BaySci: The Bay Area Partnership for Science Education Helping Raise the Tide for Systemic Reform

Diana Velez, FOSS Professional and Leadership Developer, Lawrence Hall of Science
September 01, 2014 | FOSS Partnerships


In Santa Barbara, California, BaySci is supporting the distict's effort to implement a vision and plan for an integrated and rigorous approach to science instruction. The goal of SBUSD's science initiative is to reverse the trend of the No Child Left Behind era when elementary science was not a priority. Most teachers were teaching science less than one hour a week or not at all. The curriculum was textbook based and there was no plan for replenishing materials. To address the problem, a leadership team headed by Associate Superintendent Robin Sawaske put together a plan for improving science instruction by providing professional development for teachers using their existing curriculum. But as teachers became more reflective in their practices, it soon became apparent that the materials they had were not adequately engaging students or providing the desired level of rigor.

In 2010, Holly Gil and Bridget Lewin were hired to help coordinate the district's science initiative. They began by providing workshops and hands-on materials for teachers to strengthen their science program. Holly took the district's list of ideas and turned it into a comprehensive strategic plan that could be presented to funders, supporters, and other stakeholders.

The BaySci/FOSS Connection

That spring 2010, Holly attended a BaySci presentation at NSTA and knew right away that the systematic approach outlined in the BaySci theory of action was exactly what Santa Barbara needed. The BaySci directors were encouraged by Santa Barbara's plan and saw the opportunity to expand the BaySci model beyond the Bay Area. Thanks to a grant from the Wharton Foundation, funding was provided to support the partnership with BaySci. But the first thing Santa Barbara had to change was their science curriculum. Enter Emilio Handall, who at the time was the principal of McKinley Elementary School (Emilio is now the Assistant Superintendent and is leading the district through systemic reform in science education.). Emilio had a vision and the support from his staff to make McKinley a science-centered school. He sent teachers to the Lawrence Hall of Science to find out about FOSS Third Edition. Bridget recalls that the teachers from McKinley were relieved to find that FOSS had what they had been striving to create all along—inquiry-based hands-on lessons that articulated K–5. She adds, "While observing FOSS taught in the classroom teachers said they saw something magical."

The plan for McKinley had taken hold, and teachers began to pilot FOSS Third Edition school-wide. With the support of FOSS staff and WestEd's K–12 Alliance, McKinley teachers were soon implementing FOSS at a high level.

Thanks to the passage of a parcel tax in 2012, SBUSD was able to begin purchasing FOSS Third Edition for the rest of the elementary schools in the district. According to Bridget, using FOSS gives teachers the "cognitive Velcro" they need to be able to identify and understand when and where to engage students in the NGSS practices. Teachers find that the notebooking component gives them a way to intersect with the common core ELA standards and the English Language Development (ELD) opportunities are authentic and robust throughout the modules. Bridget explains,

Teachers appreciate the high level of engagement and academic language FOSS provides. We see students engaged in science and writing more. Students who weren't doing well are now excelling. Students with special needs or disciplinary problems go right to it and are able to access it. It builds their self-confidence.

The science leadership team members agree that without FOSS it would have been much more difficult to realize their science initiative.

SBUSD is following the "Go slow, but go" approach to NGSS transition. Holly and Bridget decided to start FOSS implementation with the modules that aligned best with their recent foundational science content trainings. (Physical Science for grades 1, 3, and, 5; Earth Science for grades K–2, 4, and 6.) In 2013, teachers were given one module to implement to allow sufficient time to be trained, to try out the investigations, and collaborate with other teachers. In 2014, teachers will receive their second module in either Life Science (K–1, 3), Physical Science (2 and 4), or Earth Science for 5th. In 2015, all grades will receive their third module. Reflecting on the process, Holly and Bridget agree that it would not have been possible to roll out everything in one year.

District Reform

SBUSD teamed up with BaySci because of its district-wide approach. The leadership team needed to move beyond focusing on individual teachers and broaden the scope to implementing a more comprehensive plan for the district. Fortunately, the groundwork was laid for that to happen—a strategic plan and a leadership team. Holly emphasizes the importance of having a "vertical slice structure" to keep the leadership team cohesive. She explains, "There have been changes in superintendent, assistant superintendents, and principals, but enough people are invested and involved to keep the plan moving forward.

