Equity through the Inquiry Science Education Consortium in New Mexico

Gwendolyn Perea Warniment, ISEC Program Director, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) Foundation in New Mexico
September 17, 2015 | FOSS in Schools

Participants explore an activity from the FOSS Mixtures and Solutions Module during an ISEC Teachers' Institute.

What does science look like? What does it sound like or feel like? How do we know we are participating in this endeavor we casually call science?

For students in northern New Mexico, science has traditionally been a mysterious enterprise, synonymous with a hidden national laboratory. Science has been enigmatic, quiet, and prestigious, built upon images of famous men in a laboratory with interesting gadgets or electronics that were astonishing in their ability. Many students in northern New Mexico are taught the connection between science and war, the history of an atomic bomb, and the enchanting power to split atoms and accelerate particles. Living with the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in your backyard is an interesting duality; the cultural divide between activities that occur at a national laboratory and the reality of students' daily life can become more of a cultural chasm, particularly when science is inherently secretive.

Students and magnets

Top image: Students in a fourth-grade dual language class investigate magnets and direction as a part of the Energy and Electromagnetism Module.

The socioeconomic and racial divide among the students in northern New Mexico is stark. According to 2013 U.S. Census data, the current percentage of families living below poverty in New Mexico is 21.9%. And yet, the median income in Los Alamos County is often among the highest in the nation. New Mexico is a minority-majority state, with a combined population of nearly 60% identified as Hispanic, Latino, or American Indian. Contrasting this data is a 2013 report that lists disparities in STEM employment by sex, race, and Hispanic origin.1 Nationally, Hispanics make up only 7% of the STEM workforce. Worse, of the 6.7% of Hispanics who do hold degrees in science or engineering, only 28% are employed in a STEM-related occupation.

LANL is to be commended. Outreach to area students is continually expanding and exposes students to the extensive variety of research that is often groundbreaking in many areas of science, technology, and engineering. And yet, students are still left wondering how to get there.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation (LANLF) thought deeply of this divide when it decided five years ago to embark on a new project, that involved science and elementary students in the areas surrounding the Lab—The Inquiry Science Education Consortium (ISEC). The ISEC is composed of six school districts in northern New Mexico, four of which are classified as "rural remote." All districts have a considerable ELL population and high numbers of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, with a combined average of 71.7%.2

The ISEC has components found in many other inquiry science projects: a materials management system and warehouse to supply high quality science equipment, a comprehensive approach to teacher professional development that includes a summer institute, follow-up coaching, and most importantly, FOSS modules. Evaluation results for this project reflect those of other inquiry science projects with statistically significant, positive differences in academic achievement for these students not only in science, but in math and language arts.3

What is significant about this inquiry science project is the impetus for change. Equity, a critical term in education, and in our location, is perhaps most about the expectations not only of our students but of teachers, administrators, parents and the community. In what ways are we facilitating equitable access for our students to engage as scientists? Are we comfortable with the content and nature of science? Do we explicitly recognize that acquisition of scientific discourse may be overwhelmingly political and can lead to social status?

A systems approach towards science education that is concerned with equity is particularly focused on curriculum that provides an entry point not only for students, but for teachers as well, given this explicit attention to the sociopolitical dimension of science. Both educators and students need to feel capable of engaging in scientific discourse and practices in order to inhabit this "identity kit" that James Gee describes.4

A unifying curriculum that provides an entry point to this practice of science can also be critical when teacher and administrator turnover is endemic in locations of rurality and poverty. Professional development that involves both the FOSS science modules and a robust scope and sequence of further topics allows teachers in ISEC to deeply understand the flow and expectations involved with conceptual frameworks and the overarching structure of inquiry pedagogy. These then provide trajectory through which instruction can advance. Administrators are also engaged in their own professional development designed specifically to meet the needs of site leaders as they adapt an identity kit of leadership in multidimensional instruction and sharing of effective practices with staff.

Students and levels and pulleys

Students using the Motion, Force, and Models Module discuss the benefits of a three-pulley system.

Science continues to evolve. It is a practice that involves both local and global communities and is much more comprehensive, involving interrelated activities that are theoretical, practical, and often involve engineering in tandem. Science instruction must evolve as well. It is equally important that we ask how students get to this place we now call science. Young students truly begin to identify with science when they are given explicit pathways along which to access the practice of science rather than merely the content. What we have noticed in New Mexico is the success of FOSS modules in doing just this.

Student's ability to participate in the practice of science is vital. This participation deepens their content knowledge. It allows students to understand science as a multidisciplinary endeavor. Participatory action provides teachers and students a significant entrance point into the new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). It provides context for all students (e.g., special ed, emergent bilinguals, gifted, and talented) to collaborate with peers. It provides a vantage point through which students can begin to compare their own practice to that of career scientists and engineers, and it introduces the academic discourse involved with science that allows an inherent scientific identity.

FOSS modules contributed to a cultural shift within ISEC schools, as students and teachers alike have adopted science practices with wide-ranging results. Not only is science a valued component of the school day, it is often the favorite. Similarly, cross-curricular connections are largely established, with science and literacy blocks set back to back. Most interestingly, now that science has a set, unifying curriculum, teachers are able to cultivate connections between science and local issues and move towards stronger student-centered instruction. In a sense, the FOSS modules have become a unifying scaffold.

Teachers at a school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, have deepened content understanding built from the FOSS Solar Energy Module by linking application to the energy resources present in New Mexico and the potential savings for their entire school. In other schools students researched additional sources of information—stories, myths, Native American ideologies—that involved the Sun. In addition, the literacy block utilizes work recorded in their science notebooks.

