By now, most educators agree that elementary school science programs should develop scientific literacy in all students. This goal translates into lessons that are hands-on, collaborative, inquiry-oriented, and centered on the processes that real scientists use in their everyday work: observing, communicating, comparing, ordering, categorizing, relating, inferring, and applying.
What instructional materials best promote scientific literacy? Again, researchers and reformers agree that textbooks should not be the sole source for classroom instruction. Rather, students should have regular experiences with everyday materials and laboratory equipment, videotapes and computer software, and other printed materials such as reference books and trade books.
A Model Approach To Science Reform
Science isn't quiet in Mary Morrman's sixth-grade class at Lincoln Elementary School, and it's never dull. A unit on minerals means touching, tasting, and trying to scratch glass with chunks of minerals in order to identify them. Working in small groups, the students engage in lively arguments: Which is feldspar? Which is quartz?
"Hands-on science" has come to the Dayton, Ohio, school district, with a newly structured curriculum. Self-discovery has replaced lecturing. Carefully assembled materials enhance textbook reading. And teachers, who in a system wide poll in 1989 showed they didn't feel confident teaching science, have received the training they need to teach science for the 21st century. The improvements in Dayton schools are the result of an ongoing partnership linking schools, the University of Dayton, and the local scientific community in a ground-up, K-12 overhaul of the system's science curriculum. The changes were prompted by an awareness that Dayton students, like most students in this country, weren't getting the best science education. The activity-based science classes at the elementary grades capitalize on children's natural curiosity to learn about the world, says Thomas Matczynski, professor of education at the University of Dayton and director of the science project. "What we're doing is building a foundation, focusing on scientific concepts, scientific process skills, and critical thinking," he says. In addition to making suggestions for curriculum changes, 30 industry and government partners in the science project have made themselves accessible to science teachers through a computer network established with the help of IBM.
Organizers of the Dayton Science Project, which was funded in part by a National Science Foundation grant, hope that the project becomes a model for cooperation between public schools, higher education, and industry. The project demonstrates how far a district can go with a commitment to science education.
New methods of teaching science inevitably lead to new forms of student assessment. According to the California Science Framework, assessment programs should be aligned with the instructional program in both content and format in other words, student performance and investigation should play the same central role in assessment that they play in instruction. Already, New York, Kentucky, Connecticut, California, and Illinois are moving away from standardized tests in science toward more authentic, performance-based assessment.
This spring, California plans to administer performance-based science tests to 5 to 10 percent of students in grades 5, 8, and 10. These will be the major components:
- Three hands-on
performance tasks for students to handle individually.
- Enhanced multiple-choice
questions. For example, a field-test for eighth graders gives background
on an unidentified mammal, then asks specific questions about the energy
the mammal uses and the fate of most of the atoms in its body when the
- Open-ended problems.
On the same test for eighth graders, students are told to design an
experiment for testing the ability of a paper towel to absorb water.
Tasks such as this allow students to solve a problem and construct their
What's Behind The Change
- The American Association
for the Advancement of Science has established benchmarks that identify
what levels of science literacy students should reach at four selected
- The National Research
Council of the National Academy of Science has released prototype standards
for what students would know and be able to do in science, plus suggested
teaching activities and ways for students to demonstrate their mastery
of the material.
- Several states
are already developing frameworks for science instruction that will
function as the policy structure for curriculum, textbook adoption,
teacher training, and student assessment. California's recently released
science framework is likely to have the most far-reaching influence
on other states and on publishers of instructional materials.
Nationwide, reformers agree that both pre-service and in-service teachers will need adequate training in new methods of teaching science, new forms of assessment, and new instructional materials. Here's a look at two promising training programs coming out of California.
- The California
Science Implementation Network (CSIN) is training teachers to use the
state's newly adopted science materials. Trained science staff developers
in each region work with mentors who will become lead teachers at their
own schools and will be ready to offer classroom teachers guidance on
the new instructional materials. For classroom teachers, there will
be about five days of in-service during a six-week period when they
and their students are becoming familiar with the new materials.
- A cadre of elementary
and secondary teacher leaders in California is obtaining professional
development from the California Science Project, modeled after the highly
praised efforts in writing, math, and other subjects sponsored by the
University of California, California State University, and California
Community Colleges in collaboration with the state's public schools.
At intensive four-week institutes in 10 regions throughout the state,
teachers work closely with scientists who are also teachers. A major
premise is that "the best teachers of teacher are other teachers"
and that participants will return to their schools with resources, support,
and, hopefully, new perspectives.
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