Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Evolution of Teaching Science


When you were in middle school what was your least favorite subject? Was it Math, ELA, Science, Social Studies, Art, or was it something else? I have often posed this question to college students enrolled in a teacher preparation program. Invariably, the top 2 answers are always Math and Science. Even more telling, Science always wins the “unpopularity contest” by a landslide.

I proceed to continue my line of questioning and ask them why they feel this way. The answers vary but the consensus is that they do not see the point of science. Simply put, it is not relevant to their lives. I then follow up by asking, “What is the purpose of science?” This question usually gets all kinds of responses like to learn about life, machines, chemicals, weather, and other big scientific words. I then respond, “The purpose of science is to learn how things work.”

This in short is the problem with the current approach used to teach science. Much time is spent doling out vocabulary words that do not help the student understand science content. In fact, the use of acronyms and scientific words succeeds in only confusing students more. Many educational experts have stressed the importance of using hands on materials and have advocated for the purchase of Science labs. Unfortunately, the high cost of science materials has been a major obstacle in assuring the meaningful teaching of science. Additionally, many science teachers do not have the pedagogic background to teach science in a way that is meaningful. It is no wonder that many college students avoid majoring in Science programs as science is viewed as bad medicine. Subsequently, only 29% of United States middle school students are considered proficient or above proficiency in the area of Science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam. Even more disturbing, Middle School students have shown no progress since the last NAEP exam.

In an effort to address this educational crisis, our government and private foundations have devoted money to various grant programs including the Math Science Partnership Grants, National Science Foundation Grants, Toshiba America Foundation Grants, America Honda Foundation Grants, Motorola Innovation Grants, and various Science Scholarships. Thanks to the Math Science Partnership program, school districts across the USA have offered its teachers professional development in the area of Math, Science, as well as Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM). Similarly, other funding sources have given students the opportunity to use state of the art science equipment in a hands-on manner.

However, many of these grant programs have not fostered the paradigm shift needed to transform Science Education in a manner that will address the needs of the 21st Century Student. This is because many of these grant programs are limited in their mandate as they simply require that pedagogues take college level courses in the area of science. However, the grant programs do not require direct instruction with students. In fact, student after school programs are discouraged. Additionally, the audit of these grant programs amount to simple bean counting. Another words, the external evaluators will count how many teachers took 30 hours of course work. However, they will not assess the effectiveness of the given course work. Subsequently, it is no surprise that the elementary cohort of schools showed only modest progress on the most recent NAEP Science Exam.

With this in mind, I propose the following;

1. Require the infusion of technology in all science courses. This is essential as technology gives students access to; virtual labs, science experts via video conferencing, USB Science probes, authentic science data with a computer, real-time computer based models, and other innovative science practices.

2. Require that every science lesson have a hands on component during which the student will perform the science concept, demonstrate the science concept, or create a presentation on the scientific idea in their own words.

3. Provide veteran and new science teachers with the requisite training and resources needed to teach science in a hands-on manner. This initiative would require professional development that is carefully designed to address the knowledge gap that many science teachers have. Similarly, pre-service programs must address the knowledge gap as well.

4. Future Science Grants should directly target the middle and secondary schools. This in turn will ensure that limited funds are directed towards the student population that desperately needs sound science education.

5. Hold vendors and Higher Education Institutes accountable for the services they provide. All too often we direct accountability measures towards the pedagogues but turn a blind eye to the content providers mentioned above. This in turn has resulted in sub-standard professional development services from content providers. With this in mind, professional development offerings given by vendors and colleges should be observed and evaluated. The results of the evaluation should then be made public via the What Works Clearing House web site.

Final Thought- Naturally, it goes without saying that these ideas only scratch the surface of this very complicated issue. However, it is clear that our current practices must change. In short, we must reverse the trend in which a shrinking number of students enroll in science-based programs during their post secondary years. In a quest to address this perplexing issue we must be prepared to invest properly and welcome educational change.


