Empower Students With Student-Owned Science

Empower Students With Student-Owned Science

Student-owned science is an approach through which teachers and students co-construct learning journeys to develop the skills and knowledge they need to become the critical thinkers, creative problem solvers, and independent learners and leaders of the next generation. It’s a student-driven but teacher-guided approach that builds a foundation of science understanding but creates space for student voice and choice.

empower students with student-owned science

A Fractured Foundation

I was watching Holiday Wars a few weeks ago – you know, that cake decorating show on the Food Network – and my husband and I were shocked to see one group tear apart their cake with 45 minutes till judging. We literally were like, “Why are they doing that!?” (Don’t worry – we’ll get to student-owned science in a hot sec!)

The group had just been visited by a judge, who commented on the questionable base of the cake. There was something wrong with it – I can’t remember quite what it was. But she shared her concern with the contestants, and as soon as she walked away, bam! They were ripping it all out.

While my husband and I were questioning their judgment, the TV cut to the judges who were discussing the choice. And all of them agreed it was the right thing to do!

I’ll be honest, I think I fell asleep shortly after that, so I don’t remember how the team fared in judging… but it got me thinking.

If the structure isn’t right, all the stuff on the top doesn’t matter — the layers, the icing, the decorations. The cake isn’t going to be successful if the base isn’t done right.


It’s Time To Quit Building On A Broken Base

I don’t need to tell you that our education system is… struggling. I hate to use the word broken, because it seems so final. And we live in an age where broken quickly becomes discarded. And of course, I certainly don’t want to see that!!

But for years and years, we have been building on this fractured (that word seems softer) base… we have been decorating it with new standards, new curriculum, new behavioral approaches. We have recycled idea after idea, and run teachers and students through a hamster-wheel of repeating over and over what isn’t quite working. 

We’ve been updating the dressings, but we haven’t ever addressed the base.

The Traditional Educational Model

Our education system is built on an industrial, authoritarian model that probably didn’t work then but certainly doesn’t work now. It’s built on ideas like:

  • Schools are factories designed to pump out identical products.
  • The goals are to maximize efficiency through systemization – we should all learn the same stuff in the same way as quickly as possible.
  • Learning is an act of transmission — from the teacher/textbook/video to the student. Knowledge is absorbed.
  • Students must be obedient, disciplined, and controlled. Kids don’t get control in their lives until they reach 18.


The Problem With Traditional Education

Our world today (and tomorrow) doesn’t need identical products. It doesn’t need obedient followers.

It needs a generation that can think critically, to sort through evidence in order to draw their own conclusions. To question what they are told and seek out truth. To question their own beliefs and develop self-awareness.

The world today (and tomorrow) needs individuals who can think creatively, to see new ways of doing things and be willing to explore new ideas and approaches. These are the people who can consider other perspectives, find the middle ground, remain flexible as situations change, create and evolve.

Our future world needs problem-solvers. We need adults who can persist through setbacks, who can remain open to ideas, who can figure things out. Who are comfortable with mistakes and failure and willing to take risks when necessary.

Our “tomorrow” needs leaders.

But our school system today is not designed to develop these characteristics and skills… and we are wasting our students’ adolescence (their time of learning) as a result. 


Preparing Our Students For Their Futures With Student-Owned Science

Across animal species, adolescence is the time during which organisms develop the skills and knowledge necessary to function as independent adults. Whilst still under the care of their parents (or community), adolescent organisms explore, discover, and grow in a safe space where mistakes can mean learning experiences (and not death). (AKA the young fox won’t starve if it can’t catch that squirrel.)

Our students spend their adolescence in our schools, and during this time, they should be developing the skills they will need to be successful independent adults. We may all have slightly different versions of what “successful independent adults” means, and there’s nothing wrong with variation. (In fact, evolutionarily speaking, variation has kept our species alive… so yay to differences!)

From my perspective, “successful independent adults” are (as I’ve shared above): critical thinkers and creative problem-solvers; people who can “figure things out” for themselves; self-aware individuals who can communicate and collaborate; people who are emotionally secure, can maintain positive relationships (we are a social species, after all), and consider multiple perspectives. (I’m sure there’s more to this list, but you get the gist.)

And yah, that’s a lot – I know.

And of course – within that definition, there’s always variation. Some of us are more naturally great at building strong relationships, while others may demonstrate clearer self-awareness or creativity. Whatever. We can all be different, we can all continue to work on these areas of ourselves throughout our lives, and we can all contribute to our world in different ways.

We don’t have to be the same.

But adolescence – and the work that adolescents do during this time – should not be limited to “receiving” facts and figures and basic knowledge like it is in our school system.

Adolescents should be engaged in the very skills we want them to develop. They should be “figuring things out.” They should be communicating and collaborating. They should be exploring problems and creatively working toward solutions. They should be making decisions and trying out leadership roles.

