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Experiments in Teaching Science

In an age of 'science for everyone,' the emphasis is on helping teachers become more comfortable with the topic and making it more exciting for children

Atalie Bartlette's science "class" is about to explore the prospects for life elsewhere in the universe.

After the teacher-in-training splits the class into groups, a fellow student jumps in with questions: "Are the planets in our solar system part of the Milky Way galaxy? Is Orion a galaxy? Can we actually see other galaxies?"

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A science teacher might expect such questions from any of the more than 44 million pupils in elementary and secondary schools across the United States. Instead, they come in earnest from a graduate student taking a Harvard University course to help prepare teachers in science.

The example highlights a key challenge in science education: helping current and prospective educators overcome knowledge gaps and science angst. Then, they must break free of familiar but often-rigid teaching methods and learn to instill the thrill of discovery in their students.

Instructors "desperately want to be better teachers," says Leon Lederman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who helps train Chicago elementary school teachers to teach science. "But ... they were never trained in math and science."

Such gaps are a growing concern among the nation's educators, scientists, and parents. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), only 3 percent of grade school teachers have science degrees. The figure rises to 21 percent for middle school science teachers, and to 72 percent for high school science teachers.

From kindergarten through the sixth grade, most teachers "are pretty well prepared in terms of how well they know how kids learn and how to teach, but they do not have a good science background," says Emma Walton, a former science teacher from Anchorage, Alaska, and now a program director in the NSF division of primary, secondary, and informal education.

In seventh and eighth grades, she continues, teachers face a dilemma: Do they teach using an elementary school approach, or do they lecture as in high school?

These years are critical, experts say, because this is when they see a sharp drop in student interest in science, particularly among girls. Meanwhile, the world is changing dramatically as employers seek workers able to function in a global, high-tech economy.

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This need has prompted President Clinton to propose sweeping reforms in education across the board. And it has forced a sea change in thinking about the way science should be taught.

Science education once aimed to nurture a new generation of researchers and engineers who could contribute to cold-war efforts. Today, the objective is "science for everyone." As scientific issues from cloning sheep to global warming are pushing themselves to the forefront of politics and policy, "there's beginning to be an appreciation that everybody needs to know science," Dr. Lederman says.

Groups such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Research Council have published guidelines to reshape curricula based on a science-for-all goal. This year, the NSF is spending slightly more than half its $646 million education budget on programs to improve pre-K through 12th-grade science education. It is also considering more funding for beefing up science content in universities' schools of education.

Hands-on approach

"Knowing science" no longer means being able to recite the periodic table of chemical elements forward and backward, specialists agree. Memorization and regurgitation are largely out. What's in are hands-on introductions to scientific principles, as well as familiarity with how scientists work and with the uncertainties inherent in research.

"In the 1960s, we were teaching that science discovers; it was descriptive," says Robert Traver, associate director of TEAMS-BC, a Boston-area university consortium to improve teacher training in science and math. Textbooks did improve markedly in the post-Sputnik era. But in classrooms, teachers stood in front of a blackboard lecturing about scientific principles.

Mr. Traver says students should know basic facts, such as the order of the planets or the role DNA plays in plant and animal cells. But now, "the focus is on inquiry. Teachers choose a phenomenon for students to investigate and set the boundaries on the investigation.... One way to bring a science class to a dead halt is to ask the teacher: Have you ever seen this? No? Then why are you teaching it?"

The shift is undermining at least two pillars that helped support instructors uncertain of their ability or pressed to cover too many topics.

One is "the cookbook approach to experiments," says Judy Clark, an associate professor of mathematics education at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. The technique - pulling experiments out of texts and grading on how closely a student's outcome matches the textbook's - fails to help students see that errors are part of experiments, often pointing researchers in more-productive directions.

Another is the cookbook version of the scientific method - often presented as a neatly ordered set of steps that lead to discovery.

"The scientific method we talk about is so far from reality that we shouldn't be teaching it," says Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association based in Arlington, Va. "You have hunches, biases.... What we're doing by teaching the 'scientific method' is teaching that science is a secret-society kind of thing."

Learning the new method

How should science be taught? Ms. Bartlette's "classroom" holds clues.

She and her "co-teachers," Bob Graham and Sally Battle, briefly survey the 15 students in class this day about the prospects for life elsewhere in the universe. The trio then breaks the class into three groups - astronomers, biologists, and UFO eyewitnesses. Using resources the teachers supply, the groups review what's currently known in their respective fields.

From there, the class moves into smaller groups with a representative from each field in each group. Their assignment: pick a hypothesis on extraterrestrial life, defend it, and create a poster illustrating things about Earth that others might find interesting or useful.

While all this is going on, Irwin Shapiro, the professor for this course, becomes part of one group, adding his insights as one of the nation's leading astrophysicists.

"The idea is to teach teachers some science and an approach to science," says Dr. Shapiro, director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. Too often, he says, "science is taught as revealed truth."

During this one-semester course for middle school and high school teachers, he says, he focused on only two topics: why things float or sink; and the history of life on Earth. This approach cuts to the heart of a major issue: curricula that cover too many subjects.