  1. I feel that this article really gives a great, broad understanding to what is truly wrong with our science education system. Students aren't getting the proper education from their teachers at the middle and secondary school level because these teachers don't have the training of the resources to teach science in a conducive manner.

    The grants that are provided to schools are great but, as stated in the article, just because a teacher is trained in a certain area of science doesn't mean that their students are getting the resources they need to be successful in learning science.

    There needs to be more technology based science classes and there has to be more technology used in science because that's where all subjects are going and without the proper technological tools and background, students are going to fall behind in the science areas.

  2. I do feel that technology in sciences classes are less involved during class instruction. However, in many schools in New York State, teachers are required to teach what students will be tested on in Regents Exams. Teachers try to emphasize what the students will see at the end of the year in with lab requirement hours and practice and questions that will be given on the exam itself.
    In the school I work at, there are many teachers that do use technology while teaching Earth science, chemistry, physics, biology, and science research classes. Although they use technology such as slide show presentations, videos, practice problems, there is only so much these teachers are experienced in to help students prepare for the end of year exams. I feel that schools are more concerned with test results than students gaining more knowledge and facts about science classes that are interesting to them. School’s that do have trainings for science teachers can be very helpful, but it all depends on the curriculum and what needs to be taught during the year. The technology needs to be appropriate for the class instruction and time must be used wisely.
    The science research class uses the most technology and the students seem to really enjoy it. They learn new and exciting material that really grasps their attention. From these experiences, the students learn to research and investigate tasks in and out of class. Our school has been nominated for many awards and has gone on fields investigation competitions with other high schools around the country. If the high school students are still fascinated by new technology in the classroom, I believe its sky’s the limit for elementary and middle school students. If they weren’t enjoying science, they will now.
    John I.

  3. “The purpose of science is to learn how things work.” This is such a strong sentence and I believe it really sums up the importance of making science a priority in schools. With so much riding on test scores of the ELA and math, science has been put on the back burner. These grants seem like a step in the right direction. However, I agree that they are not enough.

    The 2nd idea proposed in the article seems like the most important to me. I was one of the rare students who loved science growing up. It was because of the teachers who made it hands on. In 7th grade, my teacher would answer questions by saying, "Can you think of an experiment that will answer that?" Then we would be able to create an experiment and test it. She was so passionate about science, that I wanted learn more. I even joined her after school club. It makes me wonder why after school programs being discouraged?

    I agree this is such a complicated issue. It also seems like there is no quick fix. However, I do believe that the 5 implications you have listed is a place to start.

  4. I feel that this article targets an issue that is real and that has been overlooked for a while. In elementary schools the focus seems to be on math and ELA until it comes time to take the state exams for science ans social studies in 4th through 5th grade. Science is very important and I thanik the only way a teacher can teach the subject is through hands on activities. I remember science in high school and I remember it was boring and it had to do with remembering concepts. Including thecnology in the teaching process would surely make a difference.
    Stella Delmas

  5. Science is also one of the least favourite subjects in the developing country from which I come.In the classrooms in many developing countries, there is a shortage of labs and other science equipment, hence science is taught using mainly expository methods. Students tend to find such approaches demotivating and so it is not surprising that they do not like the subject.

  6. I agree and disagree with your post. I agree that the teaching of science needs to change. Maybe more hands on activities and infusion of technology into the classroom would be helpful.

    However, I believe that science is something that not everyone will understand, no matter what. Using myself as an example. No matter what kind of teachers I had (and I had some amazing science teachers), or how I was taught, I just was never able to understand science. Well, I can understand the very basic and general ideas, but specifically, no matter how much I learned or read or tried to memorize, it just wouldn't click with me. So therefore, science is just not for everyone.

    But of course, that is no reason to not reform the teaching of science.

    Jenny Abayeva

  7. Jenny and Hazel- thank you for sharing your feelings. I emphasize with your frustrations with science. I certainly do not know if science is for everyone. Having said that, it is clear to me that we need to change how we teach science so that more students see its relevance.

    Christie- Thank you for sharing your insight. Your feedback really hits the mark.

