Through three schools and a decade of teaching science in New York City, Leton Hall has always had to build his own lessons using leftover textbooks and store-bought materials and by studying state standards. He thinks most of his science colleagues do the same.
So Hall was taken aback when he discovered his Bronx middle school had decided to purchase Amplify Science, a curriculum aligned with a 6-year-old national framework for teaching science for next school year.
“I was really surprised,” said Hall, who teaches at Pelham Gardens Middle School in the Bronx. “I was like, ‘You’re actually gonna get a curriculum?’”
Amplify’s tools have been selected by the education department as their top, recommended choice for teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th graders about science starting this fall. Middle schools do have a say: They can purchase the curriculum or select from a handful of other approved programs for next year. The education department said it would not know the total number of middle schools that have purchased the curriculum until the fall. The Amplify curriculum has already been the recommended, or “core,” choice for K-5 since last school year, with about 600 elementary schools opting to purchase it.
The education department made Amplify its “core curriculum” because officials judged it most aligned with state standards. In 2016, state education officials adopted new standards for teaching science, based in part on the national Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS. These guidelines emphasize studying natural scientific phenomena — events that happen in everyday life — and teaching students how to collaborate with others, comprehend complex topics, and tackle problems that might have multiple solutions.
Curriculum grading guide EdReports gave Amplify’s 6-8 curriculum high marks for usability and its accordance with the NGSS. (No report was available for K-5.)
Amplify represents a departure from New York City’s previous recommended options: Harcourt’s textbook-based program and Foss science kits, which provide hands-on activities. Through readings, digital simulations, promoted discussions, and its own hands-on activities, Amplify’s curriculum emphasizes “evidence-based learning’ and making students “investigators” of science, officials say — and represents the first overhaul of the curriculum ladder in science for city teachers in years.
“With Amplify, am I going to have anything to do?” laughed Lisa Sakol, a 7th grade science teacher at I.S. 25 Adrien Block In Queens, which will begin using Amplify in the fall. But she added, “ I’m looking forward to it” even as she wondered if the curriculum would need her to supplement it to ensure her students are getting all they need.
The education department spent $20 million to roll out Amplify at elementary schools last year — a cost expected to drop significantly this year as many materials can be reused. For Harcourt and Foss — which schools could purchase separately or together — the total rollout cost for K-5 was $39 million, which was introduced to schools from 2007 through 2009, according to a department spokesperson.
Schools can also choose to buy only portions of any of these curriculum packages — such as textbooks without teacher guides.
School officials across the country have seemingly warmed to Amplify: It has been adopted in hundreds of districts, the company says, including Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, and most recently Seattle.
“It really puts students in the role of some type of scientist or engineer for the duration of what we call a unit,” said Matt Reed, vice president of Amplify Science.
However, the curriculum’s adoption in Seattle was shrouded in controversy before officials there approved it, which the Seattle Times attributed to community pushback against the use of screens in lessons and concerns about conflicts of interest when the program was rolled out to pilot schools without a vote from Seattle’s school board.
The use of computer screens varies depending on how young students are, how much teachers want to weave them into their lessons, or what devices they have in the classroom, Reed said. Students in kindergarten and first grade don’t need to use devices for any classwork, he said. In second and third grades, students might use a tablet or a computer once a week for 15 to 20 minutes. The usage goes up with the grades, but for most activities, teachers can use printouts or project activities onto a shared class whiteboard. At the middle-school level, screens are required for two things: the final assessments in each unit and simulations, which are interactive computer programs that enable students to run virtual experiments that they otherwise couldn’t perform in a classroom (such as virtually inputting different levels of methane gas and seeing the varying impact on the polar caps).
Each unit in Amplify’s science curriculum investigates one question that builds foundational knowledge about a scientific topic. One sixth-grade lesson, for example, introduces the concept of metabolism and chemical reactions in the body. Students watch a video about a fictional patient named Elisa, who mysteriously feels tired all the time, and the students must figure out why. The lesson starts by reviewing basics — students interact with another simulation on metabolism, where they can click on different medical issues and see how each affects the circulatory system. Eventually, they’ll conduct a quick experiment to understand how chemical reactions work, and navigate their way through multiple lessons until they can connect Elisa’s symptoms to a likely diagnosis.
Screens were a key part of a recent lesson in a third-grade classroom in Bushwick, where Jeanne Salchli used Amplify to teach students about genes and traits, with the focus on where a wolf pack gets some of its characteristics. Students paired up to look through books for answers, then to complete an exercise on a tablet involving grouping cats based on their distinctive qualities, such as tail size or fur color. After each activity, they raised hands to tell their classmates what they found.
At the end of the lesson, the students were asked to come up with the different traits they learned about in the lesson. Some hit it on the mark – fur color, ear size, tail length and eye color. A couple others still weren’t sure.
“This is really difficult stuff you’re doing right now, so we’ll have a chance to revisit it,” said Salchli before class wrapped up.
In New York City, it’s still too early to tell how well students will learn using Amplify’s curriculum package. For its part, a department spokesperson says they’ve heard mostly positive feedback — teachers have found it engaging.
But teachers in elementary school, where Amplify was first rolled out, are still learning how well the company’s program works, Salchli said. She thinks the curriculum gives teachers a chance to “put your own twist” on the lessons, while keeping students more engaged than she’s seen before. For example, at the end of one unit on balancing forces, her students made cartoon animations to show what they had learned.
“I feel like the curriculum itself really highlights in every lesson a science and engineering question,” said Salchli. “That’s one of the hardest things to teach students — finding researchable questions.”
For teachers who will get their hands on Amplify in the fall, some questions remain. While Hall, the Bronx middle school teacher, is optimistic, he’s wondering how comprehensive the curriculum will be.
“When they have to explain what they know, I want to see how many students are able to express their understanding,” he said.
Like Hall, 7th grade science teacher Lisa Sakol is expecting to use Amplify in her classroom at I.S. 25 Adrien Block in Queens, starting in the fall. She got a brief taste during a professional development session and liked that it was based on learning about everyday scientific phenomena. But she’s wondering how comprehensive and rigorous the package will be over a year’s worth of science lessons, and whether it will prepare students for the eighth grade without her needing to tweak lesson plans.
Sakol — also a teacher who has built her own science lessons for years — said she will measure success based on how well students are able to think freely and have critical discussions about science, as well as how they’re performing on the assessments that come with the curriculum. In her experience, science can be fun for some students, but many still struggle to think critically.
“It gets a long time to get them to stop writing ‘I don’t know’ on their tests,” Sakol said.