Innovator Becky McKinney: Dancing With NGSS

Becky McKinney builds relationships — students learn science along the way
Photos by Scott Buschman

“In three words or less, what must organisms do to survive?”

Students call out answers, such as eating, breathing and reproducing.

“Organisms must evolve, adapt and function,” states biology teacher Becky McKinney.

The same could be said of science at San Pasqual High School: It has evolved, adapted to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and functions well, thanks to the leadership and hard work of this Escondido Secondary Teachers Association member and her team.

Becky McKinney

The AP biology and physics teacher, curriculum creator, and professional development coach helped to radically change science on campus. She earned two awards from Escondido Secondary School District — a Lighthouse Award for innovation in 2018 and Teacher of the Year in 2019. She was also named 2018 Outstanding Engineering Educator by the International Council on Systems Engineering for incorporating engineering principles into lessons.

McKinney also mentors new teachers and supports veteran teachers — and was the school’s Dancing With the Teachers champion for a fundraiser.

She’s not your typical educator. She wears combat boots and says “y’all” and “howdy.” She flies around the classroom offering real-world examples of science and rarely uses a textbook. An administrator once observed her frenetic teaching style and asked later, “Are you always like this?”

“I said, ‘Yep, that’s me,’” McKinney recalls. “I want science to inspire my students to look at the world with wonder, and I’ll do whatever it takes. If I have to stand on a table and dance, tell a silly joke or create a funny meme, I’ll do that. I’m not afraid to be me.”

Colleagues say McKinney has transformed science by empowering students to take a problem-solving approach that’s exciting and fun, via questioning and collaborating.

For example, during a lesson on homeostasis, students put thermometers in water beakers, and were told to keep the temperature and water level constant for 10 minutes only by adding water. The group activity led to a lively discussion on how humans must sometimes intervene to maintain their body’s equilibrium.

“She relates real-life situations to science, showing us biology is everywhere, instead of just in a textbook,” says senior Kimberly Najera.

McKinney’s mission has led to higher student achievement, better instruction, more teacher collaboration and increased teacher leadership, according to her Teacher of the Year Award bio.

Fifteen years ago, she was a forensic scientist with the police department in Fort Worth, Texas, doing CSI-style work. After moving to California, she needed a job and was hired on an emergency permit to teach science in Palmdale, later earning her credential.

McKinney and fellow science teachers in the Dancing With the Teachers championship, a fundraiser for cancer research. Photo courtesy Becky McKinney

“I grew up in Texas where you did your homework, respected your elders, and dinner was on the table every night,” she says. “But here, students didn’t turn in homework, had to take care of siblings, and sat down to dinner whenever they made it. I wasn’t prepared for that. I realized it wasn’t about science anymore; it was about fostering relationships with students so they could learn science along the way.”

Our 2019-2020 Innovation Issue

Becky McKinney is one of the innovative educators we highlight this year. Meet the rest:

She facilitated numerous conversations and meetings for a districtwide committee whose members rewrote physics curriculum in 2015 and then rewrote chemistry, biology and Earth science curriculum throughout 2016-18. There were few examples to follow, and the NGSS had not been finalized by the state, but that didn’t stop McKinney and her colleagues. She became a teacher on special assignment in 2016, co-creating a “Summer Science Institute” for educators implementing NGSS, and has since returned to the classroom full time, which is where her heart is.

McKinney leads professional learning communities schoolwide for teachers of all disciplines, because she believes all teachers can learn from one another. Cross-curricular collaboration has brought staff closer together.

Her new project is working with colleagues to create NGSS-aligned grades and assessments that embrace equity. McKinney presented on the topic at the California Science Teachers Association’s conference in October.

“The work we are doing now geeks me out,” she says excitedly. “We’re not treading water, we’re jumping right in and being leaders in what NGSS assessments and grades should look like, throughout California. I’m super pumped about the great things we will accomplish.”

To read more about McKinney’s ideas on NGSS implementation, visit sites.google.com/euhsd.org/science-in-escondido/home and bmckinney-ngss.blogspot.com.

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