BaySci involvement has helped SBUSD look more closely at the structures that support high-quality instruction in general. Bridget explains, "We see the science initiative as one in the same with Common Core implementation. It would have been easy to forget about science but now everyone sees science as part of Common Core implementation; it's part of how we are changing how we teach. We are in a better position as a district to move forward with NGSS."

The San Francisco Bay Area is considered one of the top regions in the world for STEM education and careers. It hosts prestigious universities like UC Berkeley and Stanford, an extensive array of science museums and institutions, and Silicon Valley, which "has the highest proportion of tech jobs of any region in the country—more than four times the national average" (Kotkin, 2012).

Yet, a disturbing paradox presented itself in science education in the Bay Area. Despite the region's abundance of STEM-related jobs and resources, science instruction in Bay Area public schools is only now beginning to squeak its way back into the elementary classroom.

The lackluster state of elementary science education became a focal point of discussion when the directors of two of the Bay Area's top science education institutions—Elizabeth Stage from the Lawrence Hall of Science and Dennis Bartels from the Exploratorium, together with Mark St. John from Inverness Research—joined forces to tackle the issue. It was 2006 and science education was languishing on the vine. The effects of high-stakes testing in reading and math were taking their toll, pushing out any time in the class schedule for science. At the same time, a report had just been published in Science that found that students' early interest and exposure to science in the middle and younger grades was a stronger predictor than any other factor of how likely they were to graduate college with a bachelor's degree in science (Tai, Liu, Maltese, & Fan, 2006). Yet, a study commissioned by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in 2007 and conducted by the Lawrence Hall of Science found that most elementary school teachers (80%) spent only 60 minutes or less per week on science, and 16% spent no time at all on science (Dorph, Goldstein, Lee, Lepori, Schneider, & Vankatesan, 2007). These two studies suggested a bleak future for STEM education in the Bay Area. Little or no exposure to science at the elementary level meant Bay Area students were far less likely to graduate from college with a bachelor's degree in science. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation called on the science community and other foundations to come together to address the urgent need for improving science education in the Bay Area. Ideas were debated and a question was posed: What if science institutions and foundations collaborated to support local school districts? The result was the Bay Area Partnership for Science Education (BaySci), a formal partnership between the Lawrence Hall of Science, the Exploratorium, and Inverness Research. Its mission was to strengthen inquiry-based science instruction in the Bay Area.

The BaySci partners believed that a window of opportunity to bring back elementary science was now open. It was an adoption year for California, and FOSS was on the list of state-approved science curricula. There was complete consensus among the science leaders and program funders that FOSS was the only high-quality inquiry-based science curriculum on the list. The question was how to ensure that all K–5 teachers had access to the materials and adequate training to implement FOSS successfully in the classroom. The answer: the unit of change would have to be at the district-level.

Bay Area districts were clearly interested. As a result of two public forums on the need to improve elementary science education, there were 40 school districts that expressed interest in joining the partnership. The S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and the Noyce Foundation committed financial support, however, there were not enough resources to serve all 40 of the interested districts. The next step was to determine which of these districts would be the best fit for the BaySci partnership.

The founders wanted districts that would become a showcase for science and thereby encourage other districts to enact their own reform efforts. According to Craig Strang, the BaySci Co-Principal Investigator, a district had to show they were ready. He notes, "It didn't matter if they were starting at ground zero or already moving forward. The point was to support continued improvement." Reflecting on the process, Craig says, "There was no question or hesitancy that to participate you had to be a FOSS district. FOSS was the only curriculum that met the readiness criteria." Research by Inverness supported BaySci's strong stance on adopting the FOSS Program. National Science Foundation (NSF) systemic initiatives showed that it was critical to have a high quality curriculum in order to improve science education. There was general agreement among educators that a textbook-based curriculum would make it too difficult to achieve the goal of science education reform.

After three months of interviews and gathering data on the districts, the BaySci team agreed that the decisions would be based on three criteria. The first was readiness, which meant not only adopting the FOSS Program, but also having an infrastructure or plans to develop an infrastructure to support implementation. The other two were intent and potential. The district had to demonstrate their intention to make science among their highest priorities at all levels—from the superintendent to the classroom. There also had to be potential to benefit. A district had to demonstrate a certain level of administrative stability and the capacity for improvement.

