Changing Elementary School Science

By Sean Cavanagh — May 12, 2009 1 min read
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What’s the main goal of elementary school science instruction? And why do students who thrive in early-grades science seem to stumble when they reach middle and high school?

I explore some of these topics in a story in this week’s issue of Education Week. It’s about efforts by a University of Michigan researcher to cultivate “complex scientific-reasoning” skills in young, urban students. That researcher, Nancy Butler Songer, is challenging elementary students in Detroit not only to understand basic science facts and concepts, but also to understand what science is and what scientists actually do. That means that she and the teachers she works with in 22 Detroit schools ask elementary schools to formulate scientific arguments based on evidence, to make claims, to provide reasoning.

The idea is to give these students, some of them from the poorest neighborhoods in the city, a depth of knowledge that will serve them well later in school. Another goal is to have them develop a love of science. Test scores in the schools participating in the program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, called BioKIDS, are improving.

Songer was quick to tell me that building scientific-reasoning skills does not mean glossing over scientific facts. Teachers in the program attempt to build knowledge of key vocabulary and ideas throughout the curriculum.

One of the more interesting aspects of this program, obviously, is the setting. Detroit’s schools are beset with problems, many of them financial. While the university has contributed resources to schools taking part in BioKIDS, the program works in very modest settings. Students collect data and make observations and do the work of scientists in scruffy playgrounds and across asphalt blacktops in the heart of the city.

What are the most essential science skills that schools should nurture in young students? After reading the story, do you believe a model like BioKIDS could work in other districts, or not?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.