New science textbooks could bring students closer to science behind climate change

Chefornak High School students Matthew Erik, left, Clayton Panruk,
pose with biology teacher Theresa Schallhorn, and fellow student Dawson Erik, with their new CK-12 Foundation biology textbook on December 16, 2017. (Photo by Christine Trudeau/KYUK)

Studying high school science in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta comes with a whole new textbook.

A textbook that’s free, open source, available in print and digital formats and customized geographically to rural southwestern Alaska.

Educators and students alike are excited about the new texts.

Chefornak high school science teacher Theresa Schallhorn introduced the new biology textbook to students this fall, and they love it.

“From the very cover picture, the kids were interested already,” Schallhorn said.

They flipped it open and saw pictures of tundra berries that they recognized.

“They flipped it over, they saw an albino moose, and they’re like, ‘oh my gosh! I’ve heard stories about this,’” Schallhorn said. “They started chatting with each other and talking to me about these things that were in this textbook, and I had never seen that before. Whether it be a biology textbook or a physical science book, math book, anything like that.”

A couple of years ago, Schallhorn started working with Andrea Pokrszywinski and other Lower Kuskokwim School District science teachers on a review of the ninth-through-12th-grade textbooks.

“We put together teams that represent the villages and grade levels, and topics and subjects such as social studies and science,” Pokrszywinski said.

They decided to go with the Silicon Valley-based CK-12 Foundation.

A distance-education teacher based in Anchorage, Pokrszywinski has used videoconferencing to teach science courses online with the Lower Kuskokwim School District for the past nine years and has used the CK-12 Foundation’s online resources previously.

The review team first began with the biology textbook.

“What I started to notice about the book was that it explained the content very well,” Pokrszywinski said. “Being very concise and without being too wordy, and without being weighted with a lot of academic language, and using neutral, everyday experiences.”

This past year she helped make the push for all of LKSD’s high school level science courses to use CK-12’s open source textbooks, commonly known as “flex-books.”

In a chapter of the CK-12 Foundation’s biology textbook, an image of berries on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Tundra helps illustrate principals of photosynthesis. (Photo by Christine Trudeau/KYUK)

Teachers using the flex-books can print, on the district’s dime, as many copies of the textbook as they need for their students, as well as update textbooks regularly, which Schallhorn feels is important.

“To support something that we can constantly edit and re-edit and revise and make changes as necessary,” Schallhorn said.

After a semester with the new, localized CK-12 textbooks, ninth-graders Matthew Erik and Clayton Panruk are sold on it, as is 10th-grader Dawson Erik.

“Because we can connect to what it’s saying,” Erik said.

The students said, along with the better sense of the Delta that the textbook gives them, they look forward to other parts of the textbook being translated since they all grew up bilingual, speaking Yugtun first.

They also said that though translating may be difficult, it would still be worth it.

Pokrszywinski also said that in addition to helping the district include more culturally relevant examples in their curriculum, in the long run it will help more students relate their everyday experiences to the language of science.

“Because there are so many climate deniers out there who don’t see the accelerated erosion, or the thawing permafrost, or the changes in the seasonal activities of animals, but our students are seeing that and they have those observations,” Pokrszywinski said. “I would hope that they can start to try and speak the scientific language, and claims of it and reasoning.”

Beginning this summer, LKSD will start the process of translating their kindergarten-through-sixth-grade science textbooks into Yugtun.

These textbooks will be used in immersion schools, and the 17 bilingual schools throughout the district.