What's the best way to excite kids about science (or at least not convince them it's boring or impossible)?

On the heels of my post wondering where the science is in elementary school, I'm interested in your sense of how things stand now and what, if anything, you think we should do about the situation. Draw on your experience as a former (or current) student, a parent, an educator (including educating future teachers), a working scientist, or whatever.

The possibilities that have been raised so far seem to be:

  1. There is not now, and will not be any time soon, anything like a coherent and inspiring elementary school science curriculum because people who go into elementary education lack the necessary science background and/or enthusiasm. Whether it's because people who have the science chops can make more money (or get more respect) doing something else, or because the people training future teachers have communicated to these future teachers that it's OK not to know a whit about science if you're teaching K-6, or whether elementary school teachers are hobbled by the crappy science instruction they received as students, it does seem like a lot of K-6 teachers back away from the science. If they're the ones delivering instruction to the kids, this could be the main problem.
  2. There is not now, and will not be any time soon, anything like a coherent and inspiring elementary school science curriculum because No Child Left Behind has marginalized science in favor of reading and math (i.e., the schools are too busy teaching to the high-stakes tests to teach science). If there are regulations applied to the schools that make our kids less educated, rather than more, maybe those regulations are a bad thing and ought to be changed. I'll leave it to those more familiar with the details of NCLB and its implementation to provide more detail here.
  3. There is not now, and will not be any time soon, anything like a coherent and inspiring elementary school science curriculum because the nature of science doesn't lend itself to small chunks of time in the school day or precise answers that match those in the teacher's manual. To the extent that something science-like creeps into the grade schooler's consciousness, it's about facts and definitions rather than inquiry or problem-solving. It's memorization rather than digging for explanations. It's boring. But, if we're working within the time-and-space framework of the school day (where every 30-45 minutes you have to move onto the next activity), how do you get around this?
  4. There's something like a coherent and inspiring elementary school science curriculum somewhere ... but word hasn't gotten out about how to make it happen other places, or it depends on very special conditions that don't prevail in most school districts, or it depends on this one amazing teacher who we can't easily replicate.

I'm open to the possibility that more than one of these factors could be at work.

As well, it strikes me that there may not be consensus amongst the commenters (let alone society at large) about how big a problem it is if the K-6 science is lacking. Possibly a lack of coherent and inspiring science instruction is setting the stage for a major loss of potential scientific talent, not to mention a general population that has decided science isn't worth understanding or caring about (because is it's something worth caring about, wouldn't they take some care to teach it to us?). On the other hand, it's possible that well-intentioned attempt to teach science at the elementary level could be worse than no science instruction at all (by making science seem boring or scary). Maybe leaving science as something the interested kids pursue as a hobby keeps it interesting, but maybe this only works for kids who have a certain kind of out-of-school support system (libraries, internet, adults who help nurture their interests).

Because I think science is cool -- and because I spend lots of time teaching college students who have been put off science by the educational experiences they get before they come to me -- I'm inclined to think that elementary school science education needs to be fixed. Then again, I survived a pretty lame K-6 science curriculum and went on to wallow in science. Is there a problem here? And if so, what do we do to fix it?

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Science can be fixed at the elementary level by MENTOS AND DIET COKE! Then, the teacher explains the science to kids that are interested. (Maybe the video...)

Rockets fired from the playground - also cool.

My kids' elementary school did a pretty good job of this I think, as my daughter is a Chem Eng major, and youngest is taking Freshman Algebra in 7th grade.

My kids like science, cuz I like science, which also helps, and they all knew early on - 1st -2nd grade, that if you can't measure it or duplicate it, it ain't science.

I think you have it right in the parentheses. The key is not convincing them that it's boring or hard, because I believe that most kids are excited to learn about the world around them. Bugs, plants, dinosaurs, other animals, rocks, crystals, magnets, mirrors, colors etc. What kid doesn't start off being interested in these at least a little? It's true that some kids quickly become more interested in the social world around them and leave the bugs and the rocks for the geeks like me. But maybe this suggests that one way to capture some kids' interest in science would be do some psychology experiments. (yes, i know, a lot of psychology isn't very good science, but there are still good experiments to be found)
The keys of science are observation, measurement, hypothesis, and experiment, and those could be taught using a wider variety of topics. Maybe overemphasis on just physical science is a turnoff to some kids. Or maybe it's a general problem of the schools, who seem to manage to kill the enthusiasm for learning anything at all.
just a thought.

I'm from New Zealand so I can't comment on the situation in the USA.
In primary school (ages 5-10 in NZ) I don't remember a lot of science curriculum in the younger years, but in the latter years (8-10) I remember we had annual in-school science fairs, and simple experiments in class - e.g, which materials are the best insulators, which fabrics are most flammable. We also did projects on things like the water cycle, weather volcanoes, etc.

My parents, particularly my father, fostered not specifically an interest in science, but in learning, from a young age. We were fortunate enough to have a very good local library which we visited weekly, and the books I loved the most as a child were the juvenile science and natural history books.

