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A group of students and faculty members at a Lompoc Valley high school are helping pioneer the ways in which science will soon be taught in schools around the state.

The Cabrillo High School science department underwent an overhaul this summer to become one of the first in the state to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards that will soon be implemented statewide. The changes, which were introduced less than a month ago at the start of the new school year, promote more hands-on learning and allow teachers to introduce students to more robust content.

Although the updated curriculum has only been in place for a few weeks, teachers at the school are excited about what’s ahead.

Chris Ladwig, a science teacher at Cabrillo, said the old science standards were based on testing and essentially amounted to students memorizing lists of facts.

“So unfortunately our classes had to morph to fit that, to some degree,” he said. “But now with the new standards, they get that content, but they get it in a way that teaches them how to think like scientists and do things in a way that scientists would. They get actual practices.”

The changes, which are part of a three-year process, were not accomplished easily.

Ladwig and Greg Eisen, the head of the Cabrillo science department, were first introduced to the Next Generation Science Standards two years ago at a workshop in Camarillo, hosted by the Ventura County Office of Education.

After seeing what was in store, they began thinking about changing Cabrillo’s approach. In the two years since, each of the other seven faculty members in the department attended similar workshops. The group then was faced with the daunting task of creating and implementing the new curriculum.

Because this process hadn’t been done at any other California school — at least as far as the Cabrillo teachers could tell — the group of teachers had to collaborate and, literally, map out their own course.

Ladwig said the conversion process was both a blessing and a curse.

“In a way, it’s kind of a teacher’s dream to be able to design your own class from scratch exactly the way you think it should be taught,” he said, noting that that approach also comes with drawbacks — namely, having nothing to fall back on.

Their work included creating their own textbooks and workbooks, arranging infrastructure updates — such as more electrical sockets — within classrooms and labs, and acquiring new materials to fit the curriculum, such as microscopes, modeling kits and incubators.

The first group of students to experience the new curriculum is this year’s freshman class.

In the past, the school had offered an earth science course for most incoming freshmen. That class was mostly conceptual-based and not very hands-on, Eisen said.

That has changed with this new Science 1 class. The new course, according to Ladwig, is more in-depth and complex than any other freshman class that had previously been offered at the school, and it also has a higher level of University of California approval, so freshmen can start meeting their college requirements right away.

“With freshmen especially, we want to hook them and get them excited about science,” Ladwig said.

Corey McIntyre, a teacher who had previously taught the earth science course, said he's already noticed that students seem to be more engrossed. They will often help each other so that no one gets left behind, he said.

“For me, the student engagement is up more, and I think it’s because there’s no other choice,” McIntyre said. “It’s a lot of hands-on stuff and a lot of white-board activities and ‘show me you know this so we can move on.’”

That is especially important given the difficulty level with the new material.

Ladwig noted that he completed four years at Cabrillo High School and never took a physics course. Now, students are introduced to chemistry and biology right away as freshman and could be moved into a physics course as early as their sophomore year.

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As an example of this new rigorous material, Ladwig noted Thursday that his classes spent the day talking about electron configurations in relation to energy and sub-energy levels — a subject he said would never have previously been covered in a freshmen class.

“But they got it and that was really cool,” he said.

The freshmen in this year’s class will move on to a brand new Science 2 class next year and then another new course in their junior year. The hope is they will leave high school with a well-rounded background in science and be prepared for high-level science and engineering courses in college.

“This group of kids, they’re gonna be kind of our pioneers,” Ladwig said.

While the students are the top priority, Eisen noted that the conversion experience has been beneficial for the staff, as well.

“One of the greatest things is that our whole department has just bought in and decided that we want to do this as a team,” he said. “Everybody in the department had a piece in making this whole transition, and that’s kind of rare from what I understand. There’s a lot of people who are just hesitant to do anything; they want to wait until they’re being forced to do it.

“We’ve been blessed to have a very supportive district.”

Eisen said he has already fielded calls from other schools in the region that are looking for advice on how to implement similar changes. That comes with being the first to try something, he noted.

“In some ways, it made our work a little harder, but at least it was our work,” he said of leading the charge. “We weren’t just begging or borrowing or stealing or buying from somewhere else. I think that results in a better product.”

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.