  8. A grant by itself will not improve science education. The method in which it is taught needs to change. We need more Ms Frizzle from" magic school bus" into our classroom. Hand-on approach makes science enjoyable and more effective. I often wonder what is the purpose doing the experiment if all the procedures and outcome are all given in the textbook. It's not a surprise. I used to get in trouble in science class because I never wanted to follow the given steps. It was pure hell for me to sit through those boring class, so I did my own experiments, which got me in trouble. I wish I had a Ms Frizzle.
    Anastasia Roberts

  9. History, or social studies, was my least favorite. For the reasons you mentioned why many may dislike science, the "doling out of vacabulary". I remember sitting in history class with way too much information being thrown at me. I could not retain all that inforamtion. If there were more hands on activities, projects or technology used I may have a different opinion about it. To this day many history and political events seem overwhelming and I tend to stay away from them. My son is being set up to dislike science from early on. Handouts and boring class time. They do some things of interest but not enough to keep him engaged. My daughter in middle school really enjoy's science. She is engaged through technology and hands-on activities. She gets it and shares what she learns at home.
    Vanessa McMellon

  10. I must admit that i would be part of the majority that hated math as a student. I also found the information to be pointless. I agree that the methods in which science is taught needs to be changed. Science is a subject that it is imperitive that the content being studied be reinforced with an activity. Technology offers the teacher various ways that they can reinforce the lesson. Older and newer teachers must be brought up to speed on all of the ways that technology can make their teaching easier.

    Marlon Campbell

  11. When I was a child I hated science and never understood why we needed to learn it. As an adult I feel the same way and that is because I never understood it. So I would have had the same answer as the college students who were asked what was there least favorite subject.

    Every child learns differently whether they are visual learners, hands on learners, etc. In order for a lot of students to really like a subject or lesson being taught the teacher needs to get them involved. Especially when teaching Science. So I strongly agree with Professor Gutnicki in that they should "Require that every science lesson have a hands on component during which the student will perform the science concept, demonstrate the science concept, or create a presentation on the scientific idea in their own words." I feel that this will help a lot and the students will have a better understanding of what is being taught to them.
    Nancy Mandarino

  12. I was surprised to read that science is the least favorite subject of middle school students. My experience with science in middle school was that it was challenging but interesting. The lessons, activities, and experiments were engaging and hands on. Professional development is a great idea to help develop the knowledge base of science educators. A 29% proficency in science for middle school students in the US is alarming, especially considering that science surrounds us in our every day lives.

    Nitzeida George

  13. I agree that science is a difficult subject for many students and teachers as well. Most of the suggestions you made make sense, particularly the use of hands-on experiments and better teacher training. I honestly don't remember my science course for teaching, but can tell you in detail about social studies, ELA, and math.

    I think one particular point that was not discussed is the lack of time in our current school days. Although the state allocates four periods a week for science and schools are expected to follow this protocol, it is rarely followed or monitored. Even if it is in the school schedule, it often does not get taught in lieu of math and/or reading. Many teachers will often even opt to teach social studies because it's less time consuming to get the materials together for the experiments.

    In my previous school, we attempted to rectify this issue by having Super Science Fridays in which all four periods of science were taught on that day and students experienced a minimum of 2 experiments. Attendance soared and the interest in science was greatly expanded. On top of that, students had a cluster teacher who offered supplementary lessons on the units we taught.

    At my current school, the belief is that it should fall on the cluster teacher to do the science experiments, although she only meets with the students once a week. We have two periods a week in class for science, but again, that is mostly literacy in science. So even if a student is interested in science, they are not getting the exposure necessary to ensure they are prepared to tackle science in junior high school.

    So, great article. I agree on every point and think this article should be shared with administrators city-wide to emphasize that science is just as important as literacy and math and therefore, time should be regularly allocated.

    Ayesha Long

  14. My least favorite subject was Art. I always felt like the teacher thought we should all be great artist and she didn’t like me because I couldn’t draw. Just as I found Art foreign, confusing and impossible for me to do well I can see how those that didn’t like Math and Science felt the same way about those subjects.

