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:

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,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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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.