UW researcher Jessica Thompson exemplifies the College of Education’s collaborative, equitable approach to innovation
College of Education Assistant Professor Jessica Thompson was working with a group of Highline School District science teachers and students at an annual summer STEM academy project she designed—when something great happened.
Students and teachers were spread out across the school’s football field. Students were using decibel meters to measure sound at different distances from the source. Teachers were asking a lot of questions, pushing the kids to think hard about what they were learning.
Than a 747 flew overhead.
One girl lifted up her meter and measured the roar. The fifth-grader explained how late every night a similar plane would wake her up—which caused her to be tired every morning, negatively affecting her performance in school.
“We wrestled with that as teachers,” Thompson said. “We thought about how do we validate this experience? How do we bring it into the curriculum, and how do we change outcomes? Together, we created a change in what we were going to do that week.”
Thompson and her colleagues kept the science, but quickly modified the curriculum to help students use what they learned to address government and advocate for positive changes.
“We studied city ordinances, we wrote letters to SeaTac Airport, and we thought about how do we not just make this part of the summer experience, but how do we continue to build this into the curriculum.”
Thompson said the changes worked so well that they’re now part of a combined science and community action curriculum taught to every fifth grader in the district.
“This is what happens when teachers come together and work in powerful ways,” Thompson said. “Now every child has a chance to leverage their science learning into community action.”
The summer STEM academy is just one example of Thompson’s multifaceted work to promote ambitious science teaching practices—in equitable collaboration with Highline teachers—in the district. It’s work that is now expanding to Seattle, Federal Way, Bellevue and other districts.
Three years into the work, about 80 percent of Highline’s secondary science teachers have been trained in the practices, which focus on helping every student in this diverse, majority low-income district succeed. Among other benchmarks, students meeting biology end-of-course standards has increased from 38 percent to 60 percent since Thompson began working with the district’s teachers.
Those same ambitious science teaching practices are also being instilled in teaching candidates at the College of Education, thanks to the work of Thompson’s colleague Professor Mark Windschitl.
“As the UW gets teachers trained in ambitious science teaching, we just want to take them,” said Highline STEM Director Carmen Gonzales. The UW teachers “come into our district and do really well. We’re always looking for more!”
“We name science teaching practices, we study how they work, under what conditions, and for whom,” Thompson said. “We study that data, we come together, we practice them together, and we get smarter. And we don’t have to wait 10 years. Because we have a model that is not about coming in and giving best practices to teachers.”
Rather, like other College of Education researchers, Thompson said the work is “based on the model of adaption and innovation, instead of a model of adoption and dissemination.”
“This is how we bring knowledge faster into communities,” Thompson said. “We’re seeing tremendous changes. We’re seeing a whole new kind of dialog between teachers about how kids learn. These teachers are the ones who are best able to solve the problems facing our local schools—in partnership with researchers and in partnerships with school districts.”
Give to the UW College of Education’s Cradle to Career Innovation Fund and support emerging, high-impact research partnerships like Professor Thompson’s work with Washington schools districts that are expanding access to great teaching for all students across the P-20 continuum.