Behind the curriculum: Szydlowski invigorates Columbia’s science programs

By Catherine Wheeler

Mike Szydlowski is the science coordinator for Columbia Public Schools. He organizes curriculum and field trips for the district. Photo by Catherine Wheeler.

On one wall of Mike Szydlowski’s office, titles like Camp Out! and The Hive and the Honeybee stuff a-floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. Science education books tightly line the bottom shelves.

A clock leans on the highest shelf. Elements from the periodic table replace numbers. Twelve is magnesium, one is hydrogen, and six is carbon. To the left of the clock, Beaker from The Muppets lounges in the lap of a stuffed raccoon.

Pictures of Columbia Public School students in the Grand Tetons fill the opposite wallKids and nature are the focus in these photos. The kids smile, make goofy faces and play in front of giant snow-capped mountains. Szydlowski is in every picture, even when you can’t see him.

As the science coordinator for Columbia Public Schools, Szydlowski creates and modifies the science curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade and organizes field trips for the district. He has been the driving force behind more robust programs and spreading a love of science through the schools. His most noteworthy achievement: organizing the nation’s largest trip of its kind to the Tetons Science School.

A Grand Trip

Every June, Szydlowski and chaperones take students, ranging from sixth through 12th grade, to the Grand Tetons in Wyoming to learn about the environment there and how it connects to their home in Columbia.

They partner with the Tetons Science School, which leads the students on outdoor activities such as hikes and canoeing on the String Lake. The science school staff make stops throughout the day to teach kids about outdoor and environmental subjects.

On the first trip in 2011, 70 students showed up.

This year, 500 spots sold out in eight hours.

Michelle Schnake, a seventh grade science teacher at Gentry Middle School, said when she chaperones on the trip, Szydlowski creates a relaxed and positive atmosphere for the kids to not only learn about science, but also grow in leadership.

“The trip is 50 percent science and 50 percent leadership,” Szydlowski said.

Szydlowski picked up the idea of place-based education from the Tetons Science School and has infused it into the Columbia Public Schools curriculum.

At the Tetons Science School, educators relate scientific and environmental concepts and help students make connections to practical use in their community.

Szydlowksi said the students hike four to six miles through the wilderness every day, spending about seven hours outside that day. One day the students learn about geology, and another day, the group studies animal tracking to understand more about animal behaviors.

Kaitlyn Hartnagel, a 10th grade student who has been on the Tetons trip twice, also went on an advanced trip headed by Szydlowski to Wyoming. It’s a  special trip for students that have been on the Tetons trip and want to dive deeper into environmental science. She said the trip taught her about conservation in Missouri, too.

For instance, her group in Wyoming talked about the decline of honeybees, and now Hartnagel with a group of students will build hives at an elementary school in Columbia.

“Even though I wasn’t at home, I could still learn and apply what I was learning there to here” in Columbia, she said.

Students look over Bradley Lake in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Columbia Public Schools hosts the field trip every June. Photo courtesy of Mike Szydlowski.

Place-Based Learning

Place-based education uses location to help students connect how what they are learning in class affects their community and their world. This is the second year that the science department has been using a place-based model, Szydlowski said.

Troy Sadler, an MU professor of science education and director of the ReSTEM Institute, which evaluates STEM education and programs, said place-based education emphasizes the connections between classroom learning and real-world situations.

Place-based education leads students to be more involved in their community and bridges the gap between school learning and action, according to an article by Gregory Smith, an education professor from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Smith’s article was published in “Kappan” magazine, the publication of Phi Delta Kappan International, a professional association for educators.  

As a parent, Susan Hartnagel, Kaitlyn’s mom, said she likes the focus on teaching concepts that can be applied to life rather than an emphasis on memorization.

Szydlowski said to him field trips are an important aspect of the curriculum because they help reinforce that idea of place-based education.

“I like doing those extra things to motivate kids to want to like science or if they already do, to do some things outside the classroom,” Szydlowski said.

With a grant through Missouri Department of Conservation, the school district receives $7 for each student. Additional money from the science department allows for all classes to take at least two field trips in the school year, with some classes taking up to four, Szydlowski said. The money covers the cost of transportation, the largest financial barrier when planning field trips.

