Teaching Elementary Science Well

“We must teach our science students to do something in science class, not to memorize facts.” So said Dr. Bruce Alberts, Editor-in-Chief of Science and former two-term President of the National Academy of Sciences, in a press release announcing publication of the next generation science standards. No question about it, learning science is much more than science lectures and readings. It’s about satisfying one’s innate curiosity to understand their environment through analysis, inquiry and design. Learning science comes from doing science, and as an added benefit, allows effective teachers to adeptly and seamlessly work in literacy, math and the arts.

If you look at the New York State Education Science Core Curriculum, you will find seven standards in the core, of which standards 1, 2, 6, and 7 relate directly to a “student-centered, problem-solving approach to science (On page four you will find a list of inquiry process skills students should be developing). However, it is standard 4, the content standard, that garners the majority of teachers’ attention when planning and teaching science lessons. Sadly for both student and teacher, in classrooms wholly reliant on a science textbook, lessons rarely stray outside of standard 4. However, it doesn’t have to be that way, particularly now with the release of the Next Generation Science Standards which emphasize depth over breadth.

Earlier this week, I taught a class on how to teach elementary science for my MST students. We, dare I use the word, “covered” a number of science pedagogy-related topics in class including the obligatory hook on the worrisome state of student results on international and national measures (PISA and NAEP) followed by a hip video (My robot is better than your robot) featuring modern-day entertainers. We also reviewed the New York State Education Elementary Science Core Curriculum, Next Generation Science Standards, Inquiry-Based Science Methods, Resources for Elementary Science Lessons, Science Pre-Assessment Probes, and Science Kits. However, we delved deeply through discussion what it means to analyze, inquire, and design, particularly at the student level. Our students like to play on swing sets, but why do the swings stop moving if the person stops pumping? Does the length of the swing matter? What about size of the person? And what about the early spring shoots of green grass and other plants along buildings? Is there a particular side of the building (north, south, east, or west) that sees growth sooner, or does direction not matter?

If we allow the time, our students could fill a book of interesting questions through their analyses. Hence the “Analysis” portion of analysis, inquiry and design. From Elementary Science Core Curriculum Standard 1, Key Idea 1 (Scientific Inquiry), The central purpose of scientific inquiry is to develop explanations of natural phenomena in a continuing, creative process.  Key Idea 1 includes language about asking “why” questions, looking for similarities and differences, and more. Once our students are asking “Why” questions, they will willingly come up with ways to find answers, which is the essence of Key Idea 2.  Beyond the use of reasoning and consensus, scientific inquiry involves the testing of proposed explanations involving the use of conventional techniques and procedures and usually requiring considerable ingenuity. The process of scientific inquiry described in the core curriculum ends with the analysis of results, revision of conceptual understandings, and dissemination of findings. The observations made while testing proposed explanations, when analyzed using conventional and invented methods, provide new insights into phenomena.

And so it goes with inquiry-based elementary science instruction. To model the process and drive the point home for my students, we did a fun “Bubble Gum” lab in which they were asked to predict if and how the mass of sugar-sweetened gum chewed for a set period of time might change. Each student deliberated and came up with a hypothesis. I then asked them to design the procedures to test their hypotheses, after which they carried out their experiments. We had a simple elementary gram cube balance to measure the original mass. After chewing the gum for ten minutes, my students remassed the gum and summarized their findings and conclusions. Since science is a wonderful tool for embedding literacy, I asked them to describe how they could use the fiction or non-fiction reading material about matter they were assigned to bring to class in this bubble gum lab. From there we spoke about ways to differentiate the lesson by varying the level of support (scaffolding) to students and by challenging others with more complex math connections and extensions. Some students might require a template to enter their hypothesis, procedures, data and conclusions. Others might need extension problems such as predicting what might happen if we used sugarless gum instead of sugar gum. The possibilities with inquiry-based science are endless. Our lesson concluded with some excellent Science Assessment Probes from the National Science Teachers Association.

When I reflect back to my days as a science teacher and K-12 Science Director, I chuckle remembering that I believed nothing mattered more than science. Science was THE SUBJECT area and all else paled in comparison. Well, obviously, students don’t learn science if they can’t read. And if they struggle with math fluency and concepts, or fail to see the connections of science in other subject areas, then science loses its luster quickly. 25 years into my career, I see things more clearly. Science is not the center of our public education universe, but it can be the hub that drives all subject areas forward. Science is a fascinating area for students, particularly boys who don’t always enjoy reading or writing. Science is all around us, and the discrepant event opportunities allow for inquisitiveness and joy of learning. In this era of high stakes everything, make time for you and your students to go beyond memorization of facts and get knee-deep into inquiry based learning. You will not be disappointed with the outcomes.

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