Stepping DEEP into Science

Annenberg Institute

Stepping DEEP into Science

A group of engineers looks to mitigate a severe weather event.

All five sit around a table discussing, planning and testing out potential materials in an attempt at finding a way to prevent the water from breaking the levy or ensure the house’s roof does not collapse under the blizzard. None are even thinking about snack time or recess, yet.

This was the scene in a 3rd grade classroom at Vartan Gregorian Elementary School recently. It also happens at Pleasantview Elementary, another Providence school which has partnered with Brown University’s DEEPS STEP Program for the past 2 years.

DEEPS STEP is the Department of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences’ Science-Teaching and Education outreach Program. It develops Earth Science multi-lesson Modules for elementary classrooms in the Providence Public Schools District (PPSD).

The program works specifically with PPSD realizing the challenge teachers face, “because of a high number of students new to English language...expecting teachers to create and teach a full-fledged Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)-aligned curriculum for life, physics and Earth Sciences is unrealistic,” says Prilipko Huber.

The DEEPS STEP program aims to develop high quality NGSS-aligned, inquiry-driven Earth Science lessons; assist PPSD teachers in bringing Earth Science lessons to their classrooms; help improve access to science education for Providence children, particularly for children from disadvantaged socio-economical backgrounds and offer a teaching and community-oriented experience to Brown students, postdocs and faculty.

“Elementary school teachers have the tremendous task of leading children through their foundational learning of English language, math, social studies, social skills and science – all taught by one person to a class of 24-26 students,” says Prilipko-Huber.

DEEPS has been actively involved in science outreach with PPSD since early 2000. From 2007-2014, a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant supported the work of 9 graduate students involved in science lesson development and teaching in several local public schools. After the grant’s completion, DEEPS graduate student volunteers continued the outreach work.

“If children are not systematically exposed to science-teaching in the elementary years, the knowledge, confidence and motivational gaps become too big to bridge for most by the time they enter Middle school,”
Olga Prilipko Huber, Scientific Illustration and Outreach Coordinator at DEEPS.

In 2016 the department saw a need for teacher support with the introduction of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in Rhode Island schools. Under Prilipko-Huber’s leadership, the program was re-designed to focus on the goal of assisting PPSD teachers in their transition to NGSS.

Since the introduction of the current model in 2017, NGSS-aligned, quarter-long, weekly Earth Science Modules have been co-taught by Providence teachers and Brown Students in two elementary schools to a total of 16 classrooms, reaching 10 teachers and roughly 350 students.

“This is the “why” that drives DEEPS STEP,” Prilipkp-Huber says.

The program continually strives to create a reliable support structure for elementary school teachers to lean on as they transition to NGSS. Prilipko-Huber says the program is dedicated to making Earth science teaching an enjoyable experience for teachers and Earth science learning an enjoyable experience for students, “so everyone looks forward to keep doing it year after year,” she states.

Teachers participating in DEEPS STEP say that having the option to first see the Earth Science lessons taught by volunteers helps take away the uneasiness of teaching a subject many of them have never studied, and allows them to observe students’ reactions and then make adjustments to lessons as necessary. “Having the materials provided and prepared is also a huge plus given the usually overbooked teacher schedule,” says Prilipko-Huber.

For Brown students interested in science education and community outreach, DEEPS offers the GEOL 1960G Community-Based learning and research course “Earth Science curriculum design and teaching practicum for elementary schools” (Spring 2020 enrollment open). Through this course, each student works with one classroom and teacher through the quarter-long Earth Science Module, gaining first-hand experience of the difficulties and rewards of science-teaching in a school district facing many challenges.

“At the end of the Modules, students tell us they hope to see us again in their next school year and that is what makes it worth every effort to our volunteers and keeps us fired up to do better each year,” Prilipkp-Huber says enthusiastically.

DEEPS STEP will expand to Martin Luther King Elementary in the Spring of 2020, supporting three classrooms there.

To learn more about this program, visit