In New Zealand at the moment, there is actually a advertising campaign which has been going for a while, encouraging parental involvement in their childs learning (see www.teamup.co.nz).

These are two interesting posts on the state of elementary school science. I liked seeing the "C" word, coherence, again and again. Diet coke and mentos are not the "fix," no matter the "gee whiz" index (certainly better than a porcine or bovine index!).

Starting at the top, if you have time take a look at two national documents on academic standards in science. These are Benchmarks for Science Literacy (Project 2061, AAAS) and also the National Science Education Standards (NSES, NRC). Both yield quickly and easily to a search, e.g. Project 2061 and NSES. They can be read and copied to heart's and mind's content. For elementary, I prefer Benchmarks since they infer curricula and work that can be done although our elementary teachers have got to have more science in their training/education programs.

For coherent curricula, at least they approach coherency, see FOSS (Full Option Science Systems), developed at UC-Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science; STC (Science-Technology-for Children, developed by the Smithsonian and now distributed by Carolina Biological Supply; and Insights about which I'm less familiar and I think more difficult to use. However, it is rich in ideas, has good assessments and the activities, like FOSS and STC go somewhere, i.e., they are aimed at understanding.

In the 60s (19)there were some stunning programs developed and if your institution has a curriculum library they are worth looking for. Some favorites of mine are ess (elementary science study which had about a distinguished a development group of scientists and teachers as one could imagine, including the late Philip Morrison and philosopher of science, David Hawkins), SCIS (science curriculum improvement study. It owes its development to a particle physicist (Robert Karplus); had a great framework and introduced the idea of the learning cycle; and SAPA (Science A Process Approach, developed by the AAAS and in my view the least successful of the group.)

ess was playful, perhaps too playful, i.e.,it reflected, I think, the way scientists work, perhaps in a phrase, "let's find out." The problem is that this is easier said than done. You need to be comfortable in the neighborhood of science to light out for the territory unless you possess self confidence, show no fear (aren't afraid to share your lack of knowledge with kids but this isn't the answer. If you know more, feel comfortable doing science I think you can help kids learn more than they might otherwise.

You will find some great essays on the Project 2061 website. One of my favorites is by its former executive director, F. James Rutherford, a physicist who was a co-author of Harvard Project Physics (a physics program deeply based in the history of science and with some commitment to less is more, i.e., it was aimed a deep understanding). You will find it, the last essay in the list under publications or papers. It is about children and libraries.

There is so much more I could add but I'll nearly stop. If you visit the Lawrence Hall of Science website, look for some modules known as GEMS (Great Explorations in Mathematics and Science). These are great ideas and when put together, sequenced with an eye say to standards (as found in the Atlas of Science Literacy, AAAS, Project 2061) could become coherent.

And finally two methods texts. One is by the late and beloved science educator, Mary Budd Rowe. It is titled "Science As Continuous Inquiry." Now, here is a thoughtful approach to science education. I also like Selma Wasserman and George Ivany, "Teaching Elementary Science: Who's Afraid of Spiders?" It is based in a learning cycle: play,debrief, replay and includes 60 "activity stations" in three general areas: "Wet, Wetter, Wettest," "No Fuss, No Mess, , No Sticky Mess," and "Who's Afraid of Spiders."

The "activities are thoughtful, have aims, respect children and their thinking but require the teacher to round up all the materials, another problem in teaching elementary science and one of the advantage of kit based programs described above.


By ed hessler (not verified) on 30 Nov 2006 #permalink

I was lucky enough to get a coherent and inspiring elementary school science instruction - in Montessori school, where teachers are encouraged to do nature walks, develop their own teaching materials and lesson plans, and teach hands-on.
I was too young to remember... But it managed to sustain my interest in science through years of mediocre public school science instruction in public schools, al the way through my first year of college. I can still name all the parts of a flower...

Thanks for the great thread. From my experience, the state of science education in elementary schools sucks. It is that way mostly because of reasons stated by other posters. First, elementary teachers are liberal arts or ed. majors whose only science experience is some general science requirement. They come into a public school and basically ignore the science curriculum. For a few years, we were involved in a program to boost math and science teaching methods, but it was mostly an uphill battle. No interest in science or teaching it.

And that was before NCLB. Whether it was consciously a part of the war on science or not, NCLB is a plague on science education. Now the excuse for under-prepared teachers is ready-made. They have no time to teach science. Some schools and district are mandating up to three hours a day for reading and language arts. If they-re lucky, they have 45 minutes a day to cover health, art, music, Social Studies, science and PE. Schools "at-risk" of not meeting NCLB targets add more "intervention" time for students who don't make testing benchmarks. Two-thirds of the 6th graders at my middle school have no elective, and no hope of doing anything pleasant or enjoyable or in any way memorable.

Ed, your post was appreciated. I have used STC in the past and found it coherent, easy to use, and well-directed. But I'm quite sure that my Earth Science class is the first real experience my kids have with the scientific method. And yes, I have to find exciting demonstrations for them from time to time because they need something memorable. I intend to use the Diet Coke and Mentos to demonstrate how dissolved gases in a volcano affect the type of eruption (and if the analogy is wrong, I'd appreciate a correction before I screw it up).

