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August 1, 2006
Vol. 48
No. 8

Moving Elementary Science from Afterthought to Inquiry

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Science is a wonderful thing, if one doesn't have to earn one's living at it.—Albert Einstein
Typical elementary school teachers, the proverbial jacks-of-all-trades, often face a trio of issues when it comes to teaching science: they don't like science, don't feel confident in their knowledge of the subject, and don't know how to teach it effectively.
This is exactly what science education professor Alan Colburn tells his undergraduate education students at California State University, Long Beach. "People in general don't like science, and elementary school teachers are no different from the rest of the general public," explains Colburn.
Faced with those circumstances, it's no wonder that it's easy for teachers to make science an afterthought in the school schedule, say veteran science educators.
"Science is one of the first things to be let go of in an elementary school day because the teachers are so overwhelmed with language arts, math, and social studies and all the other duties they have. They'll keep on saying, ‘I'll get to it; I'll get to it.’ They realize science takes more time—but they never find that extra time," says Bobbie Sierzant, an elementary science teacher for 32 years. New teachers, she stresses, have it the hardest.

A New Springtime for Science? Or, the Pressure Is On ...

But there is hope. Colburn, who's training a new crop of teachers and helping midcareer ones to advance their practice, promises to launch his students on the road to becoming exemplary science teachers. These individuals "like science, have an accurate understanding of major science content and processes, feel confident in their ability to teach science, and teach science using an age-appropriate inquiry-based approach," writes Colburn in his course syllabus.
However, the question for current elementary teachers who want to teach science better but don't have the chance to take Colburn's class is: "How do I get there?" Now that the academic spotlight of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law has finally been trained on science education, these teachers might be finding answers to those questions—fast.
Science testing under NCLB is slated to begin in 2007–08, prompting a flurry of activity among educators. State departments of education have been busily devising standards-based tests to administer within grade bands at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. And school administrators have looked up from their students' reading and math scores and realized that yet another test is coming.
The NCLB spotlight could give schools a chance to take a closer look at how they teach science and hopefully make their instruction better. In the end, improvements in science education will depend on how well schools help educators embrace change, through professional development and the provision of adequate resources for hands-on, inquiry-based science that meets students' need to understand content deeply.

Using Inquiry in the Science Classroom

The National Science Education Standards, developed by the National Research Council in 1996, calls for K–12 students to both understand and be able to do scientific inquiry.
Even young children can use inquiry, says Chris Ohana, field editor for Science and Children magazine, published by the National Science Teachers Association.
"I've seen really elegant things done by 1st or 2nd graders," notes Ohana. In one instance, two 2nd grade girls were not convinced that air was "something" rather than "nothing." So they took two balloons—one with air, and one deflated—and weighed them on a balance. "The balance was well calibrated," notes Ohana, and showed the girls that "air weighs something." Their experiment allowed them to understand that air has mass—even though they couldn't see it, explains Ohana.
The National Science Education Standards lists the abilities that K–8 students should have to effectively use inquiry in the classroom. To conduct scientific inquiry, students should be able to:
Grades K–4
  • Ask a question about objects, organisms, and events in the environment.
  • Plan and conduct a simple investigation.
  • Employ simple equipment and tools to gather data and extend the senses.
  • Use data to construct a reasonable explanation.
  • Communicate investigations and explanations.
Grades 5–8
  • Identify questions that can be answered through scientific investigations.
  • Design and conduct a scientific investigation.
  • Use appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze, and interpret data.
  • Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence.
  • Think critically and logically to understand the relationship between evidence and explanations.
  • Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and predictions.
  • Communicate scientific procedures and explanations.
  • Use mathematics in all aspects of scientific inquiry.

Science Kits and the Power of Inquiry

Science education reformers have recommended inquiry as the preferred instructional method for elementary science classes because it directly engages students' thinking about a problem, usually in the form of a scientific investigation. The buzz phrase "hands on, minds on" encapsulates the reaction of many science educators and reformers who want to move classroom practice beyond science textbooks and predigested verification labs used in isolation.
Although science teaching varies in elementary schools, what often passes for science instruction is reading from a science book or a trade book with a science-related element, Colburn points out.
"Those of us in the science ed biz tend to favor hands-on activities that are open-ended—something where you have to think and figure out a little bit for yourself and interpret data," Colburn explains. "You don't see a lot of that at any level," Colburn notes, but hands-on, open-ended science is more common at the elementary level than at the secondary level, where the emphasis is on learning content.
"Really good elementary school science will be a hands-on kind of activity because at that level, the emphasis is on learning to like science," says Colburn.
But the reality is that even after two decades of promoting science teaching through inquiry, "it hasn't really infiltrated the classroom in a major way," says Ohana, who is also a science education professor at Western Washington University and a former teacher. Because inquiry is sophisticated and complicated, it's hard to pull off in the classroom and still cover the curriculum, she adds.
Kit-based curriculum series are popular, says Ohana, but they are essentially "cookbook lessons" that tell students what to do but don't give them insight into how science works. "Their strength is that the kits motivate kids, and the hands-on experience makes science more memorable. Some kits will help kids develop inquiry skills; some are strong, but some are dogs," says Ohana.
Ensuring that kits are used to promote inquiry-based teaching rather than just to entertain students requires that teachers get training in inquiry-based approaches. "Inquiry-based science is difficult to teach sometimes, even though teachers like it and want to teach it," says Colburn. "It's not something that any of us were raised with, so it represents a new set of skills. The approach could also be new to students—or principals and parents—who may not be comfortable with it," so it's easy for teachers to "go back to the old ways," he adds.
Professional development is one way that teachers can gain theoretical and practical knowledge about improving their science teaching, including learning how to do inquiry. Many states and schools are already relying on NCLB Title II funds targeted at preparation, training, and recruiting of highly qualified teachers to train teachers in better implementation of inquiry and science kits and other innovative instruction practices.

National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Rick Allen is a former ASCD writer and content producer.

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