Five districts that met these criteria were selected, Novato, Petaluma, Newark, Palo Alto, and Emery. The superintendents from each of these districts pledged their commitment to participate in BaySci events and to support district-wide reform. Of the five districts, three had previously been using the FOSS Program for science and were already planning to adopt FOSS again. The other two had no experience with FOSS or any type of science education reform, and they had no science coordinators. Nevertheless, they made strong cases to enter into the BaySci partnership.

The goal of the partnership was to increase the likelihood that every student would encounter high quality science instruction and have engaging opportunities to learn science. To reach this goal, the BaySci partners focused on desired outcomes—the improvement of infrastructure, the building of teacher capacity, and improving science learning (see the BaySci Theory of Action diagram).

For the first three years, BaySci focused on building district-level capacity to implement FOSS and on providing professional development for teachers and teacher leaders. Top-level district leaders participated in leadership seminars and planning sessions and received technical assistance to help them prioritize high quality science instruction and build leadership capacity.

BaySci Theory of Action

BaySci Theory of Action

By 2011, the efforts were paying off. Districts had developed functioning materials management systems and demonstrated increased leadership support for science teaching and learning. One of the districts that had started from ground zero, now had a science coordinator, a materials replenishment system, ongoing professional development for teachers, principal support, and a district funded teacher leadership committee that met periodically throughout the year.

Teachers from all the districts participated in workshops improving their capacity to implement FOSS modules effectively and to integrate science with literacy and English language development strategies. Inverness Research found that the BaySci teachers taught science more often and delivered higher quality lessons than would be found in the typical California elementary classroom. According to the BaySci Evaluation Report (2011), using the FOSS program in a steady and consistent manner helped create a foundation of high quality instruction. The report concluded that BaySci provides "an upward pressure on science teaching" that has resulted in improved instruction overall and better instruction than the national or state average.

Of course there isn't always clear sailing. On the contrary, BaySci has worked with districts through an era of great turmoil. In addition to the constraints of No Child Left Behind accountability, state budget cuts and district administrator turnover have churned the waters, making reform efforts even more difficult. According to Vanessa Lujan, BaySci's project director, one of the biggest challenges is maintaining leadership capacity. Due to budget cuts and position consolidations, all of the BaySci districts experienced changes in their science leadership teams. Vanessa explains,

Within the first three years of the project, every person had turned over at least once and in some cases twice (superintendents, assistant superintendents, science coordinators), with the exception of one district that still has the same superintendent. Turnover affects momentum, continuity, and capacity; you spend a lot of time developing leaders in science reform and then they leave. If one leaves that's ok, but when two or more leave at the same time, the history of learning is disrupted, and it affects the program.

To address the problem, BaySci focuses on making sure the leadership teams remain a part of the districts' infrastructure by including teachers and principals, as well as district administrators, and by encouraging districts to craft vision statements and implement action plans for their district's elementary science program. Experience with districts has shown that there is a simultaneous need to cultivate teacher leaders and to provide opportunities for those teacher leaders to engage in leadership activities.

Both Craig and Vanessa agree that the commitment to providing high-quality science instruction for all students must be district-wide, from the top to deep into classrooms. "It can't just be science coordinators, or resource teachers, or teachers going to workshops; that's not enough," insists Craig, adding,

Inverness Research evaluations found that most of the systematic initiatives have consisted of large-scale professional development for every teacher with the assumption that they will change their practice. However, the research shows that if the change is not supported, if there isn't an infrastructure, or a shared vision of what it looks like in the classroom, at the school site, and district-wide, then it won't happen. It is the focus on district capacity that has the most effect on changing teachers' practice.

Vanessa also highlights inter-district sharing as a powerful way to help build capacity and effect change.

In BaySci, teachers are able to share with other teachers in workshops, and teachers and administrators learn from other districts during the leadership seminars. We've seen how the work of one district can influence others. For example, we had districts share about using science as the context for their district writing assessments and now other districts are following suit. Even though districts differ, they learn from each other.