They should be doing all of these things in our safe spaces — where it’s OK to fail, where consequences can be managed, where they can truly develop before they are thrown out on their own.

And this means that what we do within K-12 classrooms needs to change.

Heads Up: I won’t claim to have all the answers on how we can put this into action. And I don’t believe every classroom will look the same as we take these steps forward. In fact, the whole point is the variety – the responsiveness, the ability to co-create a classroom experience with our students to meet their needs in the moment. 

And in that sense, my goal is to co-construct an implementation of student-owned science with you, the educator.

There is no one size fits all.


Understanding What Student-Owned Science Is

I see this vision in what I’ve started describing as student-owned science.

It’s launching science units through engaging, relevant phenomenon-based experiences.

We are building unit flows WITH students, co-constructing the curriculum together to amplify student voice and allow learners to step up as leaders.

With student-owned science, we can create opportunities for learning in which students explore and discover, figuring things out and making-meaning for themselves — building their brains as they build their foundation of knowledge.

At its core, it’s student-driven but teacher-guided. It’s creating a foundation of science understanding but creating space for ideas and concepts and expressions of that knowledge that matter to students.

It’s all of the adjectives (see below) — but more and less and tweaked. 🤣🤷🏼‍♀️

This process happens within classrooms where teachers and students can learn to partner on this education journey.


What Student-Owned Science Is Not

My preschooler likes to correct me when I use the “wrong” word for something. To his very concrete brain, there is a clear difference between my car and my van. (It’s not a car – it’s a van, mommy.) And he’s right. There is a difference. While there are certainly similarities between a car and a van — and I tend to use the words interchangeably — there truly is a difference.

Words matter.

They carry nuanced meanings that go much deeper than what sits on the surface.

And as my ideas and understandings about education, what it means to learn, and how we can best serve our students have grown and evolved… I’ve struggled to find the right words to carry the meanings.


Student-Owned Science: A Bit Of Three Dimensional, Phenomenon Based, Student Driven Learning

So as I’ve floundered to find the right words, I’ve been through all the adjectives… and they never quite FIT. They have all played a role in my awareness and evolution, for shifting my thinking and expanding how I can serve teachers and students. For that I am so grateful for each exploration — for how each one has added and refined a vision that is becoming clearer.

But I’ve realized…


It’s not just NGSS. 

Yes, standards are helpful… There is so much we could possibly learn, and standards help us narrow our focus and create boundaries and guide posts. They help ensure that we can build a foundation for our students — a broad base they can build on as the opportunities (or needs) arise.

And that is the beauty of the NGSS – as compared to standards of the past. The Next Generation Science Standards focus on the big ideas, on building the foundation. It’s a shift away from the nitty-gritty facts and figures that have cluttered our classrooms (and only briefly resided in our students’ brains). It’s a shift towards recognizing if we have the framework, we can fill in the details as they come.

Because frankly, some of those details may never be important to your students. They may never play a relevant role in their lives. As much as I love my science stuff, I’ve never needed to know how to identify a mineral or what lysosomes do. 🤷🏼‍♀️

But if I someday need to understand the function of lysosomes, my strong understanding that living things are made of cells and parts within cells work together can help me understand how lysosomes fit into the bigger picture of my body’s health. (Or whatever it is that I am trying to learn!)

I have the foundation…

So the NGSS is great at laying out what a strong foundation could look like — from the content to the skills to the ways of seeing and understanding the world. The standards provide clear goalposts and can give our students something to aim at.

But the problem with focusing only on the standards is…

Education is more than knocking standards off a list.


It’s not just 3D.

Then came the three-dimensional phase.

Without a doubt, our classroom activities should be three-dimensional in nature. Why? Because truly three-dimensional activities actively engage learners.

They shift learning experiences from a focus on facts to a focus on building knowledge through the application of skills.

Our K-12 education system has been built on the idea of teaching the basics — the basic “stuff” we need to know in order to [insert purpose — because that has changed and shifted and evolved too]. Yet as our world has changed and grown, the “basics” have both expanded and shifted. Technology has changed what we need to know and the skills we need to have. (You can explore some of these changes in education in the free workshop series Bring Wonder Back.)

And while our education system has added some of these “need to knows” — it’s never really gone through a pruning process. It has added and added and added without ever taking the time to consider, but what is no longer relevant?

And as we have added and added and added, we have unconsciously made decisions about what to leave out. We have prioritized the stuff that’s easy to measure — basic recall, essentially — and set aside more elusive accomplishments (like the ability to think, create, problem-solve, and collaborate — the real “need to knows” of the 21st century). So what we are left with is:

“… an overemphasis by teachers, curricula, and textbooks on what we know at the expense of how we know. Deep within our cultural fabric, education is still seen simplistically as a process of transmission…” – Jonathan Osborne (Arguing To Learn In Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse)

So all this to say: I’m all about three-dimensional.

