An Overview of the the Sci-Ed Approach to Teacher Development in STEM Education

PUBLISHED: February 27, 2016 - 4:10 p.m. EST

The Sci-Ed Innovators STEM Teacher Fellowship is a yearlong program that develops Fellows’ capacity to integrate democratic STEM teaching principles into their science, math, computer science, and engineering classrooms. Sci-Ed Innovators attracts STEM educators interested in engaging and empowering their students by using an engineering design process to study and refine their own teaching practice. Our Fellows become more engaged in teaching, increase their professional empowerment, learn from a talented community, and develop confidence in their ability to make a positive impact through democratic pedagogy.

In this series of blog posts we will describe the professional development model that the Sci-Ed Innovators Fellowship program has used for the last six years. The program employs a design-based and iterative approach. This means that our Fellows use a structured design thinking process over the course of two learning cycles. At the end of each cycle is a presentation of learning to a public audience. Fellows memorialize these presentations as short video narratives called “Windows into our Classrooms” (WICs).


Fellows engage in a series of iterative flare and focusexperiences over the course of each five month learning cycle. All aspects of an individual classroom are open to exploration. Fellows push each other to think deeply about possible changes that might be made before a specific problem area is chosen. When Fellows have focused on a specific problem, they again push each other to consider many possible solutions before attempting to implement a single solution idea. This process is a core element of the Sci-Ed Innovators approach. We diverge and then converge again and again in our thinking, knowing that our students receive the highest quality education when we have stretched our minds to think about our classrooms from many different viewpoints.

Another core element of the Sci-Ed approach comes from adult development theory. Each learning cycle functions as a holding environment for adult growth and development. It has a beginning, middle, and a natural ending. Learning is continuous and ongoing over the course of the cycle. Individual workshops within the cycle are designed in such a way that “loose ends” (from a learner’s perspective) are acceptable and encouraged. Sci-Ed workshops provide a space of safe exploration, stability, growth through challenge, and constant support.

What follows is a brief description of the primary components of each workshop in a learning cycle:

  • Workshop 1: Fellows learn about the structure of the learning cycle that they will use throughout the Fellowship. They also begin to explore their classroom environments through structured discussion protocols chosen to surface areas of practice to further investigate. An example is the “Noticings and Wonderings” protocol. Fellows end the workshop ready to investigate their classroom spaces using a variety of design thinking tools. Fellows are at a point of flare; they are expanding the scope of their usual daily observations. This expansion requires empathy. Throughout this workshop, Fellows exercise empathy with themselves, each other, and their students as they take on a full spectrum of ideas and feelings in classrooms across New York City.
  • Workshop 2: Participants focus and start to define a classroom problem of practice. Fellows learn about the “How might we...?” (HMW) question construction from the world of design thinking. HMWs are essentially a way of phrasing a problem of practice that invites solution ideas. This process of creating HMWs for a specific problem pushes Fellows to define the scope of the problem they intend to explore throughout a learning cycle. Working primarily in small coaching groups, Fellows critically consider observations and inferences of the classroom, and tune HMWs and problems of practice. Through this collaborative pruning, Fellows begin to glimpse the problem area where they will innovate.

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  • Workshop 3: Fellows again flare as they brainstorm solution ideas to their problems of practice. At the end of the workshop, fellows will describe their in-process solution ideas to the whole group and receive critical feedback. This is primarily an ideation stage. Fellows develop awareness of a range ofideas, each representing a potential solution to the problem of practice. Fellows prototype and test one of these solutions in the time between this workshop and the next. They also begin to package their WIC as a digital story.
  • Workshop 4: Fellows use a tuning protocol to give and receive feedback for their in-process solutions ideas. Fellows then begin to assemble digital stories using screencasting tools. Finally, Fellows reflect on their process and engage in open conversation about the social emotional dynamics surrounding the presentation of their WICs. Feelings of excitement, fear, anxiety, and hope often emerge. Fellows consider these feelings as a parallel of the same dynamics surrounding presentation in their own classrooms. At this point, Fellows are focused on a single solution idea, and must grapple with feelings about the flare that will occur when they open their thinking to public scrutiny.

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  • Workshop 5: Fellows present their work to a public audience, receive feedback, and return to their classrooms ready to iterate. In the second five-week learning cycle, Fellows repeat the process, using the learning and inspiration from the first cycle to go deeper a second time around.


Throughout these workshops, the Sci-Ed program employs the same design constraint that it aims to teach: the democratic STEM teaching framework. Working primarily with protocols developed for facilitative leadership, Sci-Ed “constrains behavior in order to enhance experience.” We curate protocol-driven learning experiences that surface unique funds of knowledge, distribute authority equally, and sharpen critical thinking about pedagogy. The result is a unique learning culture that deeply values dialogue about the way we work (our process). During the first workshop of the fellowship, Fellows develop agreements about how the group will work together based on collective hopes and fears. We revisit these agreements at each subsequent workshop and tweak when necessary. Our process is an object of constant study.

In the language of adult development theory, Sci-Ed Innovators creates a parallel process. We do not exist to prescribe skills and best practices. Rather, we ask our Fellows to become learners in a structured environment that parallels the classroom. This is indirect and implicit learning with built in reflective structures that amplify the impact of the explicit teaching within workshops. Regardless of the problem of practice that Fellows choose, the underlying process challenges Fellows to reconsider their classroom from the perspective of the learner.


Investments in the professional capital of teachers are increasingly recognized as primary drivers of positive classroom outcomes, especially in urban education environments. The Sci-Ed experience is such an investment in professional capital. Our Fellows exit the program with impactful pedagogical tools and membership in a critical, supportive community. Many even go on to lead professional development programs within their schools that incorporate elements of the Sci-Ed experience. We love to see our Fellows develop over time and are deeply inspired by the extraordinary learning environments that they create for, and with, their students.  


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