Next Gen Navigator
By Susan Johnson
Posted on 2021-12-09
Before accepting my current teaching position, I was a science specialist for seven years at a nearby university’s STEM Center. I also taught the course Science Methods for Elementary Teachers. A major part of my role as science specialist was to travel to area schools—most often with Stacy, my math specialist partner—to provide teachers with professional development (PD) on the Next Generation Science Standards and deliver science equipment made available by the STEM Center for teachers to borrow. During that time, I saw firsthand the lack of training teachers have for teaching hands-on science and how little equipment they have.
During our PD trainings, we always modeled the science lesson, with the participants playing the role of students. We noticed that so many elementary teachers lacked basic science knowledge. For example, when asked why ice floats in water and sinks in alcohol and why there is water on the glass, participants would respond with words like density or condensation, then be unable to define those words. My colleague and I began asking them not to use a word (with their students) if they couldn’t define the word, then reminded them that the definition had to be grade-level appropriate.
We found that high school teachers, for the most part, were teaching the way their professors taught: by lecture. If labs were conducted, they were often “cookbook” activities, done only after a lecture explaining what the students would see during the lab. The lab was merely performed to confirm the lecture content; using a lab experiment to teach the content was completely foreign to these teachers. A few teachers and administrators viewed labs as a waste of time, believing teachers should cover the content first and only do the “fun” lab experiments after the state assessment. We also noticed that high school teachers often didn’t include lab questions on their summative assessments. Their students quickly learned that the labs weren’t assessed, and therefore, viewed them as playtime.
Most elementary schools I visited didn’t have basic measuring tools like graduated cylinders, thermometers, or meter sticks. One fortunate school had a small science lab classroom built with funding from a local company, but the teachers and principals didn’t know what supplies and equipment to buy, where to purchase them, or how to organize them. A few schools had Full Option Science System (FOSS) kits, but the teachers didn’t know how to use them or were afraid to use them.
Too many elementary teachers we encountered confused Pinterest activities with science lessons. For example, a group of fourth-grade teachers made “geodes” with eggshells, but didn’t define or explain what geode, crystals, crystallization, solution, or saturated solution were. This “science lesson without the science” was more like arts and crafts.
High schools were also woefully lacking in equipment. We saw chemistry closets with chemicals that no one remembered purchasing, and no one knew how or when to use them. High school biology classes were still requiring bug and leaf collections. Few classrooms had running water or gas connections or enough electrical outlets for microscopes—if they had them.
For many reasons, I believe the need for science education is more important than ever, yet students in our area weren’t provided the simplest of experiences: playing with magnets, lighting a light bulb with only a battery and wire, or examining a leaf with a handheld lens. Teachers at one large elementary school had completely stopped teaching science several years earlier, electing to teach only English and math, and had called the STEM Center for help in re-introducing science to their curriculum. Their students were so excited to “do science.” After a science lab, a student asked if they were going to get to do science again, fearing that the lab was only a one-time event.
As bleak as this sounds, the teachers were wildly receptive to any and all help. For every problem presented to us, Stacy and I developed labs and PD to help the teachers improve We provided PD from graphing, to using probes, to argumentative writing. We actually saw teachers change how and what they taught. Principals learned that science education can be loud and messy—very much out of their comfort zones—but that was okay. When we had extra funds, we purchased supplies and equipment for the STEM Center that the teachers could use.
Bad News and Good News the bad news is that the state stopped funding STEM Center specialists’ salaries at all 12 universities that housed STEM Centers, thus ending our efforts to help improve science education in the area.
The good news is Stacy and I are back in the classroom. Stacy’s teaching math at the university and looking for new funding opportunities. I’m teaching high school engineering and biotechnology in a community and district that support science education.
More than 20 years ago, our small town’s industries created an education foundation to award grants ranging from $200 to $5,000 to teachers so they can provide students with innovative instruction. A national chemical company in our town recently offered grants to area schools totaling $50,000 per year for five years. I received almost $40,000 over two years from the chemical company to start a biotechnology course at our high school. This year I received two $5,000 education foundation grants to add microbiology labs to the biotechnology course and build indoor hydroponics systems in engineering.
I am fortunate to have had proper training and to live in a community and district that support science education with time, small class size, and funding. All science teachers should be so fortunate.
Susan Johnson is a graduate of El Dorado High School and a two time graduate of Henderson State University, with a BSE and MSE in Biology Education. She received National Board Certification in 2006. She has taught science, math and engineering to grade 7-12 students and college students. She served as a science specialist at Southern Arkansas University for seven years where she collaborated with the math specialist and faculty to develop professional learning, labs, and more. She currently teaching Introduction to Engineering and Principles of Engineering at El Dorado High School.
Note: This article is featured in the December 2021 issue of Next Gen Navigator, an e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators focusing on the themes highlighted in Call to Action for Science Education and on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction. Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator.
The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.