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Learning Science for Life Not Just a Grade

December 14, 2010 By Jamie Crannell, Guest Commentary

Minnesota 2020 invited educators to submit guest commentary in an effort to highlight issues and challenges they face as we head into a new legislative session. Today, we’ll explore ways to enhance the state’s science curriculum.

Jamie Crannell is a science teacher and focuses on professional development for science in the Schools of Eastern Carver County (District 112).

Minnesota’s schools have historically produced a well-educated workforce and electorate. Our legislature is a key player in continuing this tradition. As we head into the 2011 legislative session, a clarification and strengthening of science education in Minnesota by state policy makers is crucial to our students’ success and our role as a leader in science.

In a world that is advancing technologically and scientifically, there are some specific things that can be done to help this effort.

First and foremost, we need to keep science education’s focus on what the science community recognizes as science. If our goal is to produce students that can compete globally in the area of science and technology and to be scientifically literate, then there must be no confusion about what counts as science: Evolution is firmly established in science, human causes of global warming are real.

In addition to that here are some specific strategies:

1. Provide clarity in our science standards. Reduce the overall number of standards and focus on the essential few.

Our revised standards still read like an encyclopedia of science facts and relationships. We need a clear articulation focusing on the big ideas and drawing special attention to the foundational skills and knowledge that all students are expected to learn. We need state-level direction to ensure rigor for all and consistency among districts.

2. Focus on mastery of foundational skills and knowledge along with greater depth and integration. We should require that foundational skills and knowledge be mastered by all students. These will be best reinforced through a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) curriculum that has students use their skills and knowledge to address relevant challenges and questions.

This takes a dual approach. All students should be required to actually master certain foundational skills. In my district, we are beginning to do just that. Our “Proficiencies” system is producing good results.

In our physics course, these range from making measurements accurately to converting between units to using vectors to determining resistance in circuits.

In our chemistry course, we have proficiencies involving atomic structure, periodicity, molarity, LeChatelier’s Principal, acids and bases, and naming simple organic compounds.

The other part of this approach is to engage students in science by exploring real issues and questions. This is where the depth comes in. Real learning comes when there is relevance to the learners’ life – this will make STEM real for our students.

As curriculum planners and classroom teachers, we need to be shown models regarding how this can be done. Then we will need to explore ways to do this within the budget and resource constraints that are our reality. This will undoubtedly require training for both curriculum folks and classroom teachers.

3. Cap class sizes for lab courses at 24. This would provide a safe environment conducive to inquiry-based hands-on science, meet recognized best-practice regarding safety in lab-based courses, and provide an incentive to attract and retain more teachers with STEM backgrounds.

In order to attract and retain the most effective science teachers we need to be creative. Limiting the number of students in lab-based science classes would be an effective way to do this. Most teachers, while interested in making a decent living, are not drawn into this profession because of the financial incentives. Limiting class sizes in science courses would enable science teachers to be more effective (the reason they chose to be teachers) and would help students learn more.

4. Encourage more teachers to go into high-needs science disciplines. Provide more and better ways for the re-tooling of science teachers and professional scientists/engineers into areas where we have a high demand, specifically chemistry and physics.

Limiting science class sizes would help to draw more college students and qualified scientists and engineers to choose teaching as their career. To reinforce this, we need to provide effective and focused training for would-be science teachers that will help them with the most challenging aspects of teaching: classroom management and effective instruction – the pedagogy of science teaching.

We also need to encourage teachers to gain licensure in physics and chemistry since we have increased the requirements in these disciplines starting with the class of 2015. We need more teacher training opportunities patterned on Hamline’s MnSTEP or similar programs. There also need to be specific programs created to allow scientists and engineers to demonstrate or gain the skills necessary to be effective teachers. We need to minimize hurdles while assuring new teachers will be effective.

People trained as scientists and engineers typically make much more money in industry than in the teaching profession. Perhaps we could be creative in figuring out ways to formulate partnerships where science teachers spend part of their time working for industry and scientists spend part of their time teaching. This would provide better pay and up-to-date scientific experiences into their teaching. This would also open up opportunities for more people to bring their technical and scientific expertise into classrooms.

To sum up: we need clear and concise standards that focus on the big ideas of science. We need to expect mastery of foundational skills from all students. We need to encourage classroom experiences that draw students into “doing science” by keeping class sizes small and embedding STEM in our courses. Finally we need to do a better job of training, attracting and retaining the best science teachers possible.

The legislature needs to refrain from interjecting ideological beliefs/politics/religion into science education. Evolution is firmly established in science, human causes of global warming are real, the universe was formed almost 14 billion years ago, and the universe is mostly empty space with lots of very tiny particles called atoms. Politically and ideologically driven agendas should not be used to direct science education. If we want an educated and technologically savvy workforce and a scientifically literate electorate then we’ve got to teach real science and teach it well. Our continued competitiveness in the new global world depends on it.

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