How much science is there in elementary school "science"?

My better half has been a frequent classroom volunteer leading science lessons in younger offspring's kindergarten class. This has made it fairly apparent to us that there's very little of what either of us would identify as science in these lessons.

Most recently, the science lesson centered on nocturnal animals. However, the activity the kids did was primarily a matter of drawing and coloring and cutting and affixing paper with glue. There was a wee bit of classification in here (glue the nocturnal animals on one page and the diurnal animals on the other), but significantly less scientific information than younger offspring would typically get from nature study back in preschool.

Maybe that's just a kindergarten thing -- learning to use markers and scissors and glue is viewed as top priority, and content is mostly an excuse to practice the hand skills. Given that hand skills are not unimportant in the practice of science (including keeping a good notebook), I don't want to diminish the development of this set of competencies. It's just that I suspect the kids could handle some more content to motivate the coloring, cutting, and pasting.

Even in second grade, where they seem to be trying to take on some real content (like forces and tools), it strikes me that they back off prematurely. Elder offspring's class compared the hardness of three different kinds of rocks (by trying to scratch them with different materials), but they did not talk at all about why some rocks are harder and others are softer. I'm not suggesting they needed to break out the X-ray crystallographs, but some explanation here would be nice.

But then, I started thinking back to my own elementary school education -- long ago, when a basic education was supported by tax dollars rather than huge numbers of parent volunteers. And, there is exactly one grade from K-6 in which I can remember anything like a coherent science curriculum. I remember the odd in-class activity (stinky aquaria, for example), but most of them were pretty lame -- even to a kid of that age. To the extent that I learned any science at all in elementary school, it seems to have come from reading, doing "curriculum fair"* projects (electricity and magnetism one year, the infamous mummified Cornish game hen another), and stuff I learned from my parents at home.

In other words, with a different home life, I might not have arrived in junior high school with any notion that I was interested in, or good at, science. Left in the hands of the guidance counselors, who knows what might have happened to me?

Is the utter lack of a coherent or inspiring elementary school science curriculum a normal thing? Do coherent and inspiring K-6 science curricula exist but run into trouble in their implementation? Or is there someplace where the elementary school kids are getting as much serious attention to science as they are to coloring in the lines? (Where? What's their secret?)

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I remember in ninth grade one of our projects was to do a presentation to third graders (I think) on various things to do with 'earth sciences'. Instead of doing the recommended sort of thing (very general stuff about volcanos -- magma-cone-lava vocabulary, that sort of thing), my group decided to do our presentation on plate tectonics, talking about the different ways continental plates interact, and the different results. The kids loved it, and they picked parts of it up pretty quickly. Of course, our own understanding of plate tectonics wasn't more advanced than you would expect of ninth-graders who had done some basic research, but it's always stuck with me as an example of how you could beneficially pump up elementary school classes a bit.

It seems to me that elementary school science classes are very often really just vocabulary classes, with occasional demonstrations thrown in. I'm not one to denigrate learning vocabulary, because it's much more important step in learning real science than we usually give it credit for being; but there is certainly something missing.

Being a fellow Californian and resident of the Silicon Valley, I can say that the current emphasis due to high stakes testing is on reading, writing, and math. Science is on the back burner. As an 8th grade science teacher I am asked to integrate a whole lot of math and reading/writing skills into my class. This isn't a bad thing at all, but I'm just pointing out that science is often thought of as a tool to teach the skills that show up on the API.

Of course, there are examples of taking this too far. A few districts in San Jose, due to low performance on the tests, have their kids take two periods of language arts, two periods of math, 1 period of PE, and 1 tutorial (which is essentially another reading section). No science or history, much less art or any other elective.

I've got two kids in elementary school -- and I find, at least based on their answers to my "what did you do in school today" questions and the discussions thereunto pertaining, that the material they go over is routinely kept to a minimum of depth and intelligence.

And, as I recall from my days in school, the question "why?" was hardly ever asked, answered, discussed, or even mentioned in passing. Even in my science classes.

What makes you think that a kindergarten teacher has any idea what makes one rock harder than another? Even if she did, could she explain it to five year olds? I used to teach elementary level science lessons for a science center and I know how uncomfortable most elementary school teachers are with even basic science concepts. Published lesson plans are of very mixed quality.

The rocks exercise was actually in the second grade science class -- taught by an official science teacher (not a grade-level-teacher-of-all-trades). My hope would be that if someone is an official science teacher, then he or she can put together lessons that he or she is competent to execute. (And, one would hope that sparking the students' curiousity would be part of successful execution.)

Your typical elementary school teacher knows very little of science. I once heard it said that if you don't like science, but you want to teach, you go into elementary school. It's a real pity, since nearly every kid finds science fun when it's taught well.

Wow! An elementary school with an actual science teacher? You are lucky! Actually that makes a lot more sense because second grade science standards call for coverage of some geology concepts. Many schools aren't allowed to teach any science until they get their test scores up. I would often visit schools during the last week before summer break and hear from the teacher that my one hour hands-on lesson was the first science they had done all year. It was cheaper and easier for teachers and administrators to spend their field trip money on bring us in to teach a lesson than to actually go on a field trip. Can you tell I'm bitter and disillusioned about the teaching of science?

In the education classes I've been in, it has been a lack of knowledge (and time, and interest) that prevents elementary school teachers from teaching good science. They're taught how to involve musical intelligences, but not how to inspire curiosity, in many cases, and out here, they don't even have to take a single science class to teach K-5.

Like you, my science was also encouraged by my parents; I can't remember a single science activity from elementary school. Our well-off suburban school district did require original research projects in 6-12, but only for the honors classes.

