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Project To Reform Elementary Science Launched

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Houston--The National Science Teachers Association has embarked on a major effort to reform elementary-school science teaching, in tandem with its ongoing initiative to revamp science programs in secondary schools.

Bill G. Aldridge, the n.s.t.a.'s executive director, said the new initiative, which was officially launched here during the group's annual meeting late last month, would parallel the existing "Scope, Sequence, and Coordination of Secondary School Science" project. That effort is intended to overhaul what has been called a "layer cake" approach to science instruction.

The Monsanto Fund, the philanthropic arm of the St. Louis-based chemical company, pledged to donate $100,000 to the elementary-science project.

Speaking at a press conference here, John L. Mason, the president of the foundation, said that while children need to be attracted to careers in science as early as possible, much of the national effort to reform science education is focused at the secondary level.

"The truth of the matter is, an overwhelmingly large percentage of academic potential is falling by the wayside before the 2nd grade," he said.

The Monsanto grant, Mr. Mason said, will be used to cover the expenses of a team of teachers, researchers, and curriculum developers--who met here for the first time--as they prepare grant proposals to federal agencies and other funding sources.

Mr. Aldridge estimated that the el4ementary-school science effort would cost between $1 million and $4 million.

He said he expected the project would proceed more quickly than reform efforts at other levels, with funding proposals being drafted within the next six months.

Some demonstration projects could begin by late 1992, Mr. Aldridge said.

"Your main problem," he said, "is to push schools to accept science as as necessary material" for elementary-school pupils.

The philosophy of the Scope and Sequence project now under way is that the "layer cake" system of science instruction common to American high schools--in which students enroll in one year each of biology, chemistry, and physics--is fragmented and ineffective. (See Education Week, April 12, 1989.)

In contrast, the Scope and Sequence approach recommends that all students study science every year for six years, reinforcing key concepts on an annual basis.

It also advocates carefully sequenced, well-coordinated instruction in all the major branches of science, without drawing distinctions between them.

The states of California and Iowa and several major cities are partners in the effort.

The new pedagogy is being tested at several schools nationwide, including the Lanier Middle School here.

Teachers at the school have begun revamping the science curriculum, with all 7th graders this year enrolled in a Scope and Sequence curriculum.

Ron Garrett, a former earth-science teacher who now teaches the Scope and Sequence materials, said students appear to have grasped difficult concepts without struggling with confusing terminology.

For example, the Lanier teacher said, one unit deals with measuring and predicting the density of various woods; students, as part of a later unit, are able to apply the concept of density to human anatomy by figuring out independently that the relative densities of flesh and bone matter are key to the functions of X-ray machines.

Mr. Aldridge said that Mr. Mason of the Monsanto Fund broached the idea of expanding the Scope and Sequence concept into the early grades in the hope of stemming an exodus from science in that tends to occur in secondary school.

Mr. Mason, who is black, said here that his own experience as a minority student in a one-room school in Appalachia convinced him that early intervention was vital to retaining students in science courses.

Lacking parental role models, he was encouraged to go into science by a teacher in the upper grades. Mr. Mason eventually earned a doctorate in chemistry from Pennsylvania State University.

The complexity of today's scientifically oriented workplace, Mr. Mason said in an interview, makes early intervention more critical than ever.

He said an effort also must be made to encourage minority and female students to remain in science.

"We're not doing a hell of a job for anybody [in science education], and certainly not for minorities," he said.

Along with middle-school instruction, elementary-school science has often been cited as a weak link in the nation's science-reform efforts.

Elementary-school teachers often are uncomfortable with science concepts and and untrained in science. Consequently, science often is given the lowest priority in the elementary-school schedule.

But recent reports have focused attention on the deficiencies in elementary education.

And, Mr. Aldridge noted, the 11,000 educators who attended the nsta's annual meeting this year were, for the first time, officiallyable to follow a separate track of sessions aimed at elementary teachers.

The process of revamping elementary-level science teaching may be easier than such attempts at the middle- and high-school levels, Mr. Aldridge suggested, because the essential concepts that elementary pupils need to know are relatively unsophisticated and will be reinforced in more detail in later grades.

Moreover, he noted, much of the science reform of the 1960's and 1970's was aimed at elementary students.

But, Mr. Aldridge added, while some school districts, such as Anchorage, Alaska, and Mesa, Ariz., have excellent elementary-science programs that could serve as national models, "the reality is that elementary [schools] have the greatest disparity of quality of any level of education."

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