Tired of Pushing Science To The Side? Give It A Boost In The Classroom

May 28, 2024 4:14:12 PM


Tired of Pushing Science To The Side? Give It A Boost In The Classroom

As this school year winds down, I've talked with colleagues and reflected on changes I'd love to see in U.S. schools. I keep thinking about the degree to which the national conversation on improving education almost exclusively focuses on changes needed in math and reading. Those foundational subjects deserve urgent attention, but it's time we also paid more attention to science.

Every student needs adequate time in science, which often gets swept aside during the school day. U.S. elementary teachers said they spent just 18 minutes a day on science in a 2018 national survey, and that figure may be even lower now, considering post-pandemic efforts to accelerate learning in math and reading, subjects hard hit on the most recent Nation’s Report Card.

Science is critical if we want to raise a generation of young people who can enter competitive STEM fields, solve scientific challenges, and make discoveries that positively impact our environment and health. Learning science also encourages critical thinking, collaboration, and reasoning skills. Furthermore, the knowledge students build in science can improve their literacy skills since background knowledge boosts comprehension. And students often practice math skills like measurement and data analysis when they engage in science.

In addition, we need to improve the science instruction offered in many communities. For starters, teachers need better resources. Educators benefit so much from having a cohesive, high-quality curriculum, and I'm glad my school has one for science. Yet, according to a RAND survey, most teachers rely on non-curricular materials and have to pull together their own resources. If that reflects your reality, or you are simply thinking about improving your science instruction, I've found three organizing principles essential.

Organize Your Instruction Around Knowledge-Building Units

You might look online and tap into a free, open-source curriculum. Or, if you’re creating your lessons, students do better when they go deeper on connected topics rather than studying science in a scattershot way.

To create units, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) suggests selecting experiments, readings, discussions, and other learning activities based on what students should learn and then linking them together in a unit. State standards can shape the concepts and time spent on each.

I like to go beyond the bare minimum on topics and recommend that educators use extension activities to further student interest in a subject. Knowledge is power, and student interest can spark a new level of understanding based on the thirst for knowing or answering the basic question: Why? Going deeper may mean you streamline areas covered, so be sure you can do that and still hit the required standards. Remember, some reading and learning can happen as homework rather than trying to cram everything into a class period.

You can use online tools if you don’t have science kits and a lot of concrete materials. These can be woven into lessons as part of an individual, group activity, or classroom station. Some ideas include using online WebQuest, an inquiry-based approach in which students draw information from the web, virtual labs, and virtual field trips. Don’t underestimate the power of play. Gamification is another great way to support science learning. A few suggestions include Legends of Learning, EDpuzzle, SIMOC, NASA Space Place to drive a rover, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, and Choose Our Future.  

Tap Your Community

Schools exist in an ecosystem, not in isolation. Consider resources like science museums, parent experts, and colleagues you can tap to support you in delivering high-quality science instruction. By connecting students with STEM communities and experts, we can excite and grow the next generations of STEM innovators and creators.

If a student can see it, they can be it! Connecting female students and students of color to STEM learning can support the development of their STEM identity. I introduced my military-connected students to female engineers, scientists, and researchers of color to give them examples of cultural success stories.

Tie Instruction to Student Interests

Research shows that student achievement grows when educators tap into student interests, and too many students are disengaged. On the last Nation’s Report Card, a third of high school students graders surveyed reported that they had low interest in and enjoyment of science.

I ask students what they are interested in before we start and throughout each unit, and I work to connect what we’re doing in school with what they care about. I find interest surveys and an end-of-year course evaluation to be so helpful. 

Additionally, I recommend Science Friday as a starting point to help students and families find an area of science interest. This free resource offers a plethora of radio audio files, visual transcripts, videos, and podcasts that are sure to help a struggling student or an inquisitive family connect to science.

One strategy that also deepens engagement in my classroom is using an “Ah-Ha 3-2-1” digital graphic organizer for students to identify three important facts learned, connect two ah-ha’s from past or present experiences, and come up with one final research-based question to extend their learning. I then personally answer that question, discuss it as a class, or guide students toward resources they can use to explore the topic of interest independently.

There are many additional resources available to support your science instruction. I’ve listed a few below.

  • The National Assessment Governing Board, where I am a board member, recently drafted a new framework for the Nation’s Report Card in science, which will guide the content on future tests starting in 2028.
  • NSTA has a host of resources teachers can use across grades and disciplines.
  • The National Science Foundation has lessons and instructional materials that can support you.
  • PhET labs offers free online simulations in math and science to support learning in diverse science areas.
  • National Geographic has an interactive Mars colony simulation, SIMOC.
  • NASA’s Citizen Scientist allows students and others to collaborate with scientists.  
  • Another Citizen Scientist program, run by the U.S. government, can support teaching and learning. I’ve participated as both an educator and parent.

I know it can be daunting to find the time and resources to deliver high-quality science instruction to students across grades, especially amid the nation’s focus on accelerating student achievement in math and reading. But you don’t have to go it alone. Tap community resources, available online resources, and students’ natural curiosity to bring this vital subject to life in your classroom.

Michael Pope

Michael A. Pope is a Presidential Awardee for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching eighth-grade science teacher at Zama American Middle-High School in Japan and Teacher Hall of Fame Finalist. He also serves as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the Nation’s Report Card.

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