The Fourth Dimension of Science Education

03/26/2019  |  By Douglas Tepper
SCIENCE EDUCATION FOR THE 21ST CENTURY
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Imagine your dream car, loaded with every bell and whistle you’ve ever imagined. Years of work by a lot of bright people have gone into its design, and countless dollars have been spent to supply it with each newfangled thingamajig. But there it sits in the street, going absolutely nowhere. No matter how fabulous the vehicle is, it’s nothing without you.

Just as great cars need a driver, every great classroom needs a teacher. Autonomous vehicles may be able to replace human drivers, but artificial intelligence can never adequately replace a teacher, despite some proposals to the contrary. The notion of teachers being essential is not a novel one, yet increasingly, teachers have had to fight to assert their own value. It’s worth reminding ourselves how important teachers are, particularly in the dynamic field of science education.

As a longtime editor with a publisher of K–6 educational materials, I think about the importance of teachers often. As proud as my team is of the science resources we develop, we rely on teachers to decide how to use them and to bring their own ideas and creativity to bear on student learning.

As a longtime editor with a publisher of K–6 educational materials, I think about the importance of teachers often. As proud as my team is of the science resources we develop, we rely on teachers to decide how to use them and to bring their own ideas and creativity to bear on student learning. All the books, tablets, kits, and apps in the world amount to nothing more than a parked car without a teacher turning the key and leading students on a journey.

During science time, teachers motivate, engage, monitor, and reteach. They help address student misconceptions and foster participation. They involve parents and the community, make cross-curricular connections, obtain materials, supervise work for safety, and help turn struggles into growth. Best of all, teachers can promote a fascination with and love of science by sharing their own excitement as they model asking questions and making discoveries.

Students are instinctively curious about the world around them. Given the chance, kids naturally become captivated by clouds, roller coasters, frogs, mirrors, and icebergs. They love taking charge as engineers to collaboratively design a new device, build a structure, or solve a community problem. Students just need the chance. Their teacher is the one who can allow them to explore the limitless universe all around them, finding science everywhere: from the light we see, to the devices we depend on, the food we eat, and even the ground we walk on.

Barriers to Teaching Science

Unfortunately, science is often squeezed out of the curriculum in elementary schools. On one of my school visits, the teacher asked the class, “Remember when we did science?” and was referring to several weeks prior. Imagine what discoveries those young children will miss out on. Their early academic years will have failed to prepare them for later science coursework or STEM careers, and worse, failed to nurture their curiosity for the natural and designed world around them.

So what barriers exist to teaching science, particularly in elementary school, where one teacher often teaches the full curriculum? For many, the reality is that teaching language arts and math consumes most of the school day, often motivated by accountability measures for schools and districts. However, instead of surrendering to this mandate, teachers can find ways to blend scientific literacy with traditional literacy instruction. In fact, professional scientists and engineers spend a great deal of their time reading, writing, listening, and communicating. They analyze data and apply other math skills to solve problems. So one way elementary teachers can overcome the science barrier is by integrating science into ELA and math time. Ideally, we should also see students conducting hands-on investigations and completing design challenges, but even reading about and discussing science ideas would be a good entry point in some classrooms.

Another barrier to science instruction is that many elementary teachers entered the profession because they have a passion for teaching reading. This, of course, is essential. We absolutely must teach children to read. But kids need science, too. Those same teachers with expertise in reading instruction may avoid teaching science because they lack confidence in the subject matter. When they grew up, perhaps their own teachers seemed to have all the answers, but times have changed. Teachers don’t have to be the sage on the stage—they can be the guide on the side. Once a reluctant teacher realizes that she is primarily there to develop in students the ability to discover things for themselves, the fear of getting the science wrong is diminished. And with the right instructional tools, including content-area reading resources, she may find that she has all the necessary background information after all.

Other teachers may be reluctant to teach science, or to branch out beyond the book, because they fear it requires expensive, sophisticated equipment. Luckily, this is simply not the case. At the elementary level, a majority of hands-on investigations can be performed with commonplace items: water and salt, seeds and soil, flashlights and shoeboxes, magnets and paper clips. Yes, it may get messy and it may get noisy, but here again, teachers play a pivotal role. They manage the mayhem and ensure student discourse is constructive. They help explain to parents and administrators why science time may look and sound (or even smell) a little different from other parts of the school day.

Science may also be seen as difficult to assess, or the district may not assess it at certain grades, so it is not taught. Yet increasingly, tools are being designed—at all grades—to help teachers evaluate more than a student’s ability to recall facts, but also to demonstrate an understanding of concepts and an ability to engage in the practices of science and engineering.

The Art of Teaching Science

Thinking back to my college methods coursework, I remember a discussion about whether teaching is a science or an art. Is it a structured endeavor that can be mapped out and replicated by any reasonably competent adult? Or does it require a creative, talented brain with the ability to find original ways to lead children on their path of discovery?

I will contend that teaching is indeed the latter, and this art form is needed nowhere more than it is in science. When we take the leap of teaching science, we take on the challenge of helping students ask the right questions, pursue answers, and construct explanations. We support behaviors and habits of mind like curiosity, critical thinking, teamwork, and perseverance. We differentiate our instruction to meet the needs of each learner. We help students see how what they’re learning is relevant and meaningful to their own lives by connecting it to their local area, their culture, and their personal experiences. We ensure that all of our students have equitable access to science education.

The Fourth Dimension

The Next Generation Science Standards have been a sweeping force of change in science education, having now been adopted or closely replicated in a majority of the states. The vision for these standards focuses on the integration of three dimensions: Disciplinary Core Ideas (the content), Science and Engineering Practices (how scientists and engineers engage in their work), and Crosscutting Concepts (ways of thinking that span multiple disciplines). In this framework, all three areas are essential and equally valued. But one might think of these dimensions as that dream car parked in the street. They still need a teacher: the essential fourth dimension of science education.

Are you a science teacher? Perhaps you should be. If you’re not, consider the barriers you face and how you can break them down. Your classroom is the car and your students are its unique, wonderful features. They need you to chart a course, take the wheel, and drive.

Doug Tepper is the Executive Editor—Science at Learning A-Z, overseeing publishing efforts for Science A-Z. He holds a BA in Elementary Education and an MA in Teaching and Teacher Education from the University of Arizona in Tucson, and taught upper elementary school for a decade. He has worked as an editor with Learning A-Z since 2006, contributing to the launch of Science A-Z in 2008 and its ongoing development since. Other members of the Science A-Z team carry advanced degrees in sciences and have extensive publishing experience. The product offers thousands of resources for students and teachers, and is now used in about 70,000 classrooms across the U.S. and in many other countries. In 2018, Science A-Z was awarded the SIIA CODiE Award for Best Science Instructional Solution. Doug attributes his passion for science to being raised by parents who encouraged boundless curiosity and a deep appreciation for nature.
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