Learning science is great. Learning to think in science opens the doors to discovery.
When I was a kid, I didn’t care for science. In fact, it was the most boring subject in my school day. In class, we read from a book and answered questions. I don’t recall doing experiments or anything else but reading. When I got to middle school, I recall doing some experiments, but I also remember not fully understanding. The recollections are vague, at best. Sadly, I remember few science classes in high school. I had to have taken them to graduate, but I truly don’t remember them. Actually, I do remember taking a semester of chemistry and failing at it badly. I did not at all understand a single bit of it. I bailed at mid-year. It was wasting my time to sit there and understand absolutely nothing. It’s a sad commentary to me that my only memory of high school science is one of failure.
When I got to college, I dodged every science class I could. Of course, I had to take science, but I looked for the path of least resistance. At minimum, I was understanding some things, and I was getting to do science activities. It’s funny how doing science leads to understanding science. What a concept! My major required that I take classes about science instruction as well as classes designed to add to my knowledge of science. For the first time, I became somewhat interested in science. The doing of science is what was bringing some interest to the topic
My early science experiences are what lead me to ignore, circumvent, evade and run for cover from science. I didn’t understand it, and it was not fun. Who would understand science when it’s only read from a book? It was dull. Why wouldn’t it be when science should be doing, not reading? I wasn’t good at it, and it is easy to understand why. My science education, or lack thereof, had failed me in my youth. I was not given the proper exposure to science to interest me. It was a chore. I was a good student, and I got good grades in science, but then, it was a reading assignment and I could read and answer questions. That didn’t mean I knew anything. Basically, I didn’t want to have anything to do with science.
That is why it is such a wonder to me that I became known as the science teacher at my schools. I was the teacher with the reputation of teaching science in a way that got kids interested and to enjoy science. To me, there was no hands-on activity that was too big to tackle. It took immense amounts of time to set up and then have the kids do the activities, but I absolutely loved teaching it. Why? Part of it is that I understood how the world worked better than I ever had. By learning how to teach science, I learned a lot of science, and wonder of wonders, I became curious about how things worked. My true science education began when I started teaching it. More though, I was not going to let happen to me happen to my students. Science is interesting, knowing why things work the way they do is fascinating, and it was my challenge to get kids to be inspired by science. Science knowledge leads to the desire to learn even more about the world. I would get excited when I saw the enthusiasm my students had as they figured science out. The more I saw my students engage in science, the more I wanted them to have every opportunity to develop their curiosity about the world in which they live. One of the many great things about science is that it is all around us. Everywhere one looks, science is staring us in the face. People just have to learn to recognize it.
My career in teaching science wasn’t always so hands-on. I remember early in my career, we were given a book from which the students were to read. We read and we discussed, and the tests were 14 item multiple choice questions. The students did well on them, and I was happy that they were learning science. But, were they? Looking back, I shake my head. I tried to make the material as meaningful and real-life as possible at the time, but I was becoming exactly the teacher that I had in my own early education. There were not many activities in that book. I tried to do them, but we didn’t have materials at the ready. It was later when the district finally adopted a program that was true science that my science teaching finally became a science program. The new program had no books, and it was a full hands-on approach. The kids would do the activities, and then we would make meaning from those activities. It was true Constructivism before I knew how to teach constructively. However, it was the starting point to engage kids in science learning. Not only were they learning science ideas, but they were learning how to work like scientists.
At the same time, the district gave us multiple science programs we could use. That was the best choice they could have made. We could pick and choose the materials that were going to fit the needs of our students. My program became a variety of resources, and all of it was hands-on. I began to plan units of study by pulling the best parts of each program, and I wrote my own science program. Armed with an arsenal of materials, it was time to teach science and get kids excited about it!
I had an idea to showcase the new science program for our school community. I detested traditional science fairs. Those beautiful tri-folds that illustrated some type of science idea with maybe some type of materials posed perfectly in front of the display were often done with more than a considerable amount of help from parents. The joke always was that it was parents competing with one another to see who could make the best display. That wasn’t the type of showcase I was interested in doing. I wanted science to be actively done. So, Science Night was born.
Students were in teams of 3-4 and they were to design an activity that could be done by the community. Parents, siblings relatives and friends were invited to come to the school on two different evenings to take part in hands-on science. Kids in grades k-6 created activities through which they would lead the community. The kids taught the science, and the community did the science. Both nights were huge successes, and we even got television news coverage of the event. The goal of Science Night was to get kids excited not only about doing science but teaching it as well. Kids took ownership of their activities, and they really knew the material as they lead people through the activities. They also had to explain the science behind the activity so that the community was truly learning science. Those were high energy nights that sparked science learning in the school. It also solidified for me that science had to be hands-on for kids to learn it well and to be excited about it as a topic.