New Science Standards

In addition to incorporating place-based education into the curriculum, the Columbia school district has adopted the Next Generation Science StandardsThe new standards use up-to-date science and help prepare students for higher education careers in the global economy.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics and a Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, in 2015, the U.S. ranked 10th in average science scores among eighth graders. Additionally, only 12 percent of U.S. eighth graders reached advanced international science benchmarks in 2015.

“NGSS is a step forward in the evolution of science standards,” Sadler said.

The standards help educators think about how students should be applying science, Sadler said.

Szydlowski said the teaching staff has been incorporating the new standards since fall of 2014. He said he pushed for the school district to adopt the standards, and Columbia was the first school district in the state to adopt the new standards.

Szydlowski said it will take about three more years to fully incorporate the spirit of the new standards.

Sadler said he is impressed with the way Columbia Public Schools has handled the transition from the old standards to the new ones including its approach to curriculum, teacher professional development, and assessment for students. He credits Szydlowski for the smooth transition.

Schnake said the new standards better incorporate climate change into the curriculum in comparison to the old standards.

In the old standards, climate change went virtually unaddressed. Before, it was a section on weather. Now, that section of the curriculum is updated with current science about climate change, Szydlowski said.

The new standards also better incorporate general environmental education, Szydlowksi said.

In one new program, students in third grade and above made a goal to remove a million honeysuckle plants from Columbia. The invasive plants crowd the forest floor and prevent new trees from growing.

So far, they have removed 1.2 million plants.

“We’ve hit it, but we keep going,” he said. “It turns out the kids love it. The fourth grade kids asked to give up their recess to do more.”

Ragan Webb, a fourth grade teacher at Fairview Elementary, said her fourth graders are particularly invested in the project and want to participate in it because the school is next to a forest.

As an important aspect of his job as science coordinator, Szydlowski communicates with all the teachers throughout Columbia Public Schools to make sure the teachers have what they need.

Elementary science teachers get a lot of guidance, while middle school and high school teachers have more freedom. Szydlowski’s method is to suggest lesson plans and help when needed, rather than telling teachers what to do.

“I don’t want to be a coordinator that makes teachers robots,” he said.

Schnake said one of the best things about working with Szydlowski is his collaboration with teachers.

“He doesn’t micromanage, he guides,” Schnake said.

Webb said that Szydlowski encourages the elementary sciences and lets teachers focus on getting kids engaged.

Mike Szydlowski works in his office at the Aslin Administration Building on February 16, 2017. He said most of his day is responding to emailed questions from teachers. Photo by Catherine Wheeler.

A Love of Science

As a child growing up in St. Louis, Szydlowksi spent a lot of time outside in the forests behind his home.

“We’ve taken kids to the forest, and it’s the first time they’ve seen a forest, and I can’t relate to that.”

Sydlowski’s love of science started at a young age, but as he thought about college, he decided on business because of its practicality.  However, he realized after his first semester that science education was what he really wanted to do.

“It’s like I had been fighting it and then I just gave in,” he said.

After graduating with a degree in education, Szydlowski moved back to the St. Louis area, where he began teaching high school chemistry and forensics.

He originally thought he would end up becoming an assistant principal, but he changed his mind after a science coordinator position at Rockwood School District in the St. Louis area opened up.

“I thought this is kind of the best because I love the science aspect of it,” Szydlowski said.

After six of years at Rockwood, Szydlowski moved to the Columbia school district. His wife, Jennifer, is a middle school science teacher at Jefferson Middle School. They also have three daughters.

Szydlowski said he and his wife were looking for a smaller community outside of St. Louis, and as they both attended MU, decided to settle here once the job with Columbia Public Schools became available.

Szydlowksi’s goal with the science department isn’t to make everyone a scientist, but to help foster well-rounded citizens and voters, he said.

Szydlowski also offers that same idea to readers of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Szydlowski writes a weekly column about science topics, including current events in science. He said his admiration of journalism and working for his high school paper made writing the columns enjoyable.

Every week at the end of each article, Szydlowski includes a pop quiz for readers to see what they’ve learned from the article, focusing on critical thinking skills.

Szydlowski said sometimes the students take the quizzes in effort to have more opportunities to practice critical thinking. He said sometimes they’ll have to double a number, or do a calculation, anything that helps them think more critically about what they read.

“We’ve had language arts teacher occasionally take the articles once a month and teach the kids strategies on how to read a science article,” Szydlowski said.

Overall, Szydlowski said this position is the one he wants to stay in for the rest of his career.

“From here, I never want to move up. This is what I want to do.”

 

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