Culturally Responsive Science Curriculum


Standards Based


The challenge of preparing students to meet science standards is one currently faced by all educators, not just those trying to create culturally relevant units and certainly not those just in Alaska. It can be a daunting task for anyone involved because the standards represent and codify changes from business as usual in terms of curriculum, instruction and assessment. It is not our purpose here to describe the world of standards-based education, but rather to share some insights from our work in this area through the following guidelines and article.

Summary Guidelines for Standards-Based Units

triangleCorrelate Local Knowledge with Science Standards

Indigenous knowledge is generally holistic in nature and thus integrates aspects of many different school disciplines. Rarely does the speaker break out his or her knowledge in discrete bundles, let alone in terms of the science principles that we recognize. Consequently, the challenge for teachers creating culturally responsive, standards-based units, is to correlate local knowledge with pertinent science standards and then decide which ones to target specifically. (See Selawik Weather, on the next page)

triangleIdentify an Appropriate Number of Standards

Pursue fewer standards in greater depth. Learning is better served by selecting and focusing on a few key complementary standards than it is to list multiple standards and treat them lightly. It is also preferable to integrate complementary standards into lessons where possible than to concentrate solely on one area. By so doing, you can simultaneously address content and inquiry or application standards in a rich and meaningful way.

triangleDescribe Specifically What is to be Learned About Those Standards

Narrow your focus of study from broad science content standards to the core concepts and skills that are developmentally appropriate for the grade level you are teaching. Use these core concepts/skills to focus planning, instruction, and assessment. Consult Translating Standards to Practice, (see sample elsewhere in this handbook), the National Science Standards or Benchmarks documents for help.

triangleProvide Adequate Learning Opportunities

Students require time and active engagement to reconcile prior knowledge with new knowledge and these requirements vary from student to student. That being said, a common rule of thumb for planning is that the learning of new science concepts requires a minimum of 3 to 5 experiences with that concept before an adequate experiential base has been established, with additional experiences provided as needed. Teacher judgement is key as are focused, purposeful activities, active questioning and ongoing authentic assessment and lesson adjustment.

Correlate Local Knowledge with Science Standards

One of the challenges and one of the rewards of creating culturally responsive curriculum is learning enough about both local knowledge and science standards to realize how readily they relate to one another. Correlating one with the other is a critical step because it validates local knowledge as a pathway to science learning and demonstrates that standards can be met by following this path. The following information on Selawik weather was generously shared by Jonas Ramoth, an Iñupiaq Elder and is elaborated upon later in the Winds and Weather Sampler. The accompanying chart demonstrates one way to correlate such knowledge with possible observations, questions, concepts and standards that might form the basis of future study.

Selawik Weather: Winter Winds

If it’s clear and cold, -20° or -30°F, maybe there are a few clouds but it's nice and calm. The wind isn’t supposed to blow now. If the wind starts to blow when it's not supposed to, people gathered maybe in the store will say “ooo, cold”. In Iñupiaq they say qiunaurauqtuq which means he’s beckoning the storm. You know it will be stormy—blowing/drifting snow. It makes you decide to stay home. Animals will stay home too. This is very reliable. (In Kotzebue, though, it's different. You can have the same conditions—cold and clear with a wind coming but a storm doesn’t necessarily come.)

The west winds are always cold this time of year. If there’s a storm from the west, it's cold. People say the west wind is a “poor artist”. It piles up snowdrifts here and there, messy, rough and uneven.

Selawik is in a valley. East winds blow regularly. They prevail in Selawik. In flat country, the east winds leave long, straight 10"–12" drifts that are very consistent. Unlike the west wind, the east wind does beautiful work. When it's white all over and you’re not sure where you are, these drifts are very helpful.

We talk about wind in terms of how it's handling visible stuff like grass in summer and snow drifts in winter. If you’re home and look out the window, if smoke from a neighbor’s stack is leaning over, you know there’s a little bit of a breeze or maybe the smoke is moving vigorously. If snow is drifting on the ground, the wind is strong, a surface wind. In storm conditions, visibility is affected and you can’t see across the street—on a snow machine, you can’t see your skis. 20–25 mph winds are a storm. 30mph winds are a blizzard and even if it's warm, a fine powder of snow finds its way in through your clothes. If you go out, you need a facemask and goggles. It's better to stay put, stay home.