I’ve always been confused as to why teachers would say that they didn’t teach science. I changed schools after our schoolwide science nights, and at my new school, science was not a priority. It was for me, but as a school, it just wasn’t. The push in the district was to heavily teach math and language arts. In all fairness, that didn’t leave a ton of time for science, which wasn’t fair to the teachers or the students. Eventually, the district adopted a series that had all the hands-on materials, but also a book. I remember teachers scrambling to cram in science reading prior to taking the standardized science test in 5th grade. Science reading- that wasn’t going to get kids interested in science, and they were not going to learn the material let alone master it to the point where they could apply it in the real world. That was the only time in the year that science was taught and it was with the purpose to get ready for a state test. How is that supposed to get young people interested in science?
Science education is far more than just learning science. With a well-developed program, science education takes advantage of kids’ natural curiosity. There is a huge amount of curiosity in our young people, and they bring that with them to school every day. Science helps develop that curiosity. Once a student’s curiosity is tapped into, it generalizes to other areas of life, not just science. Curious kids learn more. They take responsibility for their own learning and pursue topics of interest. Curious kids are more innovative as they encounter new ways of looking at the world and then apply those new ways to their thinking. Science allows curiosity to expand. Giving the students an interesting task and then scaffolding the activity such that the students can tap into their curiosity and figure out the solutions required by the activity empowers them in their learning. It builds confidence. That same confidence generalizes to other areas of the curriculum.
Science education teaches thinking skills. Kids need to analyze the data that they generate, and they need to figure out the next steps to take in pursuing the knowledge of the activity. Critical and creative thinking are fully developed in science education. What scientist doesn’t need to think critically in order to arrive at his or her findings whether that be the scientist who discovers vaccines or a 9-year old scientist in a classroom? To develop the ability to think critically is central to educating our students. Critical thinking applies to everything students do, not only in the classroom, but in their daily lives as well. The business world has told educators that the skills needing to be developed include critical and creative thinking as well as innovation. That is what science education develops in students. Teachers need every avenue available to them to give students the opportunity to develop and refine their thinking abilities. Science gives the classroom a huge amount of benefits for the time that is spent on the subject.
Two more skills that teachers need to develop in students are communication and collaboration. Science education certainly delivers those skills. Students work in teams to solve science challenges. As they create knowledge together and share that knowledge, both communication and collaboration are developed. As students work and then participate in full class discussions, the sharing of thoughts and proof of those thoughts develops communication. It is in those discussions that even more critical thinking is developed. Students need to listen to their peers and judge the information that is presented. They often challenge each other’s thoughts in those discussions, and in order to succeed in those challenges, further proof is generated. Thinking on the spot like that is the ultimate in critical and creative thinking. As the discussion continues, a knowledge base is collaboratively built, and the young scientists are working just as professional scientists do. The exciting part for teachers is when students become thrilled with the moments that lead to understanding which often happens in those scientific discussions. So often, my student scientists are standing with hands extended in the air and jumping up and down in order to get the chance to communicate their thinking. That is what science education can give to kids.
Another aspect of science education that cannot be discounted is that doing science is plain and simply fun. Kids enjoy doing science. Often, I would hear kids get excited in the morning when they see that science is on our schedule. It is so much fun when an ongoing experiment is taking place, and when the kids come into the room in the morning. The first thing so many of them do is check their science activity. They get so fired up to see changes in their work from day to day, and by providing that enthusiasm, science is responsible for getting kids excited about school and about coming to school. That is what teachers dream of: kids being excited to come to school. Science helps provide that motivation.
A piece of the fun of science is the intellectual stimulation that science provides. My students enjoyed solving problems in science. To them, science is a puzzle that needs to be solved. When we developed the STEM program at our school, those ongoing, long-term activities kept kids thinking day to day to figure out the best solution to the problems that they were challenged to solve. To many of the students, that type of thinking is the fun that science provides for them. They want to take on the challenge of solving the problems that are posed to them, and their thinking and strategizing is as much a part of the fun of science as the doing of science. The crucial element is to create activities that the students can solve, but not to make them too simple. When any activity is too hard or too simple, kids lose interest quickly.
