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Early-Grades Science: The First Key STEM Opportunity

Effective teaching in grade school is a make-or-break factor for future STEM success
By Madeline Will — May 22, 2018 6 min read
Devlin Griffin, Kollin Coleman, and Ledger Hardy test a nest they engineered with aluminum foil to see if it will support the weight of a raw egg. Such lessons illustrate basic concepts in physics, biology, genetics, and ecology in a science lab at Hutchens Elementary School in Mobile, Ala.
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In a Mobile, Ala., elementary school, students regularly don hard hats, goggles, and lab coats to conduct science experiments. They design ramps for toy cars, observe the process of chicks hatching in an incubator, and build beaver dams by using materials from nature and design.

“I don’t want them to pretend to be scientists,” said Julie Neidhardt, the instructor and founder of the Nurturing Engineering, Science, and Technology (N.E.S.T.) lab at Hutchens Elementary School, which serves grades pre-K-2. “I talk to them like they are scientists.”

That sort of inquiry-based, hands-on instruction in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is rare in elementary grades, experts say—despite the fact that young children can be sponges for the kind of information taught in those subjects.

“Young kids are, all on their own, completely committed to being excited and interested in STEM topics,” said David Evans, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “The sad thing is, if there isn’t good support in schools, they lose that by the time they get to middle school.”

Indeed, research shows that students who are engaged in STEM by the time they are adolescents are more likely to pursue the field as adults.

But elementary teachers are generalists, and few are trained to specifically teach STEM. Just 3 percent of undergraduate elementary programs require relevant coursework—or ask candidates to pass an admissions test—in biology, chemistry, and physics or physical science, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. Sixty-six percent of the 810 programs studied don’t require coursework in any of those core subjects.

That lack of training can influence the amount of science elementary teachers will spend time on.

“Many elementary teachers don’t have good science training themselves, so they don’t have that confidence we’d like them to have in the science content,” Evans said. “That makes them reluctant to teach sometimes. ... That lack of confidence is something kids are really skilled at picking up on.”

First graders Fisher VanDyne, Sophia Davis, and Norah Lewis watch to see whether the nest they engineered with aluminum foil will support the weight of a raw egg.

Programs like Neidhardt’s science lab seek to bridge the gap between students’ interest and teachers’ knowledge through on-the-job coaching. Neidhardt didn’t want the lab to just be “activity time” for students where teachers dropped their class off and got a free hour, but rather a chance for teachers to be coached on high-quality, standards-aligned STEM instruction.

STEM-focused programs are rare in elementary school, experts say. And they’re even rarer in the K-2 years. But for Neidhardt, it makes sense: Young children are naturally interested in science, and being engaged in that subject could even help them master vocabulary and reading, she said.

In 2016-17, the first year of the program, Neidhardt modeled teaching the lessons, and provided professional development on the state’s new science standards.

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This semester, Neidhardt began asking teachers to lead the lessons and meet the standards. Now, she co-teaches the lessons and provides non-evaluative feedback.

“It was not anything they had done before,” she said. “I would say that some of the pushback was that they didn’t want to come into the classroom. [Teachers would say], ‘Ms. Neidhardt should do this, she’s the science teacher, I don’t need to learn it.’ ... It’s not a normal practice [for elementary teachers].”

But watching Neidhardt model the instruction, at least at first, made it more palatable for many teachers at Hutchens Elementary, including kindergarten teacher Nicole Baranov.

“I’ve never liked science, I’ve never been a science girl. Give me a book to read and I’m good,” Baranov said. “Once I saw her doing these standards, I thought, ‘Oh, I could do that.’”

Now, Baranov said she incorporates science into her daily classroom instruction, even outside of the lab. A student is appointed as a meteorologist every morning to check the weather. The class reads books that touch on scientific concepts. Even when children push their chairs in, Baranov reminds them that they’re using force.

“It flows into everything that we do,” she said.

Baranov had been teaching for about a decade before the science lab opened. She said her science lessons before weren’t as deep or as frequent as they are now. “There’s so much focus on reading and math, especially for kinder-babies,” she said. “Sometimes science would get pushed to the background.”

First grader Eli Meadows attempts to walk on raw eggs without breaking them.

States test students in science far less frequently than in reading and math, which were prioritized in the 2002 No Child Left Behind law. According to Evans, the NSTA has seen a “dramatic decline” in the time spent teaching science in elementary schools since then.

“The main issue is that we need to teach more science in elementary schools,” he said. “The fact that we see a drop-off [in interest] by the time middle school comes is in large part because we haven’t done a good job of addressing the natural curiosity young children bring.”

Evans is hopeful that as teachers are trained in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) or similar expectations, their instruction will become more aligned with the best practices for elementary STEM.

“I think teaching is changing, but it doesn’t happen overnight,” Evans said.

Teacher Julie Neidhardt helps kindergartner Nataya Jones as she attempts to break a raw egg by squeezing it in her hands.

The NGSS, which have been adopted in 19 states and the District of Columbia, ask students to act like scientists and make connections across the science fields. The standards seek to fully integrate knowing and doing in the classroom. Nineteen additional states, including Alabama, adopted new science standards recently that are informed by the NGSS, according to the NSTA.

Learning to tackle those standards through co-teaching has been a huge boon, Baranov said.

“It’s a real person, you’re in there with a real class, we’re trying things,” she said. “There’s just a lot of learning that goes on with everyone. We get to do things that are a little messy.”

The Earlier, the Better

Feeling comfortable with teaching science starts with teacher-preparation programs, experts say. But few schools of education focus on training prospective elementary teachers to become fluent in science or engineering.

Instead, many programs give candidates a list of electives that would satisfy a science requirement, said Kate Walsh, the president of NCTQ. For example, at one program, an applicant could take a course on lightning bolts and thunderstorms. “That’s something you might teach in elementary. [But] if that’s the science course you take, then when have you gotten any biology or physical science?” Walsh said.

Kindergartner Kree Williams examines a raw egg with a magnifying glass.

There are a few bright spots in the teacher preparation landscape: At Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus in Mesa, aspiring elementary teachers have the option to focus on elementary STEM by taking 18 courses in the subject area over their junior and senior years. The program launched in 2015 with two tracks: math and science. This fall, an engineering track will be added.

“The earlier we get students engaged in that type of curriculum the better, because children are born natural scientists,” said Molina Walters, a clinical associate professor at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and the STEM elementary program coordinator. “They’re very inquisitive. ... If we can capitalize on that natural way they think and process information, we’re just preparing them for the future development of those skills.”

Her preservice teachers learn how to be the facilitators of knowledge in a STEM classroom, rather than rely on more traditional, rote approaches. During a 15-week semester, students visit a STEM classroom eight times to teach inquiry-based, student-centered lessons.

“I see STEM [in elementary school] more as a play room. It’s a room that’s engaging students in higher levels of thinking,” Walters said. “They’re problem-solvers, they’re critical thinkers, they’re creators, they’re innovators. ... Doesn’t that sound like fun to you?”

And learning how to teach this hands-on method of STEM has paid off, Walters said. Her students, upon graduating, have become their schools’ lead science teachers or science specialists—sometimes even as first-year teachers.

The STEM elementary program, she said, is helping “produce teachers who aren’t afraid to tackle hard content or take risks, which is changing what is happening at schools.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2018 edition of Education Week as Early-Grades Science: A First Key STEM Opportunity

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