Don’t Know Much about a Science Book . . .

The United States is sometimes said to be “at the bottom of the barrel” in the way it educates its students in science. As it turns out, this isn’t strictly true . . . on the most recent (2012) Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, U.S. students obtained average scores for reading and science, and only slightly below average ones for math. Nevertheless, given the large number of educational “improvements” that have been attempted over the last decade, it is disappointing that our country’s students haven’t scored higher in these subjects.

Image Credit: FrankieF, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 The average science score (497) of students from the United States is pretty much in the middle of the pack when compared to those of 64 other  countries/economies. The students in Shanghai scored the highest in science,  followed by the students in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and Finland. There was little change in the U.S. scores from those of three years earlier.

Image Credit: FrankieF, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
The average science score (497) of students from the United States
is pretty much in the middle of the pack when compared to those of 64 other
countries/economies. The students in Shanghai scored the highest in science,
followed by the students in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and Finland.
There was little change in the U.S. scores from those of three years earlier.

In addition, based on my own experiences with science education as both a student and a teacher, I am somewhat surprised that the U.S. even scores at the average level. Because, frankly, I found my own elementary science education to be abysmal, and my secondary education to be only slightly better (the quality of education in the life sciences tended to be better than that in the physical/space/earth sciences). I attended elementary school in the early ‘60s, a time of a supposed increase in the amount of science taught in these grades (the “post-Sputnik” period). Yet, I have no memory of any scientific subject studied in the early grades and can only conclude that I was a less than enthusiastic science student due to my consistently receiving Cs on my report cards in this subject. However, my grades in science did rise as I progressed through school, undoubtedly because of having discovered an interest in nature through reading, and due to having teachers in middle and high school who specialized in science. Nevertheless, I always felt that something was missing in my science education: in the content itself; in the organization of the content; and in the relevance of the content to my everyday life.

One of my least favorite science assignments in the fifth grade was the study of simple machines. Although I could certainly  understand how pulling a bundle of books up an inclined plane  would be easier than lifting them up straight, I couldn’t help but wonder how many times in my life I’d actually have an inclined plane available to help me raise books up off a surface.  Perhaps this assignment would have seemed more relevant if I had been shown how people use wheelchair ramps or truck ramps  to load heavy objects, but I don’t recall any attempt made to relate this concept to “real life.”

One of my least favorite science assignments in the fifth grade
was the study of simple machines. Although I could certainly
understand how pulling a bundle of books
up an inclined plane would be easier than
lifting them up straight, I couldn’t help but wonder
how many times in my life I’d actually have an inclined plane
available to help me raise books up off a surface.
Perhaps this assignment would have seemed more relevant
if I had been shown how people use wheelchair ramps
or truck ramps to load heavy objects,
but I don’t recall any attempt made
to relate this concept to “real life.”

By the time my two sons entered elementary school, the California State Department of Education had published a Science Framework listing the scientific concepts that should be taught at the various grade levels. Wow, I thought while perusing this Framework, what a wonderful science education my children would be receiving if only their teachers followed this guide. Instead, each of my sons’ teachers seemed to be teaching a series of disjointed scientific topics related to their specific interests with no coordination between grade levels . . . the result of which was that there were almost no units taught regarding physical science, only a few units taught regarding space and earth science, and numerous but strikingly similar units taught regarding life science – e.g., units on plants were taught year after year, perhaps because most of the teachers were familiar with house plants and/or gardening. I eventually came to realize that many elementary school teachers, as excellent as they might be at teaching reading, writing, and math, are fearful of teaching science – possibly due to having majored in other subjects at the college level, along with preconceived notions of science being too difficult or even boring.

“Not PLANTS again!
Why can’t we study something INTERESTING in biology . . .
like, like . . . SHARKS!!?”

As a result of my own and my sons’ experiences, as well as the current mediocre performance of students despite the continued publication of comprehensive science frameworks and standards, I have given some thought as to how I would improve the science curricula at both the elementary and secondary levels. My conclusions are based on the principles that nothing in science should be taught in isolation, the interconnectedness of all things should be emphasized, and scientific concepts should be approached in a logical, step-wise manner. Accordingly, I have come up with the following suggestions for teachers and administrators . . .