It is the day-to-day instructional approach through which we can develop our students’ critical thinking and problem solving skills. It’s a tool we can employ to help our students develop persistence, creativity, and confidence.

But it’s also not enough.

Three-dimensional instruction creates an opportunity for students to actively engage in their learning, but it does not develop our students’ motivation and drive to engage.

In a twisted version of that old adage, it leads our students to the water-of-learning… but it doesn’t make them thirsty enough to take a drink. (🤪😂 Never claimed to be good at sayings. 🤷🏼‍♀️ But you get the gist.)

Active learning requires our students to choose to engage, and three-dimensional alone does not really create an impetus for that choice. It doesn’t spark the natural drive to learn and grow, survive and thrive, that exists within all of us.

There needs to be more.

And that’s when I started asking, where’s the relevance?


It’s not just phenomenon-based…

Any activity can become three-dimensional, but it doesn’t necessarily become engaging to students until they buy-in. We can present our students with a three-dimensional task, we can “lead them to that water,” but we can’t truly force them to engage. Ultimately, learning is their choice.

And we choose to do what we value, what we see as important, what we find relevant.

So we needed more than three-dimensional.

And that’s where phenomenon-based learning came in.

(You can learn more about teaching with phenomena here!)

When paired with three-dimensional learning, two pieces of the puzzle fall together — engagement through relevant content and the development of skills and understanding through active learning experiences.

Getting closer!

But the struggle with phenomenon-based alone was that… if we’re approaching it from a “day to day context”, we’re missing the big picture.

What students can explore and understand in a single day — how condensation forms on a cold Coke can, what’s going on inside a plant leaf in the dark versus the light, how smells travel across a classroom — these phenomena are small pieces within a much larger picture.

And yet, our students weren’t necessarily seeing that larger picture (or caring about it) because all they had were the disjointed pieces.


How Our Brains Are Wired And What It Means For Learning

Our brains – literally our Reticular Activating System – are wired to pay attention to certain things. It’s scanning for novelty, for emotion, and for relevance.

Day to day phenomena often rely on novelty — and it works… for the day. But it fades quickly, and you are left on the hamster-wheel of finding the next mind-blowing flash-bang before your current one fizzles out.

“Big” phenomena rely on emotion and relevance to draw students in and keep them engaged. And yet that kind of phenomena isn’t something you can uncover and understand in a single day, a single lesson.

While phenomenon-based in its simplest form could fit within the current structure of traditional curricula and existing scope-and-sequences, we weren’t using it to its full potential. (We were just putting the dressings on our fractured base.)

Our students’ brains needed a reason to learn, and frankly, we weren’t providing it.


It’s not just storylines…

I thought I was getting closer when I stumbled into storylines. Storylines incorporate a more natural flow of learning into the classroom — as one question and discovery moves into the next and the next and the next.

(You can learn more about storylines here!)

So I built storylines – I mapped them out, and even now, I am proud that some of them are pretty awesome. I just loved how they flowed – how a phenomenon could spark a question that could launch a journey and hit all the stuff I needed to! Knock off all of those standards.

But then I realized… wait, is it really about knocking off all of the standards? (No, was my conclusion.)

And moreover, if students are supposed to be driving the storyline forward, how is that even possible if it’s already mapped out? 

And that’s when I realized…

Storylines aren’t necessarily student-driven.

They create the illusion of student-driven classrooms.

So it was a step in the right direction, but it wasn’t quite there. Storylines, as they were being used (as I was using them!), weren’t truly empowering students. They weren’t building students’ abilities to ask questions, problem-solve and develop a plan, or make choices to reach their goals.

They weren’t really building independence.

Or shifting ownership of the learning journey at all.

It was teacher-directed in disguise.

Because again, how can students lead if it’s all already mapped out?


So then it hit me…

It’s ALL of these things, in their own way. 

And not quite any single one thing.


It’s student-owned science.

It’s launching science units through engaging, relevant phenomenon-based experiences. 

We’re building unit flows WITH students, co-constructing the curriculum together to amplify student voice and allow learners to step up as leaders.

With student-owned science, we can create opportunities for learning in which students explore and discover, figuring things out and making-meaning for themselves — building their brains as they build their foundation of knowledge.

At its core, it’s student-driven but teacher-guided. It’s about creating a foundation of science understanding but creating space for ideas and concepts and expressions of that knowledge that matter to students.

It’s all of the adjectives — but more and less and tweaked. 🤣🤷🏼‍♀️

And it needed its own name. 😅


Related Resources:

Creating Responsive Storylines For Student-Driven Science Learning

Building Student-Driven Science Storylines From Phenomena

How To Bring Wonder Back Into Science Education: Teaching From Phenomena

Bring Wonder Back