But again, thanks for bringing attention to this end of science. I want to send you all some motivated and prepared science students in the future.

Thanks for including my blog on your list. I feel I've done nothing but talk about my personal/family issues. I'm hesitant to write about work stuff, because my research topic is fairly politicized and I'd rather stay invisible, if possible. I've moved to blogger beta, because iblogs seems to be down most of the time. I like your blog.

Huncamunca aka, a mad scientist

By A mad scientis… (not verified) on 01 Dec 2006 #permalink

I've recently had a great deal of exposure to a wide range of K-12 science curricula, as I am currently in the process of setting up an national institute for the improvement of secondary science education. What I have discovered in the process, is that while there are certainly exceptions, most science classes could be more accurately described as science history classes. They are almost universally structured as lectures wherein a teacher tells students about how others have discovered or innovated in the past. The lab classes are, for the most part, glorified cookbook recipe-following exercises, where each step is outlined in advance and all the answers are really known in advance.

On the other hand, the outstanding programs which I discovered at places like the Illinois School of Math and Science and the Head Royce school in the San Francisco Bay area (which incidentally has staff from the Lawrence Hall of Science)revolve around putting the students in positions where they learn to innovate and discover on their own in a curriculum with progressively harder and more independent opportunities for both guided and unguided exploration. Obviously, the latter is WAY more engaging than the former, and incidentally, the exploratory programs tend to demonstrate participation from young girls that is equal to, or better than that of the male students.

So in a way, the rather difficult transformation required is more about teaching methods and pedagogy than it is about the curriculum. The teachers need to become guides to exploration rather than lecturers, and teach tools for exploration so students can perform science experiments and projects ultimately on their own. And note, that this goes beyond the idea of "hands-on" science, because many experiments can be hands-on with kids following predetermined steps to never enjoy discovering something themselves. Then, of course, there is a necessary element of teacher training and professional development where teachers can become comfortable in this new role, and at the same time, become role models in their own science experiments and summer sabbaticals. (To credit those who first realized the issue, this isn't really a new idea, but it is a powerful one. Dr. Jerry Pine and his group at Caltech started the CAPSI program several years ago for the Pasadena schools around this principle of discovery. It's just that widespread implementation is difficult against decades of bad lecturing habits.)

As for the time and scheduling issue, I agree that this is one of the most difficult challenges, and ultimately the schools need to set aside regular blocks of contiguous time. But there are alternatives to get started even before the scheduling wars are resolved. The Head Royce school has come up with a great solution as a starting point. Their fantastic dedicated elementary science classroom is open and accessible to the kids any time they are otherwise free for recess, study hall, and before and after school. When I visited last month, the place was packed with kids "playing" with science and having a blast. Some were running a mouse through a rather large maze, some were taking apart a laser printer, others were experimenting with plant growth techniques. None of them were bored. Every one was engaged and curious, and genuinely disappointed when their science experimentation was cut short by the start of the next classes.

It's really about offering the opportunity to DO instead of being told what others have done, and that is a way more interesting proposition from start-to-finish.

If anyone is interested, I tend to post about this type of thing quite often on my blog (All the Best Bits)and more will certainly be forthcoming as the institute is formalized. I've really enjoyed your blog as well! keep it up!

I would recommend looking at the TIMSS video study, which compared science education in the US to instruction in higher achieving countries. http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2006/timssvideo/
"The data suggest that compared to the U.S., the four relatively higher-achieving countries (based on the TIMSS 1995 assessments and consistent with the 1999 assessments) in eighth-grade science participating in this study--Australia, the Czech Republic, Japan, and the Netherlands--shared two commonalities. First, eighth-grade science lessons in these four countries appeared to focus on high content standards and expectations for student learning. However, there were varying definitions across these four countries for what counts as high content standards. Second, instead of exposing students to a variety of pedagogical approaches and content, the science lessons within each of the four relatively higher-achieving countries appeared to reflect a common instructional approach that was content-focused."

The TIMSS study focused on eighth grade classes, but I think their conclusions logically be applied to younger grades as well. In the US people spend a lot of time arguing about exactly how a subject should be taught as if that will solve things, but the TIMSS study suggests that having high standards and then focusing on science content is really what is needed.

Why don't schools in the US focus on science standards and content? I haven't seen any studies about this but here is my perspective as someone who considered a career as an elementary science teacher. Teachers (especially elementary school teachers) in the US are not highly respected or well paid. Where I live a teacher's salary wouldn't buy a middle class life style. I would have trouble buying a house and have to rely on my spouse to earn a higher salary. Further, I don't feel that my career would be taken seriously, I wouldn't be viewed as a trained, skilled professional. People in the US seem to think that anyone can teach and that it takes little skills or training. This means that people who are highly skilled and have a strong science background are going to be giving up a lot in order to pursue a career as an elementary school science teacher.