Jessica, MS, Science

Making Science Usable and Relevant

Jessica Levine, photo courtesy of Suzie Fitzhugh

Interview with Jessica Levine

In this interview Jessica describes how she uses Facing the Future lessons to make science usable and relevant.

School: Eckstein Middle School, Seattle, WA

Grades: 6-8     Classroom Size: 24-31

Subject: Science

Classroom Challenges:

  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Gifted or Advanced Learners
  • Large Group Activities
  • Small Group Activities
  • Prescribed Curriculum

Click on a topic below to read more about Jessica's work:

Please describe your experience with Facing the Future materials and how you use them in your classroom:

"I teach physical science: physics and chemistry. I consider the course that I teach to be the science of sustainability. I use Facing the Future curriculum in many opportunities. I use Understanding Sustainability at the beginning of the year to talk about what we will be covering over the year and why it matters. Our water quality unit is in January through February where we hinge on 'Every Drop Counts!' and some energy pieces that I am doing [see Lesson 16 in Engaging Students Through Global Issues]." I think that the biggest in-depth unit is mostly related to water quality, water quantity, water scarcity, and justice related to water issues.

Jessica uses the following Facing the Future resources:

A lot of teachers struggle to find room in their curriculum for supplemental materials, like Facing the Future materials. How did you do this?

"We’re required to teach solubility, that’s the science content, and then I put it in this environmental context of talking about water quality, water scarcity, and social justice revolving around water equity issues. We’ve developed this whole curriculum taking students through the science components to understand how to clean, filter, distill, and separate mixtures from the real science perspective and ask them to think about what’s in water that they don’t want in water. They dirty-up a sample of water and then they clean it. They spend six days cleaning it, distilling it, and they see how much work that there is to do.

I work with some other curriculum pieces from Puget Sound and King County, the video called Water You Doing, which talks about point and non-point pollution, the latter as the largest source. I’m really excited that PBS Frontline's Poisoned Water series is now available as an educational DVD. The 'Every Drop Counts!' lesson is very important because we look at the quantitative aspects of how much water is available in the world [see Lesson 16 in Engaging Students Through Global Issues]. We really only have 1% of the world’s water available to us for farming, washing our clothes, taking our baths, cooking our food, and irrigating our crops.

Kids are in awe that we only have this small amount and although the water cycle is going to clean it, there are many opportunities for us to pollute it along the way. And while we, in the Pacific Northwest, totally are in love with the water, we take it for granted, while other communities don’t even have that opportunity. Why is it so difficult for people to get water? Who are the people that get water? Who are the people that have to walk far to get water? Who is missing out on having an education as a result of having to go get water; water that’s not so safe?

Students come away from this unit on mixtures with the sense humans are responsible for polluting and conserving water resources. They also see that the third world is a place and in some of those places water is not readily available. They recognize that even in their own backyard they should protect water, and the creatures in it, like the Orcas. The Clean Water Challenge is a memorable lesson. I think Facing the Future's 'Every Drop Counts!' makes it easy for us to turn make sense of the injustice aspects [see Lesson 16 in Engaging Students Through Global Issues]."

What standards were used or met when using Facing the Future materials?

"Because I’m in a huge public school, I definitely meet the standards. People, such as Facing the Future's staff, introduce me as the teacher who can take and teach the standards and then bust through a bigger ceiling. I absolutely make sure I teach the foundations and the standards are met, but they are met through all these different ways."

What were your main objectives/goals for this unit?

"I want to make science usable and relevant. When students understand that there are consequences, impacts, and connected actions they are more interested in learning the science."

How did the Facing the Future lessons help you meet these objectives/goals?

"There are concepts that I want my students to know and be able to apply. Facing the Future has helped me create experiences that teach those concepts well. An example of a concept I want them to learn is that 'all of our daily actions have impacts'. You can talk about that, but to do something like our Clean Water Challenge, that is engaging, that gets at impacts, and offers suggests, really helps me meet these goals. It helps students realize that their daily actions have consequences that are often negative and unintended. It helps students realize that their daily actions, in a positive way, make a big contribution to sustainability."

What skills did your students gain?

"There is problem solving. I mean, I hand them this big chunk of dirty water and they have six days to clean it and see what they do. That involves a whole set of content area skills - filtering, distillation, measuring, using graduated cylinders, storing, labeling, data tables, observing, and all in the context of collaboration.

