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Science in Elementary Schools

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Below are responses by Dr. Robert J. Wallace, Ph.D. to five questions asked about science in elementary schools.

Q: In light of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers’ recent controversial comments on women in science, what can be done in the elementary school classroom to ensure gender equity in science education and to encourage girls as well as boys to pursue careers in science?
Although great progress has been made in the area of gender equity in many areas of science, it is clear from the comments by Dr. Summers that there still is a way to go before true equity is achieved. The paper by Leonhardt and Fraser-Abder outlines some of the issues (Leonardt, N., and P. Fraser-Abder. 1996. Research Experiences for Teachers. The Science Teacher 63(1): 3033.)

It is clear that a teacher must be very attentive about his/her own attitudes as well as about the attitudes of his/her students. Boys and girls need to have equal time, encouragement and access to blocks, construction materials, computers, art areas, musical instruments, cooking areas, costume and role-play areas, etc. Teachers need to be careful to treat children as individuals and not as stereotypes. Most teachers that I have worked with are very sensitive to this. Pressures can come from outside of the classroom, and the teacher cannot control everything. However, he/she must try to be a good role model for the children for whom she/he is responsible.

Often, raising these issues in classroom discussions is a good way to get everyone to look at the problem. This is especially true in the middle school but also can be very effective in elementary school. It continues to amaze me how many children in kindergarten already have clearly defined ideas about what is appropriate or inappropriate for each gender.

When doing scientific research on gender differences, there is a tendency to look for male/female differences because these groups tend to be easy to identify. Even research that suggests that there are statistically significant cognitive and learning differences between males and females show so much overlap between the two groups as to render the results ineffective in making decisions about any individual. This is complicated further by the fact that even scientific research is heavily influenced by cultural norms. The important thing to remember is that all children should be encouraged to work to meet the highest standards possible, regardless of any gender or cultural background.

Q: Are you concerned that the testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act will detract from the kind of hands-on science learning that kids find so memorable and inspiring?
The problem with using standardized tests as the primary method to assess the quality of teaching and learning of science is that they tend to reward the idea that learning is the study of important questions whose answers are already known. The actual practice of science (and most other academic professions) emphasizes asking questions that do not yet have answers.

In science, we seek the answers to these questions in the natural world. Science is by definition, “hands-on.” If we do not give children a chance to explore the world in a hands-on fashion, we are not giving them a realistic picture of the scientific process. Not all children should become scientists. However, if they see science as something that is merely the memorization of the answers to questions that have already been solved, they are not making informed decisions about the field of study.

Q: How would your science education advice differ for a teacher with a small number of students versus one with many?
While I have seen a high school teacher effectively handle laboratory work with a class size of sixty-five students, most research studies, as well as general experience, suggests that the ideal class size (all else being equal) for elementary school is about fifteen students. This is a small enough group for most teachers to get to know each individual child well yet a large enough class to have viable discussions and to be able to divide into small groups.

Class sizes up to twenty-five students are common in public schools. This class size is significantly more difficult to conduct hands-on activities, yet many teachers find that it is still possible and worth the extra effort in terms of student achievement and enjoyment. I find that teachers who have class sizes over thirty students have great difficulty conducting hand-on activities, particularly those that need considerable equipment and set-up time. Those who succeed with these larger class sizes often solve the problem by creating more permanent science work area (as well as reading and writing areas, a math game area, a computer area, and art and creative play areas) that allow small numbers of students to cycle through them while the teacher works with sub groupings of the class on more teacher-directed instruction.

Generally, the more a teacher can create an environment where children can work in small groups, the more effective that teacher will be, even with moderately large classes. The danger is to try to use the lecture/performance method too much. This usually creates boredom in the teacher as well as the student. Behavior problems tend to increase as well.

Regardless of the class size, the more students can take responsibility for setting up and putting away activities and supervising their own work and conduct, the more enjoyable and effective the class. All equipment should be stored in well-labeled locations so that children have no problem finding them and returning them to the correct location. It is generally worth the time spent at the beginning of a term to explain how to use and care for classroom materials. Many elementary school teachers assign weekly jobs to students. Depending upon the age of the children, these jobs can include the supervision of setting up and putting away materials used in hands-on activities. In addition, there should be many educational materials (i.e. math and science “games”) that students who finish a project early can turn to until it is time to begin a new activity.

Q: The “science fair project,” in which students formulate their own questions, use the scientific method to answer them, and then display their findings often alongside demonstrations, has long been a staple of science curriculums. At what grade level do you think this learning experience is the most helpful? How can teachers work this into the curriculum without taking too much time away from standardized test preparation?
The science fair project can be an exciting and realistic way to engage children in science-problem solving. Of course, the age at which a child is ready for independent work can vary from one individual to the next. I have seen some outstanding, award-winning, science fair projects conducted by five- and six-year-olds. The key is that they are worked on age-appropriate topics.

In some cases, it is helpful to encourage younger students to work as part of a group. There might even be an all-class project so that the teacher can model the way to approach inquiry. In one elementary school that I have worked with in New York City, the children were asked to work on science fair projects as early as kindergarten. Children who grew up with this approach were able to conduct their own, independent, investigations by fourth or fifth grade. Certainly, children should have a chance to conduct these projects by middle-school age.

As far as test preparation goes, there can be a natural give and take between the two approaches. Project-based learning can provide the motivation and interest to read and write at a more sophisticated level as well as to reinforce math concepts that have been studied. The test preparation activities can be used as a way to cover content in an efficient way. In some states, the elementary school tests in math and science involve considerable hands-on activities. Many math tests allow, or require, the use of manipulatives. In some states, the science assessment includes a laboratory activity, either on a given test day or distributed throughout the year as mandated laboratory exercises. In these situations, the alignment between effective test preparation and hands-on activities is easier.

Q: What sort of advice, if any, should teachers give to students who show particular promise in science?
A high proportion of scientists will tell you that they became excited about science at very young ages, often early elementary school or even earlier. In most cases, a mentor existed, usually a parent or relative, but sometimes a teacher, who developed a one-on-one relationship with the child and encouraged and supported their interest in science. A teacher who recognizes scientific promise in a pupil would do well to try to help that child find a mentor, perhaps through after-school programs connected to local museums or science-oriented organizations. Many teachers who have a particular interest in science themselves will set up their own mentoring programs either within the structure of the school or as part of an after school club or program.

About Robert J. Wallace, Ph.D. At New York University, Dr. Wallace coordinates the Math, Science, and Technology Enhancement Project (MSTEP), a subsidized master’s degree program in math and science education.

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