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.

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