Groups Foster ‘Hands On’ Approach to Science in Early Grades

By Robert Rothman — September 17, 1986 10 min read

When U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett called this month for a “revolution” in the way science is taught to elementary school children, he echoed themes being advanced with increasing urgency by science educators across the country.

For years, members of the scientific community have warned that early training determines to a large extent a child’s desire and ability to tackle more advanced scientific training. But in recent months, the warnings have been accompanied by harsh critiques of elementary school science-and by programs to improve it.

From the formation of “local action groups” that put community resources into the service of elementary science classes to the creation of guides and seminars for teachers, national science-education groups have rallied behind the same notion advanced by Mr. Bennett in his report on elementary education: that children learn science best by doing, not reading.

“I am delighted that the Secretary’s report focused attention where it needs to be, and that he sees the problem with the same urgency we do,” said John M, Fowler, executive director of the Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology Education.

A group linking 45 national organizations from business, industry, labor, science and engineering, and education, the 2-year-old coalition met this summer to plan a program of activities designed to address what it called “our current inadequate elementary science education.”

Chief among the activities will be the strengthening of the group’s local- alliance project, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The project links some 60 community groups nationwide into a network for sharing ideas and resources to improve science education.

Douglas E. Lapp, executive director of the National Science Resources Center, a joint effort by the National Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution to improve precollegiate science education, called Mr. Bennett’s report “very supportive of the kind of science we are going to encourage.”

At a conference sponsored by the new center this summer, Mr. Lapp talked of “a crying need for improvement” in the way science is presented to the young child.

The N.S.R.C., now in its first year of operation, is trying to implement such change through a network for sharing strategies and resource: that includes school administrators, teachers, scientists, and representatives from science museums, businesses, and community groups.

As one of its first efforts, the center will issue early next year a “guide for elementary science-program improvement,” based on discussions that occurred at its July conference.

‘Hands-on’ Learning

Most science educators agree strongly with Mr. Bennett’s contention that science is “a way of thinking” and that its teaching must be enlivened to give children a grasp of the scientific method of reasoning and discovery.

With the Secretary, they call for I an end to the heavy reliance on textbooks to teach science. What would I stimulate children more-and be more attuned to their needs-are activity- based, “hands-on” learning programs, they say.

“Kids are turned off to reading out of a science textbook because the words are too hard,” said Thomas C. Fitch, professor of science education at Illinois State University. “They don’t have the prerequisite understanding to bring meaning out of the printed page, to know what the word ‘evaporation’ means.”

The professor, who runs a three-year, National Science Foundation sponsored project designed to upgrade science teaching in Illinois elementary schools, said a simple experiment any 2nd grader could do-putting a glass of water on a window ledge and measuring it over the course of a week-would add more to the child’s understanding of evaporation than any book explanation.

“Seen only as a laundry list of theorems in a workbook, science can be a bore,” wrote Mr. Bennett in First Lessons. ''But as a ‘hands-on’ adventure guided by a knowledgeable teacher, it can sweep children up in the excitement of discovery.”

Dramatic Illustration

Administrators at a Mesa, Ariz., junior high school provided a dramatic illustration of Mr. Bennett’s point several years ago when they inadvertently offered entering 7th graders the choice of continuing with science classes or dropping them for other course options.

Ninety-six percent of the incoming students who had been in an activity- based elementary science program chose to continue studying sciences only 4 percent of the students who had been in textbook-oriented programs chose to continue.

That experience led district officials to develop a hands-on program .for all elementary schools, according to Susan Sprague, director of science and social science for the Mesa Public Schools. Since then, the district has been cited as exemplary by the National Science Teachers Association.

In other districts that have developed oped hands-on programs, administrators say elementary science has improved dramatically. “If research proved that [hands-on learning] was bad in some way, I’d ignore the research,” said Richard McQueen, science- education specialist in the Multnomah (Ore.) Education Service District.

And teachers say the programs improve their teaching. After four years of using a textbook, Luis A. Santiago, a Manhattan elementary school teacher, switched to an activity- based science program, and noticed a new-found interest among his students. “I felt that I had been doing the kids an injustice,” he said.

Obstacles to Change

Despite such testimonials, only a small number of districts have developed hands-on programs, even though guides for doing so have existed since the 1960’s.

“It is painful to hear that programs developed 20 years ago are still thought of as innovative,” said Jack S. Goldstein, professor of physics at Brandeis University and a participant at the Smithsonian-National Academy of Sciences conference this summer.

The spread of such programs has been hindered by resistance from teachers and administrators, Mr. Goldstein and others note. Teachers often consider them too drastic a change in teaching methods, and administrators complain that they cost too much and present difficulties in assessing student performance.

“‘Ib produce change in a majority of schools, you have got to have support and be prepared to spend an order of magnitude more,” said William G. Aldridge, executive director of the N.S.T.A. “I don’t see any evidence that is coming about.”

