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Ensuring All Elementary Students Have Access to Science Learning

By Kathy Renfrew and Amber McCulloch

Posted on 2019-11-19

Ensuring all students have access to science learning is part of the vision in A Framework for K–12 Science Education. Yet in many elementary schools, teachers have little time for science. This is such a disservice, as engaging in the science and engineering practices enables students to begin to figure out the world in which they live. As an organization, the Council of State Science Supervisors (CSSS) works to support elementary science in various ways, including through the efforts of the Supporting Elementary Science committee and resources developed across states.

One strategy for supporting elementary science is building broader awareness of the importance of science in the elementary grades, including helping school administration understand the importance of ensuring science is a regular part of every student’s learning experience. Adequate time to learn science concepts throughout elementary school supports the vision of the Framework that students’ understanding builds coherently in learning progressions across grades K–12.

NSTA’s Position Paper on Elementary Science and STEM Teaching Tools’ Why Do We Need to Teach Science in Elementary School, are among the resources available to help build awareness. In addition, states have developed relevant resources. Links to each state’s resources and other resources are available on the CSSS website. NSTA’s website also has an interactive map with links to state resources.

Another tool for building awareness that might be especially helpful at school and district levels is the Elementary Science Workshop developed by co-author Amber McCulloch in partnership with the Association of Washington School Principals. This resource also describes the current reality in many elementary schools and guides administrators in assessing their schools and/or systems and creating an action plan for increased elementary science.

Integrating science across other content areas is another strategy for increasing time for and prioritizing science in the elementary grades. During science instruction, students are speaking, listening, reading, and writing. They are also thinking mathematically as they make sense of patterns, trends, and relationships found in their data. This awareness creates a purpose for instruction by providing a context that is relevant and meaningful to students.

STEM Teaching Tool 62, What does subject matter integration look like in elementary instruction? Including science is key?—created in partnership with CSSS’s Supporting Elementary Science committee and University of Washington’s Institute for Science + Math Education—provides ideas and resources to support integrating science with other subjects. Additionally, this Project-Based Learning (PBL) plan from the Nebraska Department of Education presents an integrated learning experience that highlights science. These products represent true collaboration among state science supervisors, research partners, and partner organizations.

Committee work is strengthened by including research partners. For instance, a collaboration between Carla Zembal-Saul from Penn State and our CSSS working committee, Supporting Elementary Science, supported the development of several draft STEM Teaching Tools. This work would not have been possible without the support of Phil Bell from the University of Washington, with funding from the National Science Foundation. Another key relationship is that of the National Academies and CSSS. Many of the publications available through the Board on Science Education at the National Academies, such as English Learners in STEM Subjects and Literacy for Science: A Workshop Summary, are crucial resources for supporting science education. Last but not least is the collaboration of CSSS and NSTA, which is providing a venue for sharing this work.

Kathy Renfrew is an experienced elementary teacher/educator who has held many roles in her career. She was recruited by the Vermont Agency of Education to serve as Elementary Science Assessment Coordinator. In that role, she was involved with the drafting, adoption, and implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards in Vermont. When she returned to Massachusetts, she served as elementary science coach. Currently Renfrew is an education specialist at the Wade Institute for Science Education, a virtual coach for Sibme, and an EdReports reviewer. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Human Development from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, as well as a M.Ed in Professional Teaching and a MS in K–8 Science Education.

Amber McCulloch is Executive Director of Learning, Teaching, and Family Support K–Postsecondary at Puget Sound Educational Service District, which provides systemic support to 35 districts, as well as charter schools and tribal compact schools in the greater Seattle area, serving 40% of the state’s student population. Before that, she was K–12 Science Specialist at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in Science Learning and Teaching in Washington State, where she supported statewide science efforts to implement the state’s Science Learning Standards (Next Generation Science Standards). McCulloch holds undergraduate degrees in Communications and Elementary Education; a MS Ed in Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment; and a doctorate in Educational Administration and Policy.

Note: This article is featured in the November 2019 issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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