As science gets squeezed in the elementary curriculum, at least two Florida districts are trying a new approach to keeping hands-on lessons a part of pupils’ experiences.
Because of the priority given to federal requirements in reading and math, “we’re getting a lot of teachers saying that their principals have come in and literally said, ‘Stop teaching science,’” said Gerald F. Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.
In the past year, though, both the Broward and Palm Beach county districts have increased the number of science specialists working in their elementary schools—teachers who, like physical education and music teachers, work with students at all levels once or twice weekly.
Instead of replacing science instruction in the regular classroom, district officials say, the specialists reinforce the science lessons taught by regular teachers by conducting experiments that too often get dropped because of a crowded school day.
“Reading is the mainstay right now; everything centers on reading. But the science-resource teachers show how science integrates into reading,” said Rose-Marie Botting, a science- curriculum specialist in the 271,000-student Broward County district, where 65 schools—about half the district’s elementary schools—have such specialists.
Those science teachers can also prepare the materials needed for an experiment for five different classes of kindergartners and then clean up the mess—something that many classroom teachers don’t have the time to do, said James Lindeman, a science specialist at Park Lakes Elementary School in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. He now works from a mobile cart instead of from a classroom.
The 5th graders at his school, for example, are preparing to enter projects in the school’s annual science fair. To help them better understand the scientific method of developing a hypothesis and then testing their theories, the students have been experimenting with these questions: Will an unopened Coke can float? What about a can of Diet Coke?
They found out that the Diet Coke floated, but the regular Coke sank, and reasoned that it was probably because of the sugar in the regular Coke.
“I like it because I almost see it as playing with the kids,” said Mr. Lindeman, who used to teach a regular 5th grade class. “This is the best job I’ve ever had in Broward County.”
The use of science specialists— or resource teachers, as they are sometimes called—is not confined to Florida, but officials at the Arlington, Va.-based NSTA say the approach is still not common.
And while the Florida teachers and administrators say one reason to increase the number of specialists is to make sure pupils get to see science in action, they are also motivated by the fact that the science portion of the state exam that was given this spring will probably begin to count as part of the state’s school accountability system two years from now. Called the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, the exam is given at the elementary level in 5th grade.
Moreover, student performance in science will become a greater concern nationwide when the subject joins reading and mathematics as the areas in which schools must make “adequate yearly progress” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. By the 2007-08 school year, states must test students in science at least once during elementary, middle, and high school.
But some experts worry that adding science to the list of special classes children cycle through during the week sends the message that the subject is not as important at the elementary level.
“I’m ambivalent about that strategy,” said Karen Worth, a senior scientist at the Center for Science Education, part of the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center. “My pessimistic sense is that more is falling off the back burner.”
Judith Opert Sandler, the director of the same science center and an EDC vice president, echoed those concerns in a recent Commentary essay for Education Week: “Admittedly, logic dictates a kind of academic triage: Focus on the subject-area work that is most urgent, namely reading and math. Science can wait, the thinking might go, thanks to the later deadline under the law.”
For instance, Charles Gale, the science coordinator at Sligo Creek Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md.—who works much like the science specialists in Florida—says that even though classroom teachers are still supposed to teach regular science lessons, they occasionally ask him to cover that material for them.
“I’ve resisted that,” he said.
The science specialists, however, say that in addition to enriching students’ knowledge and understanding of science, strengthening classroom teachers’ skills is a large part of what they do.
“A lot of elementary teachers didn’t have any higher-level science education,” said Kris Swanson, a science specialist at Discovery Key Elementary School in Lake Worth, Fla., part of the 168,000-student Palm Beach County district. “I’m there to help them. I end up as a teacher to the kids and the teachers.”
Sheila Valies-Joseph, a 1st grade teacher at Park Lakes Elementary in Broward County, said she has enough background in science to cover “the book, the teacher’s manual, and maybe a little more.”
“I think I’m knowledgeable, but not at all like Jim,” she said about Mr. Lindeman. “Whatever you’re doing, he can take it to the next level.”
At Maryland’s Sligo Creek Elementary, Mr. Gale—who has taught science in the 139,000-student Montgomery County district for 30 years—said he sometimes holds science workshops for teachers, and distributes science materials and resources for them to use in their classrooms.
Moreover, when teachers bring their students to the science lab where he teaches, they stay for the lessons. That’s unlike most special classes, such as art or music, during which the teachers would get a break.
Ideally, science specialists and classroom teachers have time together to plan their lessons and find ways to connect the hands-on activities with what happens in a regular class. Pupils at Discovery Key, for example, often return to their classroom after an experiment and write in their journals about what they did, which strengthens their writing skills, Mr. Swanson said. In math, they might graph the results of the experiment.
But too often, Ms. Worth said, teachers don’t have enough time to plan together. That’s why it’s important for elementary teachers to be just as prepared to teach science as they are reading.
Ms. Worth, whose work focuses on connecting science and literacy, has helped produce a 12-week online course through the Education Development Center for elementary teachers on science lessons and literacy activities, such as keeping science notebooks. She is also planning to design a graduate-level course for Wheelock College in Boston on integrating science into all areas of literacy.
“I believe wholeheartedly that using language in science improves the science and vice versa,” she said.
Ms. Worth said she also favors team teaching, in which one teacher might focus on reading and mathematics and the other on science and social studies. That way, the subjects get equal time, she said. But those arrangements are typically used with upper-elementary and middle school students, not those in the early grades, when transitions during the day are kept to a minimum.
The lack of attention to science in the regular classroom has been evident to Mr. Lindeman when he works with students at Park Lakes."I’ve been teaching kindergarten science skills to 4th and 5th graders,” he said. But he believes that his position at the school will significantly contribute to higher performance in science.
“I’m looking forward,” he said, “to seeing the kindergartners and 1st graders I have now in about four years.”