to my style and everything. I think you have to address the TEKS. And you've got to be right on with them and just give them the information so that they can see how it works. Teachers make it their own, but they need the basics. Just give me the basics so I can go through it and see how we do this 3D teaching, how we put it all together. So don't give too much information, just enough.

Noelle: Just enough, that secret just enough. And when you think about the learner, the expectation is we are an active learner. I'm not going to be standing up here just giving you the information. You're going to be part of the phenomenon and exploring it, investigating, and doing the experiments. How do I start that in my first week to just build that culture into my classroom?

Dr. Ostlund: Well, if you look at the TEKS, they really recommend that you start with a phenomenon, and that's the motivational factor that I've got to figure this out. I've got to be able to explain it, or I've got to be able to solve an engineering problem; that's what the phenomenon is. And so I think it's the way the teacher introduces it to the students that, here are some phenomena. Let's see if we can gather the information, and that's the science content. Using scientific and engineering practices to get that content so that I can solve this phenomenon. And so I think it's kind of a new approach to learning science, and that is going to engage the students in the learning process.

Noelle: Well, I have enjoyed our conversation. I love how I see you so energetic, just the excitement around science instruction, the new TEKS, all of it. So I'm not going to shy away, Karen, from asking you the question I ask every teacher who joins us because I have a feeling you have a playlist, but you're walking in to present to an entire room of Texas teachers. You are so excited. You're on fire. What music is playing? What's your walk-up song?

Dr. Ostlund: Maybe the Rocky theme when he runs up the steps. I'm also a marathon runner.

Noelle: Really? Okay. So you know steady wins the race. You're always beating your best time. Well, I like it. I, too, always just call it the Rocky theme. I think it has a title, but we'll go with the Rocky theme.

Dr. Ostlund: Yeah. It gives you the idea that you can do it. Let's go.

Noelle: Don't see all the steps; see one step at a time and get that feedback throughout. Karen, this has just been amazing. I appreciate you joining Teachers in America. I appreciate you coming in as an author who is accessible, and we can relate as teachers. So, thank you for being a part of the change and getting science out there.

Dr. Ostlund: Thank you. It's been fun to talk with you.

Noelle: You too.

Noelle: If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Teachers in America by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoyed today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. The link is in the show notes. Teachers in America is produced by HMH.

The Teachers in America podcast is a production of HMH. Executive producers are Christine Condon and Tim Lee. Editorial direction is by Christine Condon. It is creatively directed, and audio engineered by Tim Lee. Our producer and editor is Jennifer Corujo. Production designers are Mio Frye and Thomas Velazquez. Shaped blog post editors for the podcast are Christine Condon, Jennifer Corujo, and Alicia Ivory.  

Thanks again for listening!


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