Elementary School

Since elementary school is the easiest environment in which to integrate subjects, allowing students to absorb the impact of science upon history, culture, etc., my major suggestion for these grade levels would be to more fully integrate science with social studies under a common theme.

Image Credit: One Community, Human Body Lesson Plan, CC BY 3.0 Possible topics for study using the human body as a classroom theme.

Image Credit: One Community, Human Body Lesson Plan, CC BY 3.0
Possible topics for study using the human body as a classroom theme.

Sample themes:

(1) Kindergarten – the individual (the human body; brain; values and standards of good behavior; etc.)

(2) First Grade – homes and neighborhoods (the natural resources used in building homes; how our homes compare to other people’s homes as well as animal homes; the plants and pets we keep inside the house; other living things – plant and animal – we might keep or discover in our homes and yards; how family members typically interact at home and with their neighbors; etc.)

(3) Second Grade – cities (the type of land, climate, and natural resources that led to the settlement of a city; how the non-human living things in the city have had to adapt to, or leave, the city; the history of the city; how the city is governed; and what utilities and services the city is responsible for; etc.)

Elementary students using simple physics concepts to build structures from blocks.

(4) Third Grade – counties or regions (same types of topics as those for cities, with the addition of the study of rural environments; the different habitats or ecosystems found in the region; the effect of humans, particularly with respect to farms, ranches, etc., upon these ecosystems; etc.)

(5) Fourth Grade – states (similar topics to those for the counties but at a state-wide level)

(6) Fifth Grade – United States (similar topics similar to those for the states but at a nation-wide level)

Within each of these themes, grade-appropriate concepts and activities (as delineated in state frameworks and national standards) can be incorporated, beginning with those applicable to physical science, progressing through space and earth science, and culminating with life and environmental science.

Elementary students working together on a project
involving both scientific and social studies concepts.

Of course, teaching the sciences and other subjects as discrete courses is more entrenched in the secondary educational system; yet even within this environment, a more historical approach could better integrate the sciences with human history and culture (currently known as “big history”).

Image Credit: Eugene Douglass & Chad Miller, Practically Science, CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0  Timelines of the history of the universe, animals, and civilization.

Image Credit: Eugene Douglass & Chad Miller, Practically Science, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
Timelines of the history of the universe, animals, and civilization.

Middle School

(1) Sixth Grade – teach physical science rather than the usual earth science. I do not believe that students can completely understand the structures of the earth’s components, the forces that shaped those components into a planet, and the genetics and metabolisms of living things without first understanding atoms and molecules, states of matter, and energy. Yes, physics typically involves math, but the math can be kept relatively simple in beginning physics courses, with concepts presented verbally and then numerically. Finally, if physical science is the first science taught, the entire suite of middle school science courses can be taught against the broader context of a historical framework, starting with the Big Bang and the formation of protons, neutrons, electrons, atoms, molecules, gases, stars, liquids/water, solids/minerals, planets, galaxies, the Milky Way, and our solar system and planets.

(2) Seventh Grade – teach earth science rather than the usual life science. Again, the discussion of atoms, molecules, energy, and forces that began in physical science can be extended in an earth science course, beginning with a more in-depth description of minerals as well as the formation of the earth and its different systems – core, mantle, crust, continents, oceans, lakes, rivers, atmosphere, climate, and weather.

(3) Eighth Grade – teach life and environmental science rather than the usual physical science. With a strong background in physical and earth science, students will be prepared to study the origin of life on earth (and/or the possibility that life formed someplace else in the universe), its evolution into a tremendous variety of organisms as well as humans, and the effect that humans have had on their physical and biological environment.

Middle school students performing a laboratory exercise.

