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Moving to Three-Dimensional Learning

What is three-dimensional learning? How do we develop and change how we teach as science educators? How do we get students to do the heavy lifting? And, how do we ensure that students become active—rather than passive—learners?

Educators at Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee needed to address each of those questions when the district first adopted the state’s new science standards and the district’s new curriculum in 2018. With the shift to three-dimensional learning, educators began to focus on using phenomenon-based instruction to help develop students’ inquiry and critical thinking skills.

“Science is not about just knowledge, it’s about being able to communicate and apply what you know” – Dr. Berry

“Science is not about just knowledge, it’s about being able to communicate and apply what you know,” said Jennifer Berry, Ph.D., director of STEAM and science at Metro Nashville Public Schools, who was tasked with setting the tone for teaching the new standards. She did this by offering weekly professional learning sessions over the summer. Each session helped her teachers understand the importance of each standard and how it applied to their teaching. But changing peoples’ patterns is not always easy.

Moving from Knowledge-Based Teaching to Three-Dimensional Teaching

Like many districts, teaching science at Metro Nashville Public Schools was more like providing a recipe. Teachers tasked students with following a set of instructions in order to achieve a specific outcome, and if the outcome was different, something went wrong. Now, the district is moving to phenomenon-based instruction where students work to solve a problem, think critically, are allowed to fail, and can communicate what goes right or wrong. With students doing the heavy lifting, teachers become facilitators of the learning—encouraging, suggesting, prodding, and celebrating the learning taking place. This also changes how teachers assess learning. When students fail and understand why something fails, the reward is the same as when they get something right.

When students fail and understand why something fails, the reward is the same as when they get something right.

Teachers in the district are starting to offer an engineering design process style of teaching and learning. In other words, learning is about solving problems, and the learning is never done. And, the districts’ students are able to take the concepts they are learning in science and apply them to other classes. Brian Harrell, Dean of Students at Oliver Middle School and former Stratford STEM Magnet High science teacher, encouraged this approach when a student shared her senior project idea with him. While she was initially told the project had to be science related, Harrell said as long as she could prove she was solving a problem, she could do whatever she wanted. She wanted to develop a plan to be a daycare provider. “I told her to do research interviews with daycare providers, talk to people in accounting, research the state and city requirements, develop a plan, and then put it into action. She did all of that and now has a successful daycare business.”

“I told her to do research interviews with daycare providers, talk to people in accounting, research the state and city requirements, develop a plan, and then put it into action. She did all of that and now has a successful daycare business.” – Brian Harrell

Solving Local Problems While Gaining Global Relevance

Students at the high school have tackled some impressive problems already. One problem focused on cancer research. The students worked with Vanderbilt University to identify the effects of naturally occurring reagents found in plants on cancer cells. Said Harrell, “When doing a cell culture, we used a Vernier pH Sensor to see if the solutions’ pH levels changed. This allowed students to collect real-world data that they shared back with the university. We also included cross-cutting concepts by bringing history, math, English, physics, and engineering into this research. Students read scientific papers, and they wrote argumentative essays about why we should stash or pass the research.”

Stratford STEM Magnet High students collect water samples in their local community.

Another problem focused on water quality for a civic group in their area. The area is popular with fishermen, so water quality is important. For this project students made assumptions about the water quality, then they used Vernier pH sensors and Vernier dissolved oxygen probes to collect real-world data about water quality in the area. They also looked at developing nations’ water issues and why there are water quality standards in the United States. Students then held a health symposium for the whole school, and the symposium still runs to this day.

Steps to Success

According to Berry and Harrell, there are steps educators can take to ensure success when moving to three-dimensional learning.

  • Help school district leaders understand that science standards have changed, and it is messier learning. Classrooms should look different, and how teacher success is assessed should be different. 
  • Be willing to release control to students. It’s OK for classrooms to be noisy.
  • Don’t attempt it in isolation. Having a friend within the school or district to reinforce each other is critical.  
  • Network to learn from others—colleges, field people, etc.
  • Make sure administrators are aware of what you want to do so you can get support. 

For the teachers at Metro Nashville Public Schools the key component of three-dimensional learning is allowing students to develop their own ideas, do research, and apply what they have learned to the world around them. This approach to teaching has helped teachers learn more about how their students think and process information, which, in turn, helps them meet the needs of every learner.

Dr. Jennifer Berry


Jennifer Berry, Ph.D., is the director of STEAM and science at Metro Nashville Public Schools. Dr. Berry was previously a high school biology, chemistry, and physics teacher, as well as an instructional coach and assistant principal.

Brian Harrell

Brian Harrell is the STEAM lead and dean of students for 7th and 8th grade at Oliver Middle School in Metro Nashville Public Schools. He taught science for talented and gifted students, biology, AP Biology, and Interdisciplinary Science Research (ISR) at Stratford STEM Magnet High.

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