At UW Bothell, faculty member Carrie Tzou is reinventing how science is taught

In college, Carrie Tzou found science difficult to relate to. It didn’t take her long to realize that it wasn’t her, but rather the teaching methods that were lacking. As she wondered how biology—her major—could be more engaging, she decided to see how she could design ways to improve teaching. Today, it is her career focus.

As an assistant professor of education at UW Bothell, Tzou prepares prospective K-12 instructors to teach science using methods that bridge the gap between textbook jargon and what students do outside of school. “If you bring those everyday experiences into the classroom, it makes science come alive in a totally different way,” says Tzou, who taught seventh and eighth grade health and science before starting at UWB.

In 2006, Tzou partnered with an elementary school in an effort to make science education more personal. For many years, Seattle Public Schools has used science kits—nationally distributed lessons and materials packaged neatly in boxes—to teach science. While the kits allow instructors to educate students without inventing curricula, they are not tailored to specific communities. What Tzou did was cater one of the kits already used in fifth grade classrooms to students in Seattle.

Because Seattle has a high incidence of asthma and allergies, Tzou and her team decided that the microbiology and health unit was especially relevant. The reinvented kit, called Microworlds, was designed to teach microbiology through personal and health lenses. It is still being used.

“Before, there were a lot of activities that were disconnected from each other and jumped from topic to topic,” Tzou says. “So we tried to figure out ways that kids could bring their everyday health practices from home into the classroom.”

Microworlds includes interactive experiments that allow students to design their own investigations. One such experiment requires students to document their at-home health practices with digital cameras and share their findings with classmates. Another involves swabbing different parts of the school to determine which environments attract the most bacteria.

“The conversations kids were having around science included a lot of topics that you don’t normally see in a traditional science classroom—a lot of cultural influences,” Tzou says. “We saw really high engagement and a huge change in their excitement about sharing these experiences with each other.”

Her newest project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is designing online software that uses digital badges to motivate students outside of school. The concept is similar to video games in that players earn badges after completing certain tasks. The program will begin in the spring and is intended to help high-school students earn college credit.

Tzou is also involved in a project called STEAM—like STEM, but with art—to create science academies for middle-school girls and incorporate art into science education. Her research is constantly influencing her teaching.

“Even for my students who come in saying they don’t like science,” she says, “they come to see that there is actually a strong connection between science and what they do in their everyday lives.”