Minor digression: Obviously, the above suggestions are concerned mainly with the “what” of science education (content) rather than with the “how” of science education (process). Currently, educational associations recommend that science be taught in a way that emphasizes “hands-on” activities, or “student-centered” teaching methods, rather than “teacher-centered” methods. In addition, it is recommended that fewer concepts be taught today but in greater depth than previously. While I generally agree with these practices, I would caution that different children learn in different ways, and while some children will indeed learn more readily from performing activities, others will be bored or frustrated by “hands-on” activities and will learn more from reading, watching, and listening. (One study, in fact, has demonstrated that gifted children tend to concentrate in the latter category, and we would hardly want to discourage such children from pursuing an interest and/or career in science.) Finally, I worry that, by teaching fewer concepts and thus limiting students’ exposure to a broad array of topics, we are not providing as many “hooks” to capture students’ interest in science and may be inadvertently losing potential science educators and scientists. I would therefore advise moderation in science pedagogy for the elementary and middle grades, i.e., highlighting the most important concepts by exploring them through activities or lab/field exercises should be continued, but a wider variety of topics should also be introduced through discussions, videos, and demonstrations.

A teacher using a model to engage her students
in a discussion of the human heart.

High School

(1) As in middle school, require students to first take physics, then chemistry, and finally biology, again using a historical framework (as described above) to tie these sciences together. (This suggestion is already championed by “Physics First,” a program that supports the teaching of physics as the first lab science in high school.)

(2) Add an earth science course between a combined physics/chemistry course and biology, or incorporate earth science concepts into separate physics and chemistry courses.

(3) Add a course of environmental science, to be taken after biology.

High school students performing a laboratory experiment.

(4) Only require the lab-centered courses of physics, chemistry, and biology (as well as earth and environmental science, if offered) to be taken by students who intend to pursue a science major in college, or who simply enjoy “hands-on” exercises.

(5) Require all other students to take a one- to two-year course in “General Science” or “Big History,” which would cover the history of the universe from its origin to the evolution of humans and their effect upon the environment through a dynamic series of lectures, demonstrations, and an occasional lab exercise or field trip. (I taught science to elementary students using “big history” as my theme in the 1990s, and was pleasantly surprised to discover in 2011 that David Christian from Australia’s Macquarie University and Bill Gates had launched a project to teach this subject in high schools around the world.)

(6) Require all students to take a one-semester course in their senior years entitled something to the effect of “The Future.” Such a course would examine the interplay between science, ethics, law, politics, and culture that is involved in such issues as the conservation of natural resources, pollution, climate change, population control, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, health, medicine, economics, poverty, and even space travel.

Teacher and students engaging in stimulating,
or at least amusing, discussion.

My intent in separating high school science “majors” from non-science majors is to prevent non-lab-inclined students from losing interest in science completely. I see no need to force such students to perform “experiment” after “experiment” if they have no interest in ever teaching or practicing science. The goal instead should be to acquaint these students with the general logic of the scientific process, present some of the more entertaining human interest stories behind scientific discoveries, impress upon them the most important concepts in a historical context, and demonstrate how scientific research has, and will continue to, impact their lives. (Of course, this particular change in educational strategy would require the cooperation of colleges in discarding the lab science requirement for students who don’t intend to major in a scientific or technical field.)

Image Credit: National Science Foundation, History of the Universe, Public Domain The theory of the origin of the universe is by itself an interesting story  of scientific discovery, disagreement (how many people know that the term “Big Bang”  was a derisive one coined by Fred Hoyle, a proponent of the  “steady-state” theory of the universe?), and confirmation.

Image Credit: National Science Foundation, History of the Universe, Public Domain
The theory of the origin of the universe is by itself an interesting story
of scientific discovery, disagreement (how many people know that the term “Big Bang”
was a mildly derisive one coined by Fred Hoyle, a proponent of the
“steady-state” theory of the universe?), and confirmation.

The question remains: if all of these changes in curriculum were implemented, would they increase our students’ test scores? Possibly not, since they don’t address the problems of teacher pay and training, the utilization of a rigid “teaching to the test” methodology, the lack of school supplies and equipment for meaningful lab and field exercises, insufficient parental involvement, and student poverty that can decrease achievement in science as well as other subjects. But adopting the above recommendations would do much to demonstrate the connections between everything in the universe, would produce better informed citizens, and might even result in students more inclined towards language and history to take an interest in and appreciate the role of science and nature in their lives. And there’s certainly no harm in that . . . .

Image Credit: Abstruse Goose, Ancestors, CC BY-NC 3.0 US The history of life kind of puts everything in perspective, doesn’t it?

Image Credit: Abstruse Goose, Ancestors, CC BY-NC 3.0 US
Kind of puts everything in perspective, doesn’t it?