    I was aware that many students disliked science. However, I was not aware that “only 29% of United States middle school students are considered proficient or above proficiency in the area of Science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam” as Prof. Gutnicki pointed out.

    I think that it is great money has been invested in programs such as “the Math Science Partnership” in order to train teachers in science and programs that “have given students the opportunity to use state of the art science equipment in a hands-on manner.” It is unfortunate to learn from the article that while these grant programs require the teachers to do coursework they don’t measure the effectiveness of this coursework.

  15. While doing my student teaching last year, I noticed science was in the "daily schedule" twice a week, however when it came time for science the teacher skipped over it in order to have more time for reading, writing, or math. Every classroom in the school was equipped with FOSS kits, but the teacher told me the kits and lessons required too much preparation and she did not have time to prepare what was necessary. When the children did do science, it was not hands-on. Instead of the students actually doing an experiment, they would either watch the teacher do it or read an article about it. Children are naturally curious and exploratory. The few times we did do a hands-on science lesson, they all loved it. As educators, it is important for us to introduce science to our children. Maybe this will prevent frustration and "hatred" for science in the upper grades.

  16. It is a great idea to directly fund middle and secondary schools for math and science in order to enhance these subject areas. When I think of my own experience, I used to like science when I was in elementary school because we had great experiments related to real life. However, once I entered middle school, it was all about memorizing scientific figures. The way of science learning was not interesting anymore. In this regard, I agree that we need to fund higher education schools to create joyful learning environment for our older children. Keiko shari

  17. As a student, Math and Science were actually two of my favorite subjects. So, when teaching science, I am very passionate about it and the kids pick up on it. My enthusiasm for Science transfers over to my students! I agree, there must be hands-on learning or a visual aid in order for students to grasp many of the concepts. Just explaining the ideas are not enough, you have to “show them.” I love it after you show the students how something works or why it works, they say “ooohhhhhhh!” I also try to reinforce the concepts with videos that I borrow from the school library, I streamline videos from Discovery Learning, and I download videos from BrainPOP to either introduce or reinforce the information that was learned. Role Playing is also really encouraging. When teaching about gases, liquids, and solids, I have my students act like molecules. I ask all of my students to stand in a confined space to represent a solid, have less students move around in the same space to stand for a liquid, and even less students move around the whole classroom to symbolize a gas. We also make oobleck, which is both a solid and a liquid (the kids absolutely love this experiment). Bottom line is, we must use different forms of learning to engage our students so that they will be interested and have a passion for science. We must bring the concepts down to the students’ level and we must “show them,” not just tell them and expect them to understand.
    -Alla Priemyshev

  18. The article states a very important point. It is of crucial importance for teachers to be prepared and up to date with all the technological advances. These should be incorporated in lessons and assignments to help students learn and truly understand the material being discussed. Hands on activities are a great way to do this because they are motivating, engaging, and fun. Teachers should definitely be trained to design lessons that incorporate all the resources that are available today to prevent students from getting bored and becoming frustrated. This will lead to a positive and meaningful educational experience. G. Torres

  19. Science and Social Studies continues to be overlooked in our curriculum especially when test prep is in full swing. What we fail to realize is that science promotes inquiry and thinking critically. Science is learning how things work and when we learn this we can apply it to different areas of learning. Social Studies is closely tied to ELA. We just have to make it engaging for our students.

  20. STEM careers start in elementary school. Young students are so excited about the wonders of the world around them. It takes very little to engage them with amazing "science" in their midst. There has been a push to dedicate a small portion of the vast amounts of reading time to science reading. This is a wonderful idea that should be implemented more broadly. Many teachers seem to be afraid of science because they fear students will ask questions they cannot answer. This will absolutely happen and is the beautiful thing about discovery. One easy way to implement this effectively with writing is to show students the magnified image of a common object like a pencil, coin or printed page. This is commonly used for this purpose: Use it as a writing prompt and have students describe what they see and how it may be used. It is great for encouraging "describing" words such as shape and color as well as possible function. Students LOVE to then see what the image actually was. It is so much fun!