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The Science of Teaching Science

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As with many scientific discoveries both great and small, John L. Staub's investigations into the psychology of learning began when he experienced a flash of curiosity one day that left him groping for the answer to a difficult question.

Two years ago, the high school sophomore wondered why he enjoyed science so much while most of his classmates obviously did not.

"I began my research project after observing my classmates having difficulties in the sciences,'' he says. "I wanted to know why so many were failing and dropping out of science.''

So Staub persuaded the superintendent of the Sisseton, S.D., public schools and the principal of the district's Westside Elementary School that the best way to answer his question would be to conduct a controlled experiment in a real classroom.

He would compare the efficacy of the traditional "by the book'' science instruction so common in the nation's elementary schools with "hands on'' learning, which science-education reformers say more powerfully motivates students and more closely approximates the scientific method.

The fact that Staub is the son of a onetime school board member as well as a former student in some of the same classrooms where he planned to conduct his research helped pave the way for his experiments.

Today, the 19-year-old Sisseton High School senior is convinced that the hands-on approach, while perhaps no better at raising standardized-test scores, definitely increases student interest and ability in science.

And his research has had another benefit: It recently won him third-place honors in the prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent Search and a $20,000 college scholarship.

His work also has earned respect--and some qualified praise--from officials of the 1,500-student Sisseton district.

"He forced us all to take a look at our curriculum,'' acknowledges Sisseton Superintendent Verlin Hosmer

Award-Winning Departure

The Westinghouse Science Talent Search, which is administered by Science Service Inc. in Washington, is the most respected award U.S. science students can win. Most of the winning projects are in the "hard'' sciences of physics, biology, and chemistry, rather than such social sciences as psychology, sociology, and economics.

Thus, Staub's foray into education research, in a paper titled "Children + Hands-On Learning = Interest: The Effects of Different Teaching Methods on Elementary-School-Age Students,'' is something of a departure.

Staub conducted his research in separate segments in two different school years.

The first study was conducted over several weeks in the 1991-92 school year in Westside Elementary's four 2nd-grade classrooms. Two classes were randomly chosen to receive hands-on science instruction; the other two served as a control. Each class had about 25 students. In the hands-on classes, students were expected to learn by experimentation and observation to answer questions and solve problems. Students in the control group were taught using the traditional "rote lecture'' method, which Staub defines as "mechanical memorization of facts, reading, and completion of worksheets.''

Three volunteers from the community participated so that there would be one teacher or volunteer for every six students in the hands-on classes.

The experiment, which was conducted over eight 45-minute class periods, covered such topics as plant biology and elementary physics.

Students' scores on 25-question pre-test and post-test examinations, however, indicated no statistically significant difference in learning between the two instructional methods.

More Complex Design

The second phase of Staub's research was conducted the following year in a 3rd-grade classroom, partly because, as he notes dryly, the younger students' "age and ability made it difficult to work with them in a research setting.''

The second study involved two large classes of 44 and 39 students. It used a "crossover'' methodology in which one group of students was exposed to hands-on teaching for several weeks, then given a break from science for a week before being exposed to the rote-lecture method.

The other group followed an identical schedule, though at different times.

This method, Staub notes, "provided all students ... equal opportunities to experience hands-on teaching ... so that none of the students felt rejected.''

The four topics covered were magnetism, electricity, weather, and water. While students in the rote-lecture class were exposed to by-the-book instruction, students in the hands-on section were given such tools as a bowl of water, a block of wood, a paper clip, and a round magnet and asked how they might use the materials if they were lost. A successful experiment would produce a crude compass.

All students took pre- and post-test examinations in the four topic areas and were evaluated several times on their understanding of scientific methodology and on an "intrinsic motivation inventory'' Staub devised.

The young researcher found that both classes improved on the four topic-area tests.

The rote-lecture method produced what Staub terms a normal distribution of test scores, which he says means that the method tends to discourage individual learning and creativity.

The hands-on method, however, produced a much wider distribution of scores, which Staub says reflects its greater emphasis on individual learning.

The tests also indicated that the rote method produced better results on two of the topic-area tests, but no significant difference on the other two.

However, students exposed to the hands-on teaching scored significantly better on the scientific-methodology test, which was performance based, than did the rote-lecture group.

The data gathered on students' intrinsic motivation proved to be unusable.

The findings suggest, Staub writes, "that the rote-lecture method ... controls how and what students learn.'' But, he adds, the hands-on method "allows for freedom, creativity, and an individual rate of learning.''

The hands-on groups "didn't have the factual information drilled into them,'' but they learned how to go about solving problems, he adds.

He points out that, while most districts use a mixture of both approaches, the mix is often "lopsided'' and favors the rote method, particularly in the elementary grades.

Given that hands-on instruction approximates the way that children interact with the world around them, "it is easy to understand why students lose interest and fail in the sciences'' when exposed exclusively to the rote method, Staub's paper concludes.

Not the Last Word

Staub is no latecomer to the field of hands-on science.

As a youngster, he spent countless days on his family's farm on the outskirts of Sisseton building small dams on the waterways there just to see how the stream would react. He devoted more than a few hours to building and flying model airplanes.

The honors student also spent some hours in front of the television set, and defends its potential for teaching science.

"A lot of my background in science comes from watching public television,'' he says. "'Newton's Apple' is a prime example of the hands-on technique.''

While Staub has won some measure of national recognition for his work, he's been less successful in persuading district officials that his findings should be applied in the Sisseton schools.

Staub concedes that his project is not the last word on the utility of hands-on learning.

"I think that if I'd had the time to do a research project that started at the beginning of the year and went all year long, it would probably create some better results,'' he says. Until his project began, he adds, "students hadn't really had any hands-on science.''

But he also believes that many students he went to school with probably would respond with greater interest to the new approach.

While Hosmer, the superintendent, agrees that Staub's research helped teachers and administrators take a critical look at the curriculum, he also denies that the district is locked into rote learning.

For one thing, many textbook publishers are aware of the current emphasis in the national reform movement on hands-on instruction and have tailored their materials accordingly, he says.

But Hosmer acknowledges that educators in rural districts such as his--located in the far northeastern part of South Dakota--sometimes are skeptical of the latest trends in education.

"A lot of our teachers are from this area and attend colleges and universities in the Midwest,'' he says. "The teaching philosophy they grew up with sometimes carries over into their teaching.''

"We like to incorporate more hands-on,'' adds Kim Grimsrud, a 10-year veteran of the district and one of the teachers who helped conduct the research. "But we do have to get through the material in the text. There's so much material that needs to be covered.''

Rachael Johnson, another 3rd-grade teacher, says she was pleased at how smoothly Staub's research went in the classroom, particularly after hearing about the difficulties in the first phase of the experiment.

But, she adds, Staub only "briefly visited with us about the results.''

"We were a little disappointed in that,'' she says. "It would have been very interesting.''

Staub also believes that the district could shift its emphasis on science in the elementary curriculum. He contends that science is often taught sparingly and over a very long period of time, greatly reducing the focus of the lessons.

Moreover, "usually, it's taught in an hour block at the end of the day,'' he adds. "That's when the students are the least interested.''

Rather than criticize teachers, however, he says he would like to be able to offer workshops for teachers "in simple ways to teach science concepts.''

As he prepares to attend Concordia College, a private liberal-arts school in Moorhead, Minn., Staub hopes his work has helped drive home an important message to educators.

"Kids will only go as far as the teacher expects them to go,'' he says.

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