Scientific Reasoning: No Child’s Play

By Sean Cavanagh — May 11, 2009 9 min read
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Primed with a few simple instructions, a group of 5th graders ventures into a rich ecosystem, alive with birds, invertebrates, and even a few mammals—like the rabbits they see, but can’t catch.

This habitat isn’t a lake, river, or forest. It’s a scruffy school courtyard in the heart of southwestern Detroit.

The elementary schoolers, wearing hooded sweatshirts and jackets on this raw April day, dig into the lumpy grass with hand shovels. One team spies an earthworm slithering for cover. “Look! Look!” a boy shouts. A classmate scoops it into a plastic vial.

His group scampers to another corner of the yard and pries up a heavy stone block, exposing moist soil and a bed of insects beneath. “Right there, right there!” a student cries out.

By the time their teacher, Shira Blum, marshals them back into their second-floor classroom, the teams have collected worms, centipedes, slugs, and “roly-polys,” tiny bugs that roll themselves into balls.

Anthony Suarez, left, Diego Calzada, and Daniel Gonzalez collect and enter data from observations the Academy of the Americas 5th graders made in a park across from the school.

The students, from the Academy of the Americas, a public school a few miles from downtown, are being asked to do the painstaking work of science, in an unlikely setting. It’s part of a curriculum and professional-development program called BioKIDS, which seeks to build students’ skill in complex scientific reasoning. The approach goes well beyond fostering students’ knowledge of science facts and concepts, to place a heavy emphasis on the more difficult work of having them devise scientific arguments based on evidence. In other words, it’s the work that actual scientists do.

Cultivating complex scientific-reasoning skill takes time and continued practice. But if children develop those abilities early, the creators of BioKIDS contend, it can gird them for more difficult content in middle and high school and stoke a deeper love of science.

So far, the investment seems to be paying off in Detroit. At the 22 city schools taking part in the program, science scores on the Michigan state exam, which have lagged below state averages, have risen. Students also have scored well on separate tests of their science-reasoning ability.

In the days following their recent outdoor activity, Ms. Blum’s students will review the characteristics of the specimens they’ve collected and make claims and present documentation about them. Later, they’ll cover specific vocabulary terms—like “biodiversity”—and begin making more-detailed observations of species from each “zone” in the grassy courtyard.

Ms. Blum, like other teachers using the program, has traded her traditional science textbooks for thinner workbooks provided by the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, where the program was developed.

“They’re going deeper into it, but this way, it’s more fun,” Ms. Blum says of the science she covers. “It’s teach, ask questions, teach, ask questions. ... [A textbook] doesn’t take them outside. This takes them outside.”

Urban Terrain

The workbooks and the overall BioKIDS program were designed by a team of researchers led by Nancy Butler Songer, a professor of science education and learning technologies at the university.

A core idea behind the program, which was created in 2001, is that early-grades science tends not to challenge students to move beyond very basic facts and reasoning. That shortcoming partly explains U.S. students’ struggles as they move from elementary to middle school science, as shown on international tests, Ms. Songer argues.

BioKIDS, which stands for Kids’ Inquiry of Diverse Species, tries to give students a thorough foundation in reasoning skills through a curriculum that lasts eight weeks in the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. Students are given five 50-minute science periods per week.

“There’s a huge mismatch between the kind of knowledge that’s needed for the future and what’s taught in the classroom,” Ms. Songer said. “We’re trying to bridge that gap.”

Scholars have been exploring how students acquire and develop scientific knowledge for years. But psychologists and education researchers have taken a renewed interest in that question over the past decade, said Leona Schauble of Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn., who shares that focus.

David Camarena observes a slug collected outside the Academy of the Americas, a public school in Detroit.

One goal is to move the teaching of elementary and middle school science away from presenting the subject as “carved-up modules” and topics isolated by grade level, Ms. Schauble said. BioKIDS and similar research, she said, seeks to build knowledge in a more systematic and productive way.

Scientists “don’t just learn final-form facts that someone else has produced,” said Ms. Schauble, a professor of education. Students, she said, need to know how scientists “produce knowledge about the natural world” based on scientific research, substantiation, and argumentation.

While BioKIDS was not created specifically for urban schools, Ms. Songer believes its principles could benefit other big-city districts. Instruction in city schools tends to become “dogmatic,” as teachers struggle to cope with students’ behavior problems, she said. BioKIDS, by contrast, gives students more independence than many elementary science programs do. Managing students in a BioKIDS classroom takes work, Ms. Songer said, but the Detroit teachers she works with have put forward the extra effort.

“There’s a real hunger in urban schools,” Ms. Songer said, even though “many people have just written them off.”

The Detroit district, to be certain, faces myriad challenges. It has long been plagued by low test scores, high dropout rates, and financial woes, exacerbated by steady job losses in the city’s signature automaking industry. Student enrollment has plunged from 185,000 two decades ago to about 95,000 today.