Tony E. Quintana Elementary School, a school in Española, New Mexico, held an end-of-year community science night called Sustainable Sombrillo. Community members were invited to join teachers and parents in supporting and celebrating their students' community science and technology projects. The projects gave students the opportunity to display knowledge gained through ISEC science modules involving a study of the local environment, with the goal of determining how the community could use its natural resources (such as the Santa Cruz River, rich agricultural soil, solar energy, and naturally occurring rocks and minerals) to become a more sustainable community. Students as young as kindergarten communicated their data using Prezi and PowerPoint. Supportive organizations included Escala Education Services, the Santa Fe National Forest, the Santa Cruz Irrigation District, and the East Rio Arriba Soil Conservation District. They contributed their time and resources, helping students link learned science content knowledge and learned science practices with real world applications.

Yet, the most important aspect of this cultural shift is not the increased importance of science during the school day or even the resultant positive impact on student achievement scores, but the gentle, persistent recognition that all students and teachers are scientists in their own right.

Science sounds like many voices, in many languages, feels like a safe and exciting practice that involves a wonderful productive struggle. Science looks like children in a first-grade classroom in rural Peñasco, New Mexico, discussing their adobe homes and the connection to the bricks they are creating through the FOSS Pebbles, Sand, and Silt Module, or these same children playing by balancing pencils on a craft stick and exclaiming they have found "¡el punto de equilibrio!" ("The balance point!") Science feels like a fourth-grade dual-language classroom at El Camino Real Academy in Santa Fe, New Mexico, richly discussing the potential strength of electromagnets in Spanish and then writing about it the following week in English.

The practice of science is multifaceted. It includes asking questions, developing and using models, planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, using mathematics and computational thinking, constructing explanations, engaging in argument from evidence, and communicating and evaluating information.5 It is interdisciplinary and includes elements of engineering and design. It is located in both the spaces intimate to the individual and at the grand scale universal. But what may be crucial is recognizing that the practice of science hinges on navigating academic discourse.6 In terms of equity, this deep process involves making sense of phenomena from multiple perspectives. As students and teachers work through that productive struggle, involving observation, investigation, and explanation, the bridge between individual perspective and appreciation of differing viewpoints is built. Science is a community of practice. Students and teachers replicate this community of practice inside the classroom, modeling democratic, respectful engagement.

In order for students to engage in this practice of sense making and for teachers to successfully facilitate the process, educators and administrators need first to experience this shift in classroom culture. Equity involves teachers as much as students. As part of the ongoing professional development that ISEC has provided, Brian Campbell, a FOSS curriculum developer, conducted a workshop focused on building these practices with teachers. During the training, science notebooks were used in a way that allowed participants' thinking to become visible. Science talk was modeled and discussed using clear strategies that engage all students. Teachers were asked to construct explanations about the weathering of rocks and work around argumentation focused on application of concepts to the local area. This training proved indispensable, as it provided teachers additional tools to engage students in the scientific practices within the context of the FOSS modules they were already using. It also buoyed their foundational knowledge of the modules so that they might begin to make valuable connections with the regional resources.

LANLF's particular concern is to provide our youngest students with STEM education that not only functions to prepare them for college and career, but also gives them the tools of discourse, which might help them fully engage in their schools, family, communities, and beyond. LANLF envisions students who become critical consumers of scientific information related to their everyday lives, and are prepared to pursue careers in science, engineering, and technology. Perhaps most importantly, we envision students who are prepared to confront and solve the future challenges that face society: energy, disease, food and water, and environmental change. Strong democratic decision-making must include our American Indian population, our rural students, our emergent bilingual students, our Hispano families that have inherited poverty over generations inside the United States, and the plethora of identities not mentioned here but that make New Mexico the Land of Enchantment. Most valuable, however, is that we provide our students the skills, knowledge, practices, and discourse that provide the opportunity to work at a premier national laboratory that is close to home.

It is interesting to consider the impact of such a program considering the NGSS and the call for science for all students.7 The future of the Inquiry Science Education Consortium is motivated by this tremendous call. The program will continue, looks to expand and will use several of the new Next Generation FOSS Modules to evolve (see page 1 of this newsletter for more on the Next Generation FOSS Modules). Something so seemingly complex as science and engineering has become a simple, unifying thread for school districts in northern New Mexico. Equity is an undercurrent of this work, providing experiences, materials and resources to students, teachers, and schools.

Gwendolyn Perea Warniment is the ISEC Program Director at the LANL Foundation in New Mexico.


  1. Landivar, Liana Christin. 2013. "Disparities in STEM Employment by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin," American Community Survey Reports, ACS-24, Washington DC: U.S. Census Bureau.
  2. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. June 5, 2015.
  3. Rolfus, Eric, and Eishi Adachi, Gay Lamey, and Mary Key. 2014. "Inquiry Science Educational Consortium Evaluation: Year 4 Findings." Edvance Research Inc.
  4. Gee, J.P. 2001. "What is literacy?" in Shannon, P. Becoming Political Too: New Readings and Writings on the Politics of Literacy Education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  5. NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington DC: The National Academies Press.
  6. Quinn, Helen, Okhee Lee, and Guadalupe Valdés. 2013. "Language Demands and Opportunities in Relation to Next Generation Science Standards for ELLs," Understanding Language: Language, Literacy and Learning in the Content Areas.
  7. Lee, Ohkee. 2015. "NGSS for All Students," NSTA Blog,