We don’t dread the cold; it’s just an everyday thing. We just dress for it. We have no concerns about it. Before we learned to say “good morning” in English, our greetings might have to do with observations of the day. You might say, “you can see tracks,” meaning that you are going hunting or trapping. If you say “it's cold” as a greeting, if the cold is worth a comment, then it’s cold. The person you greet will likely ask more—wanting to know if it’s colder than yesterday. You might also greet saying “even though it's cold, you were able to wake up.” We don’t really have terms for different amounts of cold.

Local Observations

Possible Investigations

Possible Science Concepts

Alaska Science Standards

• wind direction, speed, temperature

• What causes the wind?

• Why are west winter winds cold?

• Why are east winds warmer than west winds?

• What is surface wind?

• How is surface wind different than atmospheric wind?

• density

• convection

• radiation

A-1 (structure and behavior of matter)

A-4 (earth/weather)

A-8 (heat transfer)

B-1 (process skills)

• snow movement/drift pattern

• Why are west winds erratic and gusty?

• Why do east winds create consistent drifts?

• How can drift patterns aid in navigation?


• cloud cover

• temperature

• cold as a relative factor

• Why are clear winter days colder than cloudy winter days? Is this also true for summer?

• insulation  
• influence of wind and cold on human and animal behavior

• How does weather affect animals?

• Do all animals respond similarly to the same temperature?

• What kind of weather is best for hunting and trapping?

• adaptation A-12 (diversity)
Science Standards

Because the Alaska Content Standards for Science are broad and not correlated with grade level groups, they have been admittedly hard for teachers and school districts to work with in any targeted way. Translating Standards to Practice: A Teacher’s Guide to the Use and Assessment of the Alaska Science Standards (, however, attempts to remedy this problem by using numerous examples and sample assessments for the kinds of understandings and skills that students should have at K–2, 3–5, 6–8 and 9–12 grade level groups. They are designed for use by teachers and curriculum committees and are referenced to both National Science Standards and Benchmarks. Their creation was fully funded by the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative with Alaska’s diverse population in mind. The Alaska Science Performance Standards are available from The Alaska Native Knowledge Network, Fairbanks, Alaska. The ulus below represent sample performance standards for each grade level. Sample assessments tied to these performance standards are included in the assessment section of this handbook.

ulus represent sample performance standards for each grade level

ulus represent sample performance standards for each grade level

ulus represent sample performance standards for each grade level

Topics to Standards: A Discrepant Event

As Science Consortium teachers, we have long-advocated for the power of disequilibrium in the learning process. Remember those discrepant events? The water glass with a 3" x 5" card on top, turned quickly upside down? And remember how we cheered when students became consumed with the puzzle presented therein and went on to explore and explore until they made their own sense of air pressure? Well, as teachers contemplating standards, I think many of us are in a similar state of disequilibrium, and we will require similar extended explorations to work it out. Our reactions range from “What are the standards anyhow, and what in the world am I supposed to do in class to make sure students can meet them” to “what does this mean for the pond unit I’ve always taught and my students have always loved?” Since much is written elsewhere on what science standards are and why we need them, I’d like to concentrate now on curricular implications and how to hone existing units to standards-based instruction.

For quite a while, the essence of the elementary classroom has been the integrated unit using familiar topics as organizers—dinosaurs, spiders, ponds and so forth. Central to this unit is the idea that students eat, sleep and drink the topic—it’s the focus of art and science, of math and language arts. Students are busy and usually enjoy themselves and there is something that will appeal to everyone. Successful teachers have developed lots of these units and recognize the power and efficacy of integrated instruction.

