Making science elementary
Schools work hard to fit lessons into busy day
The fourth-graders had practiced observing frogs, and crabs, and millipedes. And then they observed humans.
Walking around Everett Elementary School in Dorchester, observation books in hand and researcher badges affixed to their lapels, the students watched the behavior of classmates and teachers in their natural habitat, an exercise intended to help them begin to understand the scientific method.
“It’s almost as if we’re not here,’’ science teacher Diana Doan reminded her class. “Stop and observe.’’
The Everett, like many elementary schools in Boston and nationwide, is struggling to figure out how to schedule enough science instruction in a six-hour school day packed with reading, math, and writing lessons. At the elementary-school level, science often takes a back seat to subjects tied to federal and state accountability measures, despite a renewed national focus and a new science graduation requirement in Massachusetts.
“We have schools where kids only have the opportunity for science 30 to 60 minutes a week, and we know that’s not enough,’’ said Pam Pelletier, science program director of Boston Public Schools. “Unless there’s accountability, it’s not really going to happen because something else is always going to take priority.’’
Doan has labored to ensure her students received a full hour of instruction. Until January, she worked out of a closet-sized office that forced her to pile supplies on a cart and dart around the building, teaching in colleagues’ classrooms.
“It was hard to get where I needed to be on time, so instruction would be down to 45 minutes when you think of setup and breakdown,’’ said Doan. Kindergartners through second-graders take science once a week at the Everett; third- through fifth-graders twice a week.
Conditions have improved for Doan — she got the former computer room as a classroom, and now stores animals, plants, and various supplies there. But other Boston science teachers continue to struggle for time and resources.
And students in Boston are struggling with science. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress Trial Urban District Snapshot Report, released last week, only 17 percent of Boston’s fourth-graders demonstrated proficient knowledge of science. At the middle-school level, 61 percent of Boston’s eighth-graders do not have a basic grasp of science concepts, according to the data.
“I don’t think we are at all in denial about the fact that our science scores and performance are nowhere close to where we want them to be,’’ Superintendent Carol R. Johnson said. “While we have a set of Massachusetts curriculum frameworks in the sciences; we also know there appears to be some variation in outcome across the system.’’
Johnson said science education is especially important for children whose families do not take them to science-related afternoon or weekend activities, such as trips to museums or the aquarium.
She said the district will conduct a curriculum audit in April, examining what is being taught, and how many minutes are dedicated to science.
The state does not spell out how much time should be spent on science in elementary school, but fifth graders are tested on science in the MCAS.
As a result, the amount of science education seems to vary by school. At the John D. Philbrick Elementary School in Roslindale, for example, students receive 96 minutes a week of hands-on science instruction until second grade, when they are bumped up to 144 minutes.
Educators say they augment hands-on science lessons with non-fiction reading about science. The lessons are reinforced by science essays. But, for students to grow into scientists, school officials say students need hands-on science experience, starting in elementary school.
“If you want people to grow up to be engineers and doctors, it starts here,’’ said Nicole Mack, principal of Everett Elementary. Most of the school’s 270 students come from low-income families, many speak English with limited proficiency, and fewer than half can read and perform math at or above grade level, according to the state department of education. “You’re crunched on time, but I think we’re doing kids a disservice if we don’t give them that foundation,’’ Mack said.
Science education has become an increasing national priority since 2008, thanks in part to President Obama, who said during his inauguration speech that “we will restore science to its rightful place.’’ The US government has awarded millions of dollars to recruit and train science, technology, engineering, and math teachers. There have been student video game development challenges and even a White House science fair.
Bay State sophomores must pass the state’s high-stakes science test to get their diploma. Massachusetts gives science exams in biology, chemistry, physics, and technology/engineering; students must pass one of them.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, all children are supposed to be proficient in English and math by 2014. Because of that, schools spend more time on English and math than on science, according to a 2008 report by the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, a nonprofit that encourages educational reform in Massachusetts.
Of the 13 suburban and urban schools surveyed in the report, each spent at least 450 minutes per week on English and 300 minutes on math. Average science instruction, however, ranged from just 145 minutes a week at struggling schools to 210 minutes a week at those with high test scores.
At some schools, science has been a priority. For example, parents and staff have long emphasized science at Philbrick Elementary, where about half can read and perform math at grade level, according to state figures.
Parents participated in a technology career program, at which students corresponded with video game developers, cancer researchers, and an engineer.
“I was surprised by the enthusiasm on both sides,’’ said science teacher Erin Flynn.
On a recent morning, the class was transformed into a cacophony of noise as a group of third-graders studying the physics of sound turned twine, plastic cups, pencils, and wire hangers into makeshift musical instruments.
They competed to see who could turn household items into the loudest gong or table-harp.
The key, student Keyshawn Garden explained, is to remember that sound is loudest when heard through a solid object. “The molecules are closer,’’ he said with a knowing shrug.
Akilah Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.