September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Elementary Science: What Is It? Part II

Posted: Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Tim Williamson

This is the second in a series of columns related to the necessity for the teaching of science in the elementary school.

The elementary grades are a perfect place to build on a child’s natural curiosity about the world they experience.  By instructing these students in “hands-on minds-on” science instruction, teachers can stimulate this curiosity which in turn allows the students to think about and understand the world around them.  This innate and wonderful curiosity soon disappears if science is omitted from elementary classroom instruction.

I asked Eric Brundin, the science curriculum leader of Long Beach Unified School District, to also share his feelings regarding good elementary science instruction.  Eric and I worked together and shared an office in LBUSD when I was the Science Math Resource Center’s head teacher.  We shared many long conversations regarding the teaching of science (or lack thereof) in the elementary classroom.  I knew Eric would be able to share some very valuable insights into this “What is Elementary Science?” question.  I’m sharing his insightful response as it was relayed to me.

Elementary Science – by Eric Brundin

It is often said that children are natural scientists.  Perhaps we overplay that idea because we mistake curiosity for scientific inquiry.  Curiosity is the foundation for inquiry, but it is not the goal.  The goal, I think, is one subtle step beyond that.  If we respond to student curiosity with “the answer,” there is a level of, “Oh, I get it” that creates a certain level of satisfaction in students.  But for most students, it is not enough; it will not last.  Most science content is taught as other peoples’ (professional scientists’) answers to questions other people have asked.  As students and teachers, we sit on the sidelines and try to fit it into our own understanding.  What we really want kids to learn is how to get it.  As much as possible, we want our students to try to figure it out, to make guesses, and to be humble enough to accept what the evidence really tells them.

If only the California science standards had started with the Investigation and Experimentation skill standards and stated that the content standards (life, physical, and earth) are merely the context for learning the I&E skills!  But, alas, it’s up to us to explain that from the grassroots.  Perhaps they were just saving the best for last.

One thing I’ve learned is that we, too, must be humble enough to accept what the evidence is really telling us.  The evidence I’ve seen shows that some teachers can catch fire easier than others.  Years ago here in Long Beach, the K-12 Alliance came and made a tremendous difference with a group of elementary teachers.  One of these teachers still talks about how she turned from being science-phobic to completely excited about science.  She is now among our most experienced and valued science specialists.  And others have caught fire as well, but many teachers have not.  They see or experience great inquiry activities and respond, “Could you come show that to my class?”  How do we help these teachers take it on for themselves?

Some people like to jump right in to a swimming pool.  Others of us prefer to wade in slowly, … inch by inch, … checking to make sure the pulse rate is not too dangerously high, … letting that last inch of skin get fully used to the wet and cold before assaulting the next inch.  And if those jumpy, splashy people get too close, we may just opt for something else, something safer to do.  How many elementary teachers are living this way with science?  How many are tacitly saying that science is just too uncomfortable so I’ll do as little possible?  They are just going to do what they need to do.  One thing we’ve implemented is a system to help the “waders” discover what they really need.  We have created a district level, standards-based assessment system that allows us to get the individual item analysis that is instructionally useful, which the state system does not provide.  It is gives private, teacher level data that individual teachers compare to the district average to find strengths and weaknesses.  Once teachers identify the weaknesses, we help them to focus on the standards/concepts that seem most important.  In collaborative groups with teachers or resource people who know the science, you can develop class activities that will help students experience, understand, and retain understanding.  Lesson study is perhaps the ultimate form of this, but less formal settings can work, too.  The science expert can be someone from industry if they can blend their expertise with the teaching expertise of the teachers.  Or, expertise can come from a middle or high school teacher, or some other resource: either in person or on the web.

We operate in a data-driven world today – sometimes we smother ourselves with it, sometimes we just give it lip service.  The key is to making it work is getting limited, useful data and then acting on it.  Also, avoid the temptation to fix everything.  Remember, the waders need to be brought along slowly.  They probably need to be brought along slowly each time they come upon a new pool.  From a leadership perspective, this calls for tenacious patience, all too rare a quality where science education is concerned.”


Thank you Eric for your well articulated and thought provoking insights regarding this educational dilemma.

Contemplating his words of wisdom allows us to become better prepared to impart scientific literacy to all of our younger charges, preparing them for a successful future for themselves, our state and our nation.

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

One Response

  1. Well said! The state STAR tests assess science content knowledge, not the ability to deal with the ambiguity and uncertainty of problem statements, hypotheses, and data, which requires analysis, application, synthesis and evaluation. Science isn’t about “getting the answer”, but asking appropriate, meaningful questions that can guide inquiry. We never “arrive” in science; we’re always on a journey to the the next question.

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CSTA Is Now Accepting Nominations for Board Members

Posted: Friday, November 17th, 2017

Current, incoming, and outgoing CSTA Board of Directors at June 3, 2017 meeting.

Updated 7:25 pm, Nov. 17, 2017

It’s that time of year when CSTA is looking for dedicated and qualified persons to fill the upcoming vacancies on its Board of Directors. This opportunity allows you to help shape the policy and determine the path that the Board will take in the new year. There are time and energy commitments, but that is far outweighed by the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are an integral part of an outstanding professional educational organization, dedicated to the support and guidance of California’s science teachers. You will also have the opportunity to help CSTA review and support legislation that benefits good science teaching and teachers.

Right now is an exciting time to be involved at the state level in the California Science Teachers Association. The CSTA Board of Directors is currently involved in implementing the Next Generations Science Standards and its strategic plan. If you are interested in serving on the CSTA Board of Directors, now is the time to submit your name for consideration. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.