As education standards shift, schools rediscover science class


November 12, 2012 — Students at Quindaro Elementary wildly wave their arms, eager to show off their knowledge of science.

A visiting National Geographic scientist has already regaled them with stories of volcanoes, poisonous frogs, a 22-foot snake — imagine the shrieks when he explains that it tried to eat a child for breakfast — and how he and his crew found bananas in the jungle just as starvation was surely setting in.

Words such as “ew,” “wow” and “gross” ring out. In other words, scientist Andrés Ruzo has hit rock-star status inside the Kansas City, Kan., school.

But now Ruzo boils it down.

“What does it mean to be a scientist?”

As hands go up wildly, he motions for them all to call out the answer together.

“Always be curious!” the children scream in unison with so much fervor that teachers aren’t entirely sure whether they should cheer it on or hold down the noise level.

Principal Linnie Poke smiles during it all, realizing that science is once again on firm ground at her schoolhouse.

In the last decade, elementary school principals such as Poke have watched reading and math — the two core subjects that used to make or break a school under the No Child Left Behind Act — get all the attention. No one said to ignore science, but with penalties tied to math and reading, there was little question what took first priority in elementary schools nationwide.

Many schools doubled up on reading or math classes, and the extra minutes often were carved right out of science and social studies. In Kansas City, Kan., administrators said there wasn’t a consistent and coherent science curriculum until recently.

Now, as common core standards are rolled out and educators wait for the Next Generation Science Standards to be released, elementary science has gotten renewed attention. Area school districts are requiring teachers to dedicate more time to science, experiment regularly and integrate science into other classes.

Shawnee Mission and other districts also are supplementing textbooks to keep up with the latest best practices that integrate science with reading and math.

Poke encourages her teachers to make use of science materials for read-aloud assignments that also help literacy.

“You can teach science in reading. You can teach science through a read-aloud,” Poke said.

At Quindaro, pupils have embraced the experiments and inquiry-based science projects. The excitement shows Poke that science is a key way to get students excited about school.

“Look at the disservice we’ve been doing all these years,” Poke said. “To not do it is just an injustice because we’ve got some investigative minds. Some of them — if we don’t guide their investigative minds — they’re going to get into places they shouldn’t.”

The erosion of elementary school science was hardly local.

“Certainly we’ve seen a decrease in time, but that’s not just in Kansas. That’s a national trend,” said Matt Krehbiel, an education program consultant in science for the Kansas Department of Education.

The state requires students in fourth and seven grades and in high school to take the science assessment tests annually, but the scores rarely are published beyond the state’s website. The same is true for many states.

The creation of the Next Generation Science Standards should change the expectations.

But Krehbiel said many districts aren’t waiting for Kansas to adopt those standards. They are boosting curriculum now and using science as a hook to get students engaged in other subjects.

In Kansas City, Kan., the district recently adopted National Geographic Learning as its core science curriculum. The same scientists who travel the world for documentaries and the magazine contribute to elementary learning through the classroom, textbooks and online materials. Scientists such as Ruzo visit about once a year.

The program demands kids regularly conduct experiments at their desks and then write about their findings, just as a scientist must. Teachers are asked to devote at least 120 minutes each week to science.

“They are acting like scientists,” said Teri Fulton, who leads the district’s elementary science and social studies teachers.

Even kindergartners talk more like scientists, said Fulton, noting their vocabulary has changed.

They use phrases like “I observed this” or “a thermometer is a tool scientists use to measure temperature.”

It is a drastic change, Fulton said. Gone are the days when teachers would conduct an experiment once a month and students would crowd around the desk angling for a look-see.

Kids are the scientists, conducting experiments weekly, if not daily, Fulton said.

Quindaro Elementary teacher leader Tijuana Jackson-Rudolph said it is easy to tell when a teacher is about to begin a science lesson.

“The kids get so excited,” she said. “They feel like they’re playing.”

It feels like playtime, but the students actually are conducting experiments with quick results meant to engage. Their voices ring out, “Oh, look what I found! Look what I found!” she said.

It makes Jackson-Rudolph wonder what impact she could have made for years, if given the same time and curriculum.

“I kind of envy the teachers now,” she said.

In Shawnee Mission, administrators ramped up elementary science offerings last year after feeling a push from teachers. Teachers spoke up when they noticed time for science and social studies being slowly eroded as the emphasis on math and reading ramped up.

A supplemental program and other efforts have helped to integrate science into literacy and writing skills, said Lynette Day, the Shawnee Mission science and health resource specialist.

For example, when first grade students start a unit on magnetism, they don’t immediately open the traditional textbook, she said. The lesson begins by reading “That Magnetic Dog,” a fictional tale about a dog.

“Then they read a non-fiction book about what actually is magnetic and what is nonmagnetic,” Day said.

Then the discovery, inquiry and writing processes begin, she said.

Shawnee Mission teachers also must spend a set amount of time teaching science: 175 minutes in first through third grades, 225 minutes in fourth and fifth grades and 250 minutes in sixth grade.

The idea is to get students ready for middle school, where science is a daily routine.

Fulton said that at Quindaro, teachers have warmly greeted the science push even though it means yet another change to their day. Many longed to return science to its elevated status.

If someone questions the push now, Fulton need only show the video of Ruzo’s presentation.

Students seemed awestruck as he shared a top-secret discovery he made recently. Ruzo assured them there was plenty more to find, should they care to look.

“There is more about the world that we don’t know than we do know,” he said. “You guys could unlock the keys to find it. All you’ve got to do is look for it.”

Read The Kansas City Star Article.

By Dawn Bormann

Posted Nov. 12, 2012