BaySci has learned a lot about what it takes for a district to support district-wide FOSS implementation. These elements are included in the BaySci District Capacity Framework, a tool designed by Inverness to help districts monitor their progress in developing the capacities and policies necessary to sustain a standards-based elementary science education program. (See Appendix D of BaySci Evaluation Report, 2011) One of the key elements is creating, communicating, and building consensus around a vision of what good science instruction looks like for each district. It has proven to be effective in helping districts prioritize science learning and building a school culture that supports science education. Craig points out that when they were starting out with the first five districts, the visions were, "Science should be taught. Every child has the right to learn science. That was it. Now five years later, districts are saying, ‘Science should have the same level of priority as ELA and math. Science should be taught daily.'" The way a district goes about supporting the former vision is radically different than the actions they would take with the later vision. Craig notes,

We have found that being clear on the vision is really important to prevent the possibility that there is a lot activity but no consensus on what you want to achieve. Teachers will teach science differently if it is a core subject versus teaching a little science during the year. People might think a vision statement is rhetoric or not worthwhile, but it can be a very powerful tool if you are using it as a basis for systemic reform. It has made a difference in a lot of districts. People have been both surprised and inspired during the process.

In addition to helping shape the local infrastructure through its work with school districts, BaySci also supports high-quality teaching and learning of science by bringing important issues to the forefront in community forums and through two other programs: Science Champions Network; and the Science-rich Education Institution (SREI) Learning Community. The BaySci Science Champions are individual educators from districts all around the Bay Area dedicated to improving their science instruction by participating in summer institutes and follow-up workshops at the Exploratorium. The SREI Learning Community consists of representatives from museums and other science educational institutions around the Bay Area and the state that meet periodically to share their expertise and collaborate on ways to support teaching and learning of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

BaySci Key Elements

BaySci Key Elements

The BaySci District Network continues to expand with the inclusion of Oakland, Alameda, Orinda, Santa Clara, and San Mateo/Foster City in the Bay Area, the Sonoma County Office of Education, and Santa Barbara USD in Southern California. It's a different era now, with districts focusing on implementing new standards from the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and planning for the implementation of the NGSS. These changes pose both challenges and exciting opportunities. BaySci districts are in an advantageous position to share ideas and resources within the network as they grapple with issues such as new approaches for integrating subject areas, providing high-quality professional science learning for teachers, and communicating their vision statements and action plans to stakeholders.

Each district varies in its approach to NGSS implementation. Most are continuing to use the FOSS California Program and are focusing professional learning on expanding the opportunities for students to engage in the practices and use the crosscutting concepts to deepen understanding of the big ideas in science. Some districts are using FOSS as the context for addressing the CCSS for ELA. Academic discussions, writing in science notebooks, and close reading are examples of some of the ways teachers are using literacy strategies to address both Common Core and NGSS. At Oakland USD, the science and ELA departments are working together to converge FOSS and ELA into seamless units of instruction. A cohort of their dual immersion schools is currently developing comprehensive units based on the content of FOSS modules using connections to social studies, literature, and the arts to address both content standards and academic language development in both Spanish and English.

Three of the districts new to BaySci opted to begin implementing FOSS Third Edition and are using the program as a resource for transitioning to NGSS and for addressing the CCSS for ELA. In a time when districts are scrambling to find curricula that address the new standards or are calling on teachers to develop new comprehensive lessons, teachers using FOSS Third Edition find it makes their work much easier when they're using a science curriculum that incorporates the practices and crosscutting concepts, as well as literacy and language development.

Regardless of their approach and despite the inevitable storms that lay ahead, the BaySci districts are clearly turning the tide of STEM education in the Bay Area with their commitment and dedication to making sure science is a part of every child's elementary education. Having accomplished that goal, BaySci is now working to replicate this model approach in other districts in the state. The focus now is to continue moving forward, building capacity in both teaching and learning in the classroom and in improving the infrastructures that support the new national vision for science.

For further information about BaySci, visit the website at Download the full Inverness Research BaySci report (PDF, 1.48 MB).


  • Kotkin, J. (2012). The best cities for tech jobs. Forbes. Retrieved from
  • Tai, R. H., Liu, C. Q., Maltese, A. V., Fan, X. (2006). Planning early for careers in science. Science, 312(5777), 1143-1144. doi: 10.1126/science.1128690
  • Dorph, R., Goldstein, D., Lee, S., Lepori, K., Schneider, S., Venkatesan, S. (2007). The status of science education in the Bay Area: Research brief. Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley; California.