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.”

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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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