All kids ARE experimental scientists for their first few years. That's how they gain self-knowledge and knowledge about the working rules of the physical world in which they live. Actually, I shouldn't short behavior science here. The behavioral rules of their world are also learned by the "experimental method" You can sometimes see it in their eyes when they are testing a recently formulated hypothesis.

By our observation of our own schooling and our children's, "science" in elementary school was mostly vocabulary, and occasionally got to sorting, if not classifying. Experimentation is a concept the majority of elementary generalists find a problem, since the results so rarely conform to the "correct answer" in the teacher's manual.

Most kid's have their native scientist tendencies completely deactivated by "science" as taught in elementary school. Since I was not very adept at the language skills, math and science were what I did, but I did not think about being a "scientist" until I fell in love with astronomy in COLLEGE. Rocks and Stars in HS did not cause the same spark.

I have been heard to say that kids would be better off if we did NOT teach science in elementary school. It would be fine to put scientific vocabulary into language arts, and show that math can be used for some things besides commerce and pure mathematics (e.g. relating sets to scientific classification, or calculating speed, and discusing physical vectors like velocity). But experiments that actually seek to discover scientific approximations should only be done where they don't have to be rigged or stifled.

It is amazing that as many US students as do survive the educational system, at least the elementary system) and still make it into scientific endeavors.

But Dr. Free-Ride has heard this rant before.

By Super Sally (not verified) on 29 Nov 2006 #permalink

My wife does astronomy demonstrations at kindergarten level. It is very possible to get kids motivated about science even at 5/6 years.

I have twin five year-olds who have just begun kindergarten in US public schools (in Kansas City, Missouri, but not in the KCMO school district, fortunately), but I worry that their exposure to proper science in school is going to be limited at best. My son is fascinated by dinosaurs to an amazing extent - learning not just their names but the names of the geological periods in which they lived; my daughter is interested in archaeology and is fascinated by insects. We regularly go to a montly week-end science club sponsored by a local science store (reassuringly, perhaps, there are several such stores in the area), and while it's good to see other interested children there, realistically, the number is woefully small. I would hate to think that the standard curricula in public schools will beat that natural inquisitive streak out of my children and their peers.

Children are naturally and tremendously curious about everything - why aren't we feeding that curiosity, that sense of wonder (and relearning things that we've long forgotten in the process)? I've considered volunteering to do a presentation in each of their classes on some science topic - something presented at a basic level, like an introduction to rocks or insects or astronomy. Is volunteering to do presentations at school and trying to find fun ways to teach things at home the answer? And should we be asking more of elementary teachers whenever and wherever possible?

By William Nedblake (not verified) on 29 Nov 2006 #permalink

I pushed post too soon.

The standards are quite good -- it's the teacher's mastery of the science behind the standards, his/her ability to teach, that's the problem.

JYB said,

As an 8th grade science teacher I am asked to integrate a whole lot of math and reading/writing skills into my class. This isn't a bad thing at all, but I'm just pointing out that science is often thought of as a tool to teach the skills that show up on the API.

Of course, there are examples of taking this too far. A few districts in San Jose, due to low performance on the tests, have their kids take two periods of language arts, two periods of math, 1 period of PE, and 1 tutorial (which is essentially another reading section). No science or history, much less art or any other elective.

If a kid is in 8th grade and reading at the 3rd grade level, how much of the 8th grade science curriculum is going to be available to him?

I'd point you to a very well-written post by a fellow who teaches English Language Learners (ELLs) in the Silicon Valley, on the catch-22 that is ELL education

First I congratulate you on having the sort of spouse who'd volunteer for that.My view is that given the possibility of doing actual science at this level at least the exposure to the methods, procedures, and practices(i.e. controlling for variables)is beneficial.

By donquixoteshorse (not verified) on 29 Nov 2006 #permalink

Is the utter lack of a coherent or inspiring elementary school science curriculum a normal thing?>

Sadly, yes. You should read what Richard Feynmann wrote on the subject when he was on a California school textbook committee: here

Yes, that lack of real science education is pretty standard here in New York's public schools, too. As both my husband and I are scientists (geologist and physiologist), we find it frightening that our twins get so little science depth in 5th grade; however, it is very rewarding to be able to pique inquiry at home by asking leading questions (ex. "Why do you think it does that?") that the teachers should be asking during class time. We end up having long discussions, demonstrations by Mom or Dad, and sometimes we delve into topics far more than I would have thought from the initial interest expressed by the kiddos.

Example of last year's science fair - of the 40 or so 4th graders presenting projects, easily 10 were volcano exhibits, 5 were plants grown in darkness/lighted conditions, and most of the others required little thinking on the part of the child (or parent helper) to put together (the vortex in connected soda bottles was a favorite). Our scientist son was very interested in fossils at that time and wanted to do a presentation on how you can find fossils in rocks. Dad pulled out some limestone chunks from a local dig and showed him how putting the rocks in vinegar made them fizz and slowly removed the limestone to reveal the fossilized creatures embedded in the rock. Son was dumbfounded, asked lots of questions about why it worked the way it did, wrote up a poster detailing the process (and where the fossils were found), cleaned many small fossil pieces, and joyously presented his stinky jar of bubbling rocks to the group. His teacher was astounded. I'm sure she thought that Mom and Dad did the whole project for him, as the typed text was so error-free and the concepts were so clearly explained. But I witnessed her asking him questions to see if she could trip him up...nope, that boy knew his stuff! Points for the science geek parents and for the science geek son!