Science Educator Profile | Connie Hvidsten

Featured Work: STeLLA (Science Teachers Learning from Lesson Analysis)

How long have you been with BSCS?
I came to BSCS in 2011 when I was close to finishing my doctorate at the University of California at Davis. After considering other positions, I knew that BSCS–with its leadership within the science education community, its broad variety of curriculum, professional development and research projects, its collaborative staff culture, and its ideal location in Colorado Springs–was the right place for me. 

Connie HvidstenWhat is your area of emphasis?
I am a generalist, by nature. I have an undergraduate degree in environmental science that included a little bit of coursework in every science discipline. I worked for many years as a middle school science teacher, which also required a general knowledge of Earth and space science, biology, chemistry and physics. This broad background has come in handy in the various projects I am privileged to work on at BSCS, including designing curriculum for a 4th grade unit on Earth’s changing surface and a 1st grade unit on diabetes, facilitating professional development workshops, and working with teams of teachers engaged in videocase analysis. Most recently, I’ve been studying data from students in the classroom and in one-on-one interviews to understand how they make sense of dynamic processes that build up and tear down Earth’s surface. 

How/when did you become interested in the field of science education?
I’ve been interested in science since high school when I had exceptional teachers who passed along a passion for exploring and explaining aspects of the natural world. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest surrounded by rich marine environments, rugged mountain terrain, and beautiful rolling hills of grain. It is a wonderful place to inspire curiosity and exploration in a young scientist!

In college, I earned a degree in environmental science with a minor in political science–my first career involved educating lawmakers about environmental issues by working in the legislative affairs branch of a national conservation organization. With a growing family and children, I transitioned from educating lawmakers to teaching middle school, which in many ways can be very similar! As a science teacher, I had the opportunity to work with incredible colleagues and professional development providers who challenged me to think deeply about science teaching and learning. Once my own children were grown and off to college, I went back to graduate school to hone my understandings of both science and science education. Everything I learned helped me to make sense of my teaching experiences and led me to want to make a difference for students in science classrooms across the country and around the world. 

What is your educational background?
I hold an undergraduate degree in environmental science with a minor in political science from Washington State University. I worked in Washington, DC for the National Wildlife Federation for several years helping to shape legislation to protect the nation’s natural resources. My family and I moved to California, and in 1993 I earned a secondary teaching credential in life science from California State University in Sacramento. After teaching for many years, I entered graduate school and am close to completing my doctoral dissertation from the University of California at Davis. My research focuses on how professional development can support secondary teachers in taking up complex teaching practices essential to help students learn science by reasoning with conceptual scientific models. 

Why is science education important in our lives?
Science education is important because it supports a basic human drive to make sense of our world – a drive that in our early years helps us to solve problems essential to our survival and growth, and later keeps life interesting while helping us solve more intricate problems that take us to the moon, feed the world’s populations, cure diseases, and understand the impacts of our footprint on Earth. I’ve seen evidence of this natural drive in my own children and my students when they express a deeply disturbing frustration when they can’t make sense of things and a distinctive joy when they can. In a classroom, this joy can be described as that “aha moment” or as the light bulb going off above a student’s head accompanied by an ear-to-ear grin. This joy is different from having “fun” with engaging activities in science classes – it goes far deeper. It is about exploring and explaining the world. It is a process that is generative; everything we figure out leads us to want to know more.

As we grow older, childhood curiosity and the drive to explain the world can be lost in the daily routines of classroom instruction that emphasizes memorizing facts and vocabulary rather than critical and creative thinking and reasoning. But for many, despite–rather than because of–our school experience, we continue to seek the deep satisfaction that comes from figuring things out–understanding the natural world and our place in it.

I believe science education is important not only because it can give us a sense of our place in the world but also in that it can give us the tools to continue exploring grown-up problems such as those that will impact each of us as we face the challenges of a growing global population, shrinking availability of natural resources, changing climate patterns, and increasing levels of waste in our air, water, and land. 

What are you working on at BSCS right now, and with whom?
One of the exciting projects I’m working on right now is Science Teachers Learning from Lesson Analysis (STeLLA), funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The research program, in the fourth of five years, is designed to test the efficacy of a one-year program of professional development for upper elementary teachers. The STeLLA program is driven by a framework of classroom strategies with two explicit goals. The first is to focus teachers’ attention on student thinking and reasoning though specific patterns of classroom discourse and instructional tasks. The second is to develop intentional habits for planning rich and coherent science content storylines that focus on developing science ideas.

This process is in contrast to typical science lesson planning that engage students in an endless series of “fun” activities which might not connect to science ideas, nor lead to deep science learning. Throughout this process, teachers focus on the science content their students are to learn and realize that they have gaps in their own understanding. So, the STeLLA PD program not only helps teachers improve their science practices, but it deepens their personal understanding of the science concepts they teach.

My role in this project is to lead summer institute sessions and to facilitate teacher teams throughout the school year as they analyze classroom video through a process of lesson anlaysis. By analyzing video, teachers see how using the strategies in real classrooms leads to student learning of important science concepts, deepen their own understanding of science concepts, critique their own attempts at using the strategies, and help one another to make sense of student science ideas and their classroom experiences.

The preliminary findings from the research study show that teachers are not only learning effective teaching practices, but are developing a deeper understanding of the science content they teach. Even more important, the early findings indicate that students of the teachers participating in the STeLLA lesson analysis program are learning more science and performing better on end-of-unit tests than students in the classrooms of teachers who spent the same amount of time in professional development focused on science content without video analysis. 

While working on this project, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with Kathy Roth, the principal investigator and primary developer of the STeLLA Program, as well as Nancy Landes, the project director.  We partner with university faculty from the University of Denver, Colorado College, Cal Poly Pomona and the Poudre Learning Center who help provide instruction in our summer institutes. A stellar group of PD leaders from BSCS–Jody Bintz, Elaine Howes, Rebecca Kruse, and Paul Numedahl–are using videocase analysis of our PD sessions to better understand and improve our own delivery of the PD program. Teachers from 16 school districts in the Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo areas enrolled in the research study and are the participants in the STeLLA professional development program. Our external evaluation team from McREL (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning) provides observers for both the summer institutes and many of the teacher team meetings throughout the school year.

Who will this work benefit and how does this help bring our mission to life for you? 
At first, the STeLLA project will benefit the teachers and their students who are participating in the research study. However, our goal is to use the knowledge generated through this research to help science teachers everywhere (and at every level) understand what it takes to help students learn–not just memorize–science.

The information from this study could not be more timely. The nation is currently in the process of adopting a new generation of national science standards–the NGSS. The standards spell out the practices in which students should be engaged while learning science, such as asking questions, developing and using scientific models, analyzing and interpreting data, constructing explanations, and engaging in argument from evidence. In other words, the new standards lay out a vision of science education where the role of the teacher is to carefully plan experiences and provide guidance while the students are putting together facts and observations, identifying patterns, making and testing conjectures, and building lines of reasoning about why claims can or cannot be supported. But most teachers haven’t experienced this type of teaching and learning themselves and do not have the tools required to create a classroom culture that supports students engaging in these practices of science.

The STeLLA program helps teachers with well-thought-out strategies and a well-designed framework for making daily classroom decisions that make possible this type of student thinking and learning. Whereas the current STeLLA program focuses on teachers in 4th through 6th grades, we have proposed and are working on other projects that use the STeLLA framework and strategies with practicing secondary science teachers and preservice teachers in their science methods courses. The STeLLA program has the potential to make a difference for teachers and students in science classrooms at all levels. 


The STeLLA work is funded by the National Science Foundation. Click here to learn more.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-0918277. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation..