September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Is More Science Learned in or Outside the Classroom?

Posted: Friday, September 30th, 2011

by Grahme Smith

A recent article published in American Scientist entitled “The 95 Percent Solution” argues that Americans learn as much if not more science outside the classroom as within. In the article, John Falk and Lynn Dierking use data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) to show that in elementary school, Americans score high in science compared to other countries on these tests. We then score poorly during middle and high school, and then score well again as adults. It is argued that this “U” shaped trend is not based of the lack the quantity and quality science taught in middle and high school. In fact, students receive more science from teachers actually trained to teach science in these grades, yet during these years the scores of Americans go down. Falk and Diering argue that reason for this is that American teenage students are not engaging in science outside of the classroom. America has an abundance of free-choice learning centers. We have more zoos, aquariums, and museums per capita than any other country in the world, yet we are not taking advantage of these resources with our middle and high school students. This is causing students to become uninterested in science, and causes them to see science as something they do for school instead of for life. When science is only experienced in the classroom it perpetuates the poorly, stuffy, academic stereotype of what a scientist is, and causes many students to become disengaged.

The article sites another interesting study investigating the gap in performance between disadvantaged and advantaged children. The study shows that while in school the two groups often make similar gains, and it is over the summer when the gap between them widens. Traditional thinking interprets these data to advocate for more schooling for the disadvantaged. Falk and Dierking challenge this reasoning and argue that these data demonstrate that to ensure equity among these groups, we must address what is happening outside of the classroom. Their belief is that the advantaged students are learning outside of the classroom and the disadvantaged are not. More time in the classroom will not address this disparity, but providing the disadvantaged students more opportunities for science experiences outside of school time will.

The conclusion of the article states that they do not mean to diminish the importance of the science learning within the classroom, but that that we should value the learning experiences outside the classroom as equally important in fostering a life-long love of science. While I’m not necessarily in agreement with this thesis, I bring it up to the CSTA community to ask for your opinion. I want to hear your thoughts on where or how you became engaged with science, and where and how do your students become most excited with science? How important do you think the classroom experience is compared to experiences outside of school time?

To read the abstract to the “95 Percent Solution” click on this link: http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/feature/the-95-percent-solution

Grahme Smith is manager at the Teacher Institute on Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences and CSTA’s informal science director.

 

Written by Grahme Smith

Grahme Smith is manager at the Teacher Institute on Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences and CSTA’s informal science director (2011-2013.

4 Responses

  1. I could not agree more! That is why I started Get Inspired and my Science Expeditions program. When I was in the 4th grade, I was turned on to science through a program deisgned to let me experience it outside of my classroom. My passion is to take students out into nature and let them experience science. They are more apt to love when they live it!

  2. This paper supports something I’ve believed for years and its that as a teacher you need to make the bridge between the theoretical-classroom-world and real life experiences for kids to actually get a foothold in developing their own science and math literacy. Finding ways to let students bring their real life experiences into the classroom where there can be anaylyzed using scientific and mathematic methods I’ve seen work time and again. For my algebra class I use to have kids bring in their bicycles and with a little creativity you’ll find most algebra concepts can be taught around the function and structure of bike. In biology I really like Bio-Rad’s GMO Kit where kids can detect the presence of GMOs in the things they eat, because it not only teaches them about PCR, but gets them to think about what they are eating and how these things are made.

  3. I can not remember much of anything about my K-12 science education, but it was my experiences outdoors, especially observing wildlife, exploring landforms, gardening, plant identification, snorkeling, etc. that motivated me to become a science learner in college, and then to become a science teacher. I am now exploring how to bring inspiring outdoor experiences to students through after school and summer programs. The disparity due to lack of summer enrichment, ( and community-based, grass roots solutions) were well documented in a Time magazine issue http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2005863,00.html. In my 6th grade classroom, we partner with a local non-profit environmental education organization, Next Generation, to bring all students to
    “Outdoor Science” in the school garden and adjacent creek once a month. But I feel it is just a taste. For real meaningful exposure and time to explore, monitor, test, etc. I would like to develop an after school program. If anyone out there knows of good models, please share!

  4. In California and many other states a trail blazed many years teaching science through the states outdoor science schools located in Sierras or the ocean front, captivates elementary school children. As a capstone achievement and right of passage of fifth or sixth grade, these well thought out programs can be easily adapted to middle school and incorporate the new NGSS standards. Thinking outside of the box, many of these facilities are under utilized and could be maximized with donor funding. Environmental science field research, and the affects of climate change to endemic species, can be monitored by high school students and graduate students as well from these facilities.

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