With 'Every Drop Counts!' they recognize that there’s a lot of critical thinking [see Lesson 16 in Engaging Students Through Global Issues]. I have adapted the 'Water Trivia' questions at the end of that lesson into a PowerPoint, so that I can scroll through slides and make it really interactive. Kids write their answers in their journals, then they talk about their answers, and then I share the real answer. So, there is some thinking involved with that, since students are looking at statistics and quantifying big ideas."

Download Jessica's World's Water Trivia PowerPoint

How do Facing the Future resources help you address your classroom challenges?

"I think that having relevant curriculum helps meet a heterogeneous classroom’s learning environment. Anything that becomes relevant lets any student take the content and the context to their own level.

  • Differentiated Instruction
    The science classrooms in my school are completely heterogeneous. I have ELL, IEP students, and gifted and advanced learners all in the same classroom. IEP is individualized education plan. Those are Special Ed students. They maybe on IEPs for lots of different things or have a disability, like dysgraphia or be deaf or hard of hearing. These students in my classroom are fully capable of learning with accommodations that are required by law.


  • Gifted or Advanced Learners

  • Large Group Activities
    Certainly in a science and inquiry based classroom we do large group activities. We also do small, table team activities. I don’t have a real management challenge because of the engaging curriculum that we provide. So if there is good curriculum then the management piece is taken care of.

  • Small Group Activities

  • Prescribed Curriculum
    While the District required curriculum is not scripted, I am supposed to teach two kits: I teach the properties of matter kit and the energy machines in motion kit. There is not a lot of time for supplementary resources like Facing the Future. So we have essentially written our own unit of this clean water challenge that incorporates all the science components and the justice pieces. So it’s not too full and I’ve also adapted the Facing the Future curriculum in to fit."

Did you make adjustments to Facing the Future lesson(s)/reading(s) for your classroom type?

"I’ve tweaked Understanding Sustainability a little to make it more like a free-write. I also added a drawing aspect, because it’s the first week of school, so I kind of do something a little bit different"

What parts of the unit engaged your students the most?

"I think that they are engaged there because there is this gap of knowledge. They don’t understand. I had students who wrote in their reflection, 'I didn’t know what the third world was until somebody told me.' They don’t know that it’s different in other places than it is here. They don’t know that we have the best drinking water in the country, next to New York City. They have no knowledge of that until they are taught. That awareness is very engaging, inherently."

Could this lesson/unit be adapted to other teaching situations?

"I have this sort of way of engaging a classroom with real visuals. I turned 'Water Trivia', into just a big picture party [see Lesson 16 in Engaging Students Through Global Issues]. I think if they had sat down to fill out that quick 'Water Trivia' quiz in 20-minutes there wouldn't have been much engagement. So, instead I led them in a big class discussion with pictures. For example, I ask them 'how much water does it take to make one hamburger?' Teachers could adapt it in that way for ELL students or IEP students, some of who just needed an extra visual. I am very big into the visual thinking, so [my lessons include] drawings in which students can depict or look at a drawn idea..."

What resources do you use to complement Facing the Future materials?

"For this particular water unit I use curriculum from the King County. There’s a curriculum unit from the Solid Waste Division called Hazards on the Home Front. A lot of times we are using local news and news articles. PBS Frontline's will now be a big component. They did an expose on the Puget Sound and Chesapeake Bay region about water quality. What other things do I use? I use a ton of different chemistry curriculum and other contextual stuff."

Did you incorporate an action project or service learning component in the unit/lesson?

"I would say that cleaning 5mL of water is an action project. Perhaps it’s not one that would meet Facing the Future or the state service learning components but kids walk away thinking, 'Wow, I could clean dirty water if I had too. I can take action to keep water clean.' They understand that there is definitely action and inquiry. Students have been asking for more [service learning projects] and we have been trying to meet their needs. We got some funding from the Pacific Northwest Association of Clean Water Management. They gave us the money to get out there for a field trip. This one-day service would show students that if we put insoluble and soluble junk in the water, it is going to end up in a thousand places. Getting our entire sixth grade, which is 400 students, to do a day of water related service has been a challenge for many local organizations. We continue to seek new partners for this."

