First, Do No Harm
Last September, more than 7 million U.S. children entered kindergarten or 1st grade. Regardless of their backgrounds, most started school with a love for nature and a curiosity about the world around them--scientists in the purest sense.
A worthy goal in the educational process should be primum non nocere--first do no harm. Yet research shows that by age 10, harm will be done, and most of these children will find science boring. Most will be turned off to science--permanently. Little wonder that only 7 percent of them will graduate from high school prepared for college-level science.
These same children will grow up in the most scientific and technologically advanced world society has ever known. Yet, most will make non-science career choices and grow up to be scientifically illiterate voting citizens.
Upgrading U.S. science education has been a timely topic for more than 30 years. Yet some of the same goals we agreed to in the Sputnik era keep recurring in the literature of science reform. How do we make change happen?
I believe we must begin at the beginning--in kindergarten or 1st grade while children still have a curiosity and interest in science. We must nurture that interest and make sure it's not stifled in the following four or five years, when studies show it usually dies. Teaching no science to young children may be preferable to teaching it poorly.
Above all, science needs to be fun and relevant to young children's daily experiences, laying a foundation for more-challenging, abstract learning later. Rather than a dry, bookish approach, science teaching needs to be spontaneous--teachers and students exploring, investigating, and questioning together. Yes, questioning.
It's not a crime for a teacher to say, "I'm not sure of the answer. Let's look it up.'' In fact, encouraging young children to question may be the most important science lesson of all. No one knows all the answers in science, and maybe it's time for teachers to serve as role models for scientific inquiry.
How exciting for students and teacher to discover something together, and for teachers to lead them to what one writer has aptly called "the threshold of their minds.'' Science processes and trial and error lead to the wonder of science--not isolated, dull facts.
What do young children need to know about science? They need to know that science is fun, that it's all around them and can be studied on the playground, in a snowstorm, or in the kitchen making cookies. That we can learn science while doing a reading lesson, while doing math, or while doing creative writing. They need to know science is an "equal opportunity'' subject. That girls and minorities--the most "at risk'' groups--can hold their own with the best.
Perhaps the most important science lesson any elementary teacher can teach her students--I say her because most elementary teachers are women--is to be a confident role model, showing them that science is interesting and not to be feared. It's a way of thinking--a "no holds barred'' approach to learning.
In an already tightly programmed elementary school day, what can be done to enable teachers to teach science this way? First, school principals must make science a priority and encourage teachers. Second, every elementary teacher needs a network of school and community resources and a science-subject-matter mentor. And third, the majority of inservice and future teachers need more training in science subject matter and pedagogy.
Although in-depth college training in science is not essential for elementary teachers, present requirements are inadequate. It is unacceptable that, as the Project 2061 report showed, "few elementary teachers have even a rudimentary education in science and math.'' It is not enough for only 3 percent of elementary teachers to be specifically trained for math and science teaching (as estimated by the National Science Teachers Association). Obviously, such deficiencies cause subject-matter insecurity and limit teachers' creativity.
Recognizing these problems, it is important that state teacher-certification boards and universities work together to set standards in science training for elementary teachers. I recommend that future and inservice teachers take at least four semesters in laboratory sciences--two semesters in the physical- and earth-sciences area and two semesters in the life sciences.
Twenty-five years ago, two years of science was typical of elementary teacher training, but in recent times only one or two semesters may be required, or a less rigorous alternative. Sometimes, the best refresher for tenured teachers is retaking a freshman-level survey course in a laboratory science.
Beyond lab-science courses, future and inservice teachers need at least one college course in science pedagogy. Preferably taught by professors with backgrounds in science and precollege teaching experience, such a course would focus on the "big ideas'' of science in the context of the elementary curriculum. The course should be hands-on science, modeling how to make science exciting to young children.
The answers to precollege science education are not simple, but it is critical that the early grades be carefully looked at as an important part of the problem.
Certainly, as local and national groups explore solutions, elementary teachers must be included in the thinking and decisionmaking process. They are the most familiar with the classroom situation, and their input and cooperation are essential for lasting success.
If the difference is to be made with September's kindergarten and 1st-grade students, it's going to take serious commitment at all levels and a resolve to "first do no harm.''
Jean Schaeffer is a former elementary school teacher and curriculum writer, and currently works with national programs on teacher science enhancement.