The latest tumult came last year, when the district reported a deficit of $408 million, prompting Michigan schools Superintendent Michael Flanagan to place the city schools in a state of financial emergency. Last month, the state-appointed financial overseer, Robert Bobb, announced plans to close 23 schools and lay off 600 teachers to cut costs.

BioKIDS serves a student population that is poor and highly transient. About 30 percent of the program’s students move to schools out of the program each year. Roughly the same proportion of teachers leaves those schools annually, Ms. Songer estimates.

Ms. Blum hopes she will not be one of them. But last month, the Academy of the Americas teacher said she was told she would be laid off at the end of the school year. Ms. Songer is planning to write to district officials to try to persuade them to keep the educator.

Think Like a Scientist

The Academy of the Americas is a red brick building in a neighborhood of single-story houses, which borders a church and a weather-beaten playground. Visitors are admitted through the school’s front door by pressing a buzzer that plays “The Star-Spangled Banner” inside.

Some days, Ms. Blum has her students, the vast majority of whom are of Latino descent, do their BioKIDS work directly in front of the school entrance, in the grass buffering the sidewalk. Other days, they work in the more spacious grass courtyard, dotted with benches and pine trees. At other schools, BioKIDS teachers have students conduct fieldwork in even more unlikely settings, like asphalt playgrounds, because that’s what’s available, Ms. Songer said. Even there, she noted, they see a surprising amount of biodiversity, especially birds and insects.

One day last month, Ms. Blum watches as her students dig for specimens in the school’s courtyard. She moves from team to team, asking questions: How will you classify that insect? How do you know what it is? Occasionally, a group strays off task, and she guides them back.

One of her adolescent explorers is David Diaz, age 10. His father is a construction worker who moved to the United States from Mexico, but the 5th grader dreams of designing cars for a living—including a model that can turn invisible and fly. The field research appeals to him.

“You’re acting like someone who finds things,” he says of the activity, “like someone who tries to find fossils.”

Factory emissions are graphically represented in Shira Blum’s classroom. The science curriculum she uses gives students more freedom to explore their subject.

Like other participating BioKIDS teachers, Ms. Blum was introduced to the curriculum through workshops run by university faculty members over the summer and school year. Ongoing workshops allow teachers to bring in samples of individual students’ work to discuss common problems.

“We keep adjusting and adjusting,” she said.

BioKIDS assignments gradually become more complex. Fourth graders are asked to practice making scientific claims and providing proof for them. In later grades, students produce more fully formed scientific explanations. In addition to building science skills, the tasks help students learn how to form more general arguments, Ms. Songer said.

Ms. Blum has her students follow those steps in writing, on pieces of paper many have decorated with pictures.

“Hilario is a Mexican-American,” one student writes. Under evidence, he says: “He was born in Las Vegas. His parents were born in Mexico.” For reasoning, he cites his and their origins.

BioKIDS also attempts to build scientific reasoning through technology. One such tool is CyberTracker, a system that allows students, using hand-held devices, to record and graph information on species. The technology was originally developed for wildlife trackers in Africa. It helps students on state tests, which require graphing knowledge.

Darkness to Light

Many BioKIDS lessons, though, rely on simpler tools. At Brewer Elementary School, in northeastern Detroit, teacher Beatrice May has arranged what at first glance looks like a standard classroom activity. She asked her students to plant seeds at home, water them, and record the plants’ growth, either in dark or light conditions. Now, a week later, they’re charting the growth and making observations about color and height.

The work does not stop there, however. Ms. May challenges the children to use the data to make a scientific argument. Do plants, she asks, need light to grow? Most students say yes; a few say no. She points to their data and asks for their evidence.

During the discussion, Ms. May also presses her 4th graders to act, and talk, like scientists.

“My plant was 5½,” one student informs the class.

“Five and a half what?” the teacher asks.

Five and a half centimeters, the child responds.

Jaylyn Fortune, 11, took his assignment seriously. He says he was careful to keep his plant in good light, on a dresser near an upper-story window in his house. Soon, it had grown to 7 centimeters, data he dutifully recorded.

“I like watching it grow from a seed,” he says. “It’s something I can do on my own.”

His teacher, Ms. May, has been an elementary teacher in Detroit for 21 years. Many of her predominantly African-American students come from poor households; a majority of their parents are out of work, she estimates. The strength of BioKIDS, as she sees it, is that the curriculum is stripped-down, yet rich.

“Before, we just had the textbook,” Ms. May said. Students were “just reading and trying to understand it.” Now, she explained, “they can understand the language. ... It’s real life. They can see it.”

Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2009 edition of Education Week as Scientific Reasoning: No Child’s Play


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