Furthermore, he noted, Secretary Bennett’s report failed to indicate that federal funds to promote improvements in science education were forthcoming. ''The idea that somehow these things are going to happen without federal support is rather ridiculous,” Mr. Aldridge said.

“Activities programs tend to cost more than textbooks,” said Gus A. Sayer, assistant superintendent for curriculum of the Weston (Mass.) Public Schools. “But $5 per kid [for materials] compared with $1 per kid [for textbooks], when we spend $4,000 per kid overall, is not that much.”

Many districts, however, are finding ways to hold down the cost of materials needed for activity-based programs.

In Fairfax County, Va., for exam· pie, the district maintains a central materials depository, known as the Instructional Materials Processing Center, where staff members buy some commonly available materials in quantity and build others in-house. According to district officials, the first 4,000 kits of materials produced at the center cost $221,000, compared with a $420,000 commercial cost.

In Philadelphia, the Franklin Institute, a science museum, is developing kits of materials for the school system. They will be paid for by the district and Philadelphia Renaissance in Science and Mathematics (PRISM), a collaborative program linking schools with businesses, cultural institutions, and universities.


But persuading teachers to adopt new methods---and teaching them how-may be more difficult, according to Susan P. Snyder, former chief of the science and mathematics section of the Maryland State Department of Education.

“Teachers are still teaching primarily the way their teachers taught them,” she said. “For the most part, we still see a teacher-centered classroom, even in the elementary school.”

But the kind of science instruction needed will require what she calls “a totally different behavior-asking teachers to teach from a child-centered position.”

Changing long-entrenched classroom methods requires a substantial commitment on the part of administrators, many educators noted. Harold Pratt, science coordinator of the Jefferson County, Colo., Public Schools, said that district officials there decided early on that ''we were going to have an elementary science program and everybody was going to be involved.”

New teachers and teachers changing grade levels are provided three full days for in-service training during their first year, Mr. Pratt said.

A Role for Museums

In addition, educators note, school systems need the support of outside institutions, such as science museums and universities, to assist in developing curricula and materials, as well as in training teachers.

The Association of Science-Technology Centers, which represents science ‘museums, recently issued grants to 14 museums for teacher training. Known as “STEAM,” or Science Teacher Education at Museums, the grants were paid for by the General Electric Foundation.

General Electric Foundation. “In looking for the best ways to upgrade science teaching, we identified science museums as being at the leading edge of science-teacher training,” said Paul M. Ostergard, president of the foundation.

But science museums are a limited teacher-training resource, museum officials and educators I say. For one thing, teachers may be reluctant to attend classes for I which they do not receive credit, I noted Barry A. VanDeman, assistant director of education for Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

In addition, said Mr. Aldridge of the N.S.T.A., science museums generally help only those in metropolitan areas. “All of us agree that’s terribly important,” he said. ''But it’s a small piece of what needs to be done.”

Teacher Training

But beyond the problems of training existing teachers are questions about the science training teachers receive before entering the profession.

Mr. Aldridge said his group will begin this fall to award its own certifications for teachers meeting minimum course requirements in science. Elementary-school teachers will be required to have completed 12 credit hours of science in college to earn a certificate; currently, he said, they average 3 credit hours, mostly in the life sciences.

At the N.S.R.C. conference, Kenneth R. Mechling, director of science education for Clarion University, suggested that universities should take the lead in strengthening course requirements for prospective teachers. “A preservice elementary teacher should not be able to opt out of physics,” he said.

Standardized Tests

But perhaps an even larger obstacle to the development of hands-on elementary science programs is the insistence by parents, school officials, and others on measurable results. As virtually all the participants at the N.S.R.C. conference agreed, standardized tests do not measure what such programs teach.

“We"want children to manipulate materials, come to conclusions, and communicate those to others,” said George Hein, director of the program evaluation and research group at the Lesley College Graduate School of Education. “Clearly the tests available don’t measure that.”

In addition, said Ms. Sprague of the Mesa Public Schools, some standardized tests are inaccurate. The information in a unit on ice cubes, she said, contradicted the acceptable answer on a standardized test. “If you knew anything about ice cubes, you got the question wrong,” she said, adding that the school district dropped the unit, not the test.

Rather than abandon tests, Mr. Hein suggested, science educators should develop new ways of evaluating learning, perhaps using writing or drawing instead of multiple choice exams. “School systems are not going to abandon what they have now unless we have alternatives,” he said.

Reversing Neglect

Elementary science programs in this country have been neglected, participants at the summer conference concluded, in part because administrators choose to focus on secondary programs, where teachers are certified as science specialists. In addition, they said, many elementary school teachers dislike science themselves, and pay little attention to it.

“It might be easier to make a big change rapidly than a series of smaller changes in each school,” Mr. Sayer of the Weston Public Schools suggested.

But the success of the new initiatives, said Wayne Ransom, director of education for the Franklin Institute, depends mainly “on teachers and whether they want to teach well.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 1986 edition of Education Week as Groups Foster ‘Hands On’ Approach to Science in Early Grades