"Day-to-day instruction is fragmented," says William Schmidt, a co-author of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which compares the science and math curricula and performance for eighth-graders (or the equivalent) in 41 countries. "Instead of an unfolding story, much of the instruction in the US is episodic."

In many countries, he says, teachers cover only 10 subjects during a pupil's pre-college education. In the US, teachers must cover from 40 to 50.

Shapiro acknowledges that his approach has limitations. "Students have gone through 16 years of school where they were taught one way, and one course will change all that in one term?"

If Bartlette is any indication, the answer may be yes. "My science education was very different," says the student-teacher at the John D. O'Bryant Middle School of Math and Science in Boston. "I had to memorize and regurgitate information."

Now the one-time art-history major is teaching general science to eighth-graders. Using evidence and inference, "science is not this abstract, unattainable thing," she comments. "If kids can get their hands on it, they can understand it."

What Does A Good Science Class Look Like?

How is your child's school science training? Here are some of the things experts say you should look for:

*Ask teachers what kind of program they have for the year, as opposed to a year of "episodic science," says Emma Walton, a former science teacher and currently a program director in education at the National Science Foundation.

*Look for less lecturing, more investigation. "Science is how we talk to the material world," says Gerald Wheeler of the National Science Teachers Association, in Arlington, Va.

*See if students are really interested. "Are the kids turned on, experimenting, trying things out for themselves?" asks Irwin Shapiro, director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

When asked what's different about the classes he works with in Chicago's elementary schools, Nobel physicist Leon Lederman says: "First of all, as you go down the hall, you'll hear the class. We used to have trouble with the principals because we were telling our kids to make noise!" Science and its "Eureka!" moments are anything but quiet, Dr. Lederman suggests.

"There are tables, with four kids," he continues by way of example. "Usually the hands-on experiment begins with a question, like: 'Why does a soap bubble break?' In the first or second grade, you won't really answer the question, but you'll begin to come to grips with it, maybe by asking: 'How often do soap bubbles break?'

"Eventually they evolve an experiment. When they form a bubble, they start the stop watch and when the bubble breaks they stop it. And they write down: 4 seconds. They do this 30 or 40 times and they have a lot of data.... Eventually, they have a graph representing the lifetime of soap bubbles. They discuss the graphs. 'Hey, man, you got any 20-second bubbles? No? Let's ask the next table.' They ask the kids at the next table. 'Ah, c'mon, there's no chance.'

"That's zero probability," Lederman says.

Exploring Bugs, Beakers in the Land of Bytes

Despite high-speed modems and Indy-quick computers, the information superhighway is like an unpaved road: tough slogging, but if you keep going, you'll come across interesting sites.

Indeed, Mickey Revenaugh holds that the Internet and particularly the World Wide Web can jump-start a stalled science class.

"The Internet is so new for everyone, we've barely scratched the surface in terms of its potential to bring science education alive," says the editor in chief of Electronic Learning magazine. "But it really dovetails with hands-on, minds-on science."

"The Web can be very effective," agrees Gerald Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Va.

With mouse in hand and some well-researched sites in the Web browser's "bookmark" folders, Ms. Revenaugh says students can see simulations of erupting volcanoes, dissect a frog without handling a scalpel or fumbling with formaldehyde, accompany scientists on expeditions, pick out the latest images from the Hubble Space Telescope, supply working scientists with data, or just ask them questions.

Her starter list of science-education sites includes:

The Jason Project (

Oceanographer Robert Ballard started the Jason Project in 1989 in response to a deluge of mail he received from children following his discovery of the wreck of the ocean liner Titanic. Each year, Jason scientists take students worldwide on a virtual expedition and provide specially designed curricula for teachers to use. While the working scientists gather data on their sites, students are encouraged to conduct similar studies locally, then share their data on-line. Students can track the scientists' progress - and in some cases guide their equipment - via the Web. In April, Jason researchers will head to Yellowstone National Park and Iceland to study the geology and biology of two of Earth's hot spots.

The Franklin Institute

Philadelphia's acclaimed science museum provides experiments and background material for teachers on a variety of subjects. Recent topics included life sciences and wind.

The final frontier

Move through the links to various parts of the US space program, including the space shuttle. The shuttle site has gone through a major overhaul. One of its newest features: the latest video images taken during the missions. (Be forewarned: You may spend a lot of time watching mission controllers in Houston staring at their consoles.) Links to other sites, particularly the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, can be used to build a grand tour of the solar system. JPL's site also includes experiments for educators, such as making your own comet.

Ask a Scientist

This page contains "hot links" to pages where young people can ask scientists questions dealing with geology, volcanology, astronomy, and marine biology.

Why Files

This site keeps an eye toward current events. Cloning, comet Hale-Bopp, and forensic science are among the current topics. "Why Files" may be of particular interest where schools are integrating subjects - a little science in the social studies class, or vice versa.

Student-Scientist Partnerships

A program supported by the National Science Foundation that links public school students with scientists across the country. The students gather data for the scientists' research efforts in areas such as the environment.

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