Then along come standards where there is NO MENTION of topics at all—students are not accountable for knowledge of dinosaurs, spiders, ponds or any of the familiar organizers that still dominate most school district curricula. Instead, elementary students are to show developmentally appropriate mastery of enduring ideas, core concepts, attitudes and skills central to the discipline of science. But just how do you do that without throwing out those favorite units?

For many harried teachers, the first step is to do a quick read of the standards, which are admittedly broad and vague, and then to correlate, equally vaguely, the activities that they already do (one good turn deserves another). Something like—” let’s see, we looked at pond critters so we’ve done A-12—diversity (check ), A-14 a, b and c, interdependence (check ), A-15—local environment (check ) and B-1—process skills (check ).” But have they really “done it”? If fourth graders, for example, have looked at pond critters, have they really mastered the diversity, interdependence, local environment and process skill standards? Can they, for example, “categorize groups of plants and animals according to external features and explain how these features help organisms survive in different environments”1 and can they “observe, measure and collect data from experiments and use this information in order to classify, predict and communicate about their everyday world”2? I doubt it and so do most teachers who take a second look at standards.

So, what to do with that pond unit? Seems to me, a couple of things are necessary. The first is to reorient our noggins, thinking not of all the fun activities we want to do at the pond, but asking ourselves, what essential skills and understandings can students develop using ponds as the vehicle? Where do we want pond study to take us? The possibilities are almost endless, but the following is a sample of what you might do with life science at a K–4 level. (Addressing inquiry skills would generate an equally substantial list of possibilities.)

Unless you want to do a very long and extensive pond study, the next step is to limit the number of concepts/skills that you choose to address. One way to go about this is to figure out what your students already have a handle on and where they need more work. For example, by the fourth grade, students will hopefully understand the concept of habitat and be adept at classifying organisms according to external features. If this is so, then you might want to choose adaptation or life cycle as your focus.

Having chosen your concept, review the activities you already do at the pond and select those that address the chosen concept. Chances are you will be able to use several of your favorite activities so long as you keep foremost in your mind and in your students’ minds, the reasons for doing them. Remembering that students need 3–5 different experiences in order to grasp new concepts, you may well have to create several new “adaptation” or “life cycle” activities in order for students to learn enough to be able to demonstrate their mastery. Such culling and rewriting of lessons to address selected concepts characterizes the switch from breadth to depth and is to be expected as you switch to standards-based instruction. The idea is not to chuck your favorite unit or sterilize it beyond recognition; it’s simply to selectively focus on key ideas, teaching them thoroughly and well.

And yes, some of your favorite activities might not fit, but lots will and the new activities that you create might be even more exciting than the old. It still will be important to provide different avenues for different learners, so literature, math, art, music and technology connections remain important. In fact, if you are accustomed to doing hands-on explorations within an integrated unit, then a switch to standards-based science instruction could be relatively painless or even liberating. I mean, instead of feeling compelled to “cover” jillions of science facts, you can focus on just a few key concepts or skills, keep them as targets through use of focusing questions, KWL charts etc., and then explore the daylights out of them. And if, as a result of pond study, your students truly understand that “plants and animals have a great variety of body plans to help them survive and reproduce” and if they can apply that understanding across the board to spiders and dinosaurs and trees, then hoopla—how liberating! They have an idea and experience upon which to hang a whole set of understandings—a core concept that works in all life systems.



Concept Description
(often embedded in Performance Standards or Benchmarks)

Content Standard

Ponds Classification

Animals and plants are alike and different in a variety of ways. Groups of plants and animals have similarities that distinguish them from other groups.

A-12, Diversity


Plants and animals have a great variety of body plans to help them survive and reproduce. A-12, Diversity
  Life cycle Plants and animals have life cycles that include being born, developing into adults, reproducing and eventually dying. The details of this life cycle are different for different organisms. A-12, Diversity
  Food chain All animals depend on plants. Some animals eat plants for food. Other animals eat animals that eat the plants. A-14, Interdependence
  Habitat Animals and plants have specific requirements for life. Organisms can survive only in environments in which their needs can be met.  A-14, Interdependence



1. Alaska Science Performance Standard A–12, Level 2
2. IBID, B-1, Level 2

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