We now have a new set of science standards, and I have only dabbled in them a bit. Our district was on the cusp of adopting materials to implement the new standards, but schools were shut down due to the coronavirus. In that time, I decided that nearly 40 years in education was enough, and so I retired. Yet, the program in which I worked had taken the initiative to work with the new standards before our district began employing them. We wrote a STEM program to implemented in our school that utilized the standards. The new standards are improved over the previous version, and one of the hugely beneficial aspects of them are the cross cutting concepts. The cross cutting concepts provide a way of thinking and examining phenomena. The various fields of science can be discussed together as they all share the cross cutting concepts. The concepts are a way of organizing thinking and allowing any combination of science topics to be discussed at any one time. Additionally, once the students understand the concepts and begin using them with frequency, they will be able to think of their entire worlds in terms of the concepts. This framework gives kids a tool to use in viewing the world and to see it in a deeper, richer way. Thus, the implementation of the NGSS and the cross cutting concept component will create students who think more critically and creatively and lead to further innovation of thought.
Too many times I’d hear my colleagues say that they can’t teach science because of the poor behavior of their students. To me, that is an excuse. Science takes a lot of time. Materials have to be gathered and a great deal of planning has to go into how to have students work with the materials. Steps have to be broken down so that the students can be given directions that will lead to success. The ideas behind the science have to be understood in order to lead kids through an activity and that includes know the good questions to ask and when to ask them. All of that takes time. Besides that, science is messy! Not only is there often a physical mess to clean up, but in true science discoveries, there is the mess of not having control over the classroom. That’s ok as long as the students have been trained to handle the responsibility of managing themselves. However, there are many teachers who are hesitant to give that control up. They like to know what is going to happen; they need to know what is going to happen. To me, that is a boring script. The fun of a classroom is not necessarily knowing that will happen next, and science gives that opportunity. If a science investigation is well planned and the students are properly motivated, their behavior will fall into place. I honestly believe that. The culture of the classroom has to be developed such that respect is a key component. That respect transcends to each other as well as to any equipment that needs to be used. If kids are engaged, they will behave; that is true of any subject. Sometimes, the hands-on activities that can be managed may be small, but it’s a start toward doing science. When taught how to do science and engagement is high, every classroom can have productive, stimulating and fun science sessions.
We are coming out of a time where science was not valued by the president. That had never happened in my lifetime. I grew up in the 1960s and space launches seemed to be on television all the time; that is just one example of how science was in our homes regularly. The United States was trying to land men on the moon, and the lessons in science were multiplying exponentially. However, the country seems to have a mindset where science no longer has the value it once did. With all the problems in the world, one of the biggest being global warming, which has been called a hoax, if we do not develop scientists, how will those problems be solved? We need to develop science and scientific thinking in our society. A premium needs to be put on science education. That starts in our classrooms. I understand that math and language arts have got to be taught, but the fact that they are tested annually seems to be a huge reason as to why. Science should get just as much emphasis as without science, how would we have discoveries that save lives such as the newly developed Covid-19 vaccine? Science is an integral part of life, and we have got to emphasize to our young students that science is a fun field and that understanding the working of the world is of huge value. Our lives depend on science.
I started my science education in a place of desolation. Essentially, there was no memorable science education. As my career in teaching advanced, I became the man known for science. Every year my students put on Science Nights for our community to come in to our classroom and do science. We taught science to nearly 3,000 people over the 18 years I ran the program in my classroom. I co-coached our elementary school Science Olympiad team and each year I did so, we won first place in our district. From a place where I hated and avoided science to a place where science was a staple of my career, I learned to not only love the subject, but loved seeing the excitement that kids had when they engaged in the field. Kids want to do science. When they get to take part in investigations, they are excited about school. They are excited about their learning. They are excited about figuring out the world. Isn’t that what education owes its students? Science is the way to accomplish that task. It’s plain and simple people: teach science to our kids. The ones who struggle with math and reading just might excel in science and what a boost to their self-esteem that would be. Why not just give it a try? There is nothing to lose and everything to gain. It sounds like a winning plan to me.
For further reading:
Why Do We Need to Teach Science in Elementary School? from stemteachingtools.org
Elementary School Science from NSTA.org
There are Many Benefits to Starting Science Education Early-Very Early from Edscource.org
The Importance of Science Education in Schools from academicpartnerships.uta.org
The Importance of Learning Science: Teaching Stratgies for Today's Educators from Walden University