Learn more about Jessica's Clean Water Challenge by visiting her blog, The Green Levine Machine.

Have Facing the Future materials helped you participate in school or district-wide sustainability projects?

"Well, there’s definitely a lot that I have started and spearheaded. I provided the resources for staff who wanted to start composting. Finally, we have launched lunch room composting. It's very exciting. It is very interesting for me, for us, for Facing the Future, and for organizations that have been involved in this movement for 15 years, we see the change as slow as molasses. Yet, somehow in the last 2-3 years I feel like there is a huge wave of people who never cared before suddenly taking up sustainable ideas. I think there is some reality to this tipping point idea."

Do these materials help you collaborate with other teachers on sustainability projects?

"I think being on the [Facing the Future] Program Committee has allowed me to collaborate with the materials directly, and help write and review them. I think they lend themselves to collaboration, because you have to check in with... [other teachers]. It helps teachers get outside of their own walls. It reminds me of something my professor in college had said actually here in a lecture here in Seattle about the university professors getting trapped in 'publish or perish' notion. Instead, they really need to get out into each other’s walls. The poets need to write poems in the physicists’ blackboard. And the physicists’ need to leave a problem set on the poet’s desk. They need to chase each other around campus with challenges and things for them to think about cross-curricularly. This publish or perish notion in that you are just in your department, in your bench, doing your work, isn’t sustainable - for human kind and creativity and certainly not for the realm of education, because you cannot be that way."

What are the professional development implications of using Facing the Future materials?

"Well, I think that that is the beauty of being a teacher, for some people. For me, for sure. In order to teach you have to be a perpetual learner, so the nice thing about Facing the Future lessons is that you take the content and you’re like, 'I am supposed to teach solubility'. Okay, great, now you can be this expert in solubility, this quantifiable thing. The relevance is always changing and so having different entry points to relevant content, whether its Orca whales, or whether its indigenous culture, or places that have sewage pouring through them.

If you are exposed to some relevant perspective your own knowledge can grow, because you are going to find out how to incorporate this in places and look for other examples of communities that have received an injustice. I think if anyone was to get their hands on Facing the Future curriculum for the first time they will be like, 'Oh, wow, I had no idea about all this stuff'."

In regard to sustainability and global issues education, what do you want to know more about?

"Oh, well, last year I got a set of solar panels for my classroom. I was given this book that electrical contractors use to install solar panels and was told 'happy summer reading'. I teach student how to wire circuits in series and in parallel, but when I got a solar panel, I almost freaked out. It was like an eighth grade pop quiz. I had tons more to learn about watts, amperage, use, load, and demand. Then I had to translate all of that into what students will be able to do and teach them to use it to off-set our class electrical use with renewable energy. We had a successful first year, and were invited to demonstrate our panels and our program--the Solar Roller--at the Green Expo in the fall of 2010

There are a thousand opportunities. I always want to know how to do something better. I want to know how to get more relevance into science classrooms. I want to know how to help teachers do depth and not breadth. Teach less, but teach it deeply."

What advice, if any, would you give to teachers using these Facing the Future lessons for the first time?

"Just start it. Just do it. Even if it’s one question you ask or one idea. The 'Every Drop Counts' lesson has three components to it, pick half of a component and do it for the first year and see the response [see Lesson 16 in Engaging Students Through Global Issues]. I think that teachers who want to incorporate something just need to start and not be afraid that they didn’t do the lesson as it was designed. There is no such thing. That is what teaching is all about. You beg, borrow, steal, or totally twist and adapt. If you have an idea that you didn’t have before and you feel like you could use it, then use it and as always give credit."

Anything else you’d you like to share with other teachers who are looking to engage their students in global issues and sustainability?

"Once you start you can’t go back. You are hooked. Sustainability is a methodology of teaching for sure. Teaching global sustainability is less about the content and the concepts and more about the context. You have to be willing to teach in a contextual style. You have to be willing to be able to provide regular relevance to students in different scenarios or situations. If you want them to hang their hat on something you have to provide the hooks"

Supplemental Materials

Here is a PowerPoint that Jessica uses with the 'Every Drop Counts!' [see Lesson 16 in Engaging Students Through Global Issues].


Download Jessica's World's Water Trivia PowerPoint

Learn more about Jessica's work:

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