TJ McKenna ’18 Ph.D.: Changing How We Teach Science

TJ McKenna; MythBusters
Neag School Ph.D. candidate TJ McKenna, left, serves as moderator for a Q&A event with the co-hosts of the Discovery Channel’s “MythBusters” program, held in November at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts. (Photo Credit: Ryan Glista/Neag School)

For Thomas “TJ” McKenna, a love for science may not be enough; his mission, it seems, has become focused just as much on sharing his love for making science accessible to the masses. Some students and faculty members may have seen him on stage at Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts this past November, when he served as a moderator for a question-and-answer event with the stars of the Discovery Channel’s “MythBusters” program. But the current Neag School Ph.D. candidate has been bringing his enthusiasm for science to plenty of other venues as well.

With a background in animal behavior and a master’s degree in entomology, McKenna’s interest in science was always strong. However, his gradual transition from studying animal behavior to studying the most effective ways to teach science to students in grades K-12 stemmed from his experiences as a staff scientist at the Connecticut Science Center, where he began working in 2009.

There, McKenna has run Science Center exhibits with live animals, aquariums, and rooftop gardens; co-created and co-hosts weekly “Science Sunday” videos on Connecticut’s WFSB Channel 3; and taught student groups that have come to the Center for field trips. It was through his experience teaching some of these field trip classes that McKenna encountered an early draft of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) — a series of education standards drafted by stakeholders from 26 U.S. states with the intention of improving science education. These early drafts of the NGSS, he says, interested him because they “capture[d] what it is like to think like a scientist in authentic ways[1].”

“That persuaded me to shift back to education rather than focusing in a content area,” McKenna says, “Schools are looking to head back into this direction, and that’s something I want to be a part of.” In 2015, he began the Ph.D. program in education and curriculum at UConn’s Neag School of Education.

‘From Learning About Science — to Figuring It Out’

Before the NGSS were developed, science would be taught to students with no clear connection as to how the content related to the real world, McKenna says.

By contrast, NGSS, created by current educators, uses a three-dimensional approach to teaching science to K-12 students in a more effective and thought-provoking way. The three dimensions, which are practices, core ideas, and crosscutting concepts, work together to create a shift in the science curriculum — from students being taught information to having students actively participate in the reasoning, using information to explain phenomena or solve problems of consequence to them.

“Science is about explaining things that happen in the world,” says Todd Campbell, associate professor in the Neag School and McKenna’s doctoral advisor. “The new standards ask students to try to explain something that happens and then envisions them collaborating with peers and engaging with tools that help them continually critique and refine their explanations.”

To help educators with the transition to the Next Generation Science Standards, TJ McKenna started a website — known as Phenomena for NGSS — to promote discussions among science educators and give them a range of resources, including ideas for different scientific phenomena to explore and share with their classes.

“It’s a shift from learning about science, to figuring it out,” says McKenna, who is in now his second year of the Ph.D. program. The classes within the Neag School’s curriculum and instruction doctoral program, he says, focus on policy and the curriculum of teaching science; the curriculum looks at the various obstacles faced by educators and considers the ways in which new policies can give them support.

The idea for changing the traditional science education curriculum came out of education research showing that teaching the same curriculum, but in a new and more interactive way, would yield more positive student learning outcomes, McKenna says.

“The newest standards documents align well with the idea that we should be engaging students in figuring stuff out,” Campbell adds. “The big picture is trying to make everybody see that science is about constructing and critiquing explanations, and that’s what NGSS is focused on.”

The content of the NGSS — available for free online —  stems from a book written in 2011 titled “A Framework for K-12 Science Education,” which outlines a vision for teaching science using the new standards and discusses how the standards can be applied to all students. Information on the NGSS website is pulled from this 400-page document to create a condensed manual that covers the core ideas of the vision in an effort to help educators make a smooth transition to the new curriculum.

“The new standards are focused on trying to understand the world, and trying to take a more systematic approach to that understanding, so that when we make claims, we have some evidence to support those claims,” Campbell says.

Connecting With Other Educators

Teaching science to students in grades K-12 has always been taught the same way, McKenna says, so educators are currently transitioning to new teaching methods aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards. The standards are very malleable, he says; there are no set lesson plans stating exactly what should be taught.

“I think it’s super exciting that there’s no answer,” McKenna says about the standards’ flexibility. “It’s very much like we’re learning and trying to work together to figure this out.”

However, given that the NGSS lacks a strictly outlined curriculum, McKenna saw that some educators were struggling in part because they were attempting to adjust to the new standards, while also trying to find the right supporting material to teach their classes.

To help educators with this transition, McKenna started a website — known as Phenomena for NGSS — to promote discussions among science educators while giving them a range of resources, including ideas for different scientific phenomena to explore and share with their classes.

On the site, McKenna posts videos he has found on the Internet and converted into animated GIF images, all of which represent different scientific phenomena. Each image is designed to serve multiple audiences and is accompanied by a short explanation. The main purpose of each of the images is to allow the viewer to figure out what the science is behind the phenomena, much like the mission of the new standards.

McKenna invites fellow educators to submit images to the site as well. “I was pushing it as this organic, collaborative, ‘we build this resource together,’” he says.

The NGSS Phenomena website began just under a year ago and already has more than 111,000 views from educators across the country. The website also now emerges among the top Internet search results for the term “NGSS” and has been included as a link on the Next Generation Science Standards website as a resource for science educators nationally.

McKenna is also actively sharing his ideas about teaching science on social media. Along with the Phenomena website, he and Campbell are participants in a national bimonthly Twitter discussion, where in-service and pre-service educators, education researchers, and state and district leaders pose and answer questions regarding the implementation of NGSS using the hashtag #NGSSchat. These Twitter discussions typically engage approximately 100 participants at a time (with more than 300 to 400 teachers nationally having participated at some point), helping to facilitate interactions mainly between researchers and teachers. The chats allow these audiences to network and collaborate on different projects, as well as give one another different levels of support to make the future of teaching science better for students.

“Collectively, our vision is to change instruction in the classroom — but this happens at multiple levels,” Campbell says. “I think [TJ] and others like him will determine how much progress we make in changing how students perceive science, which is huge.”

Visit TJ McKenna’s Phenomena for NGSS at Or, follow him on Twitter at @tjscience.