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Developing the Next Generation of Elementary Science Teachers

Journal of College Science Teaching—November/December 2019 (Volume 49, Issue 2)

By Tammy D. Lee and Bonnie Glass

National science education documents emphasize new learning outcomes of elementary students; therefore, the preparation of elementary teachers should be revised to meet these challenges. This article describes how science educators at a large southeastern university developed specialized science training for elementary preservice teachers (EPSTs) by creating a combination of discipline-specific science content courses (physical, life, and Earth science) and methods courses (formal and informal) known as an elementary science concentration (ESC). The semester-long, discipline-specific science content courses of the ESC are structured into four modules that focus on the disciplinary core ideas of the new framework (National Research Council, 2012). In this article, we highlight one content course (physical science) and select one module (Core Idea PS3: Energy) to illustrate the design of the content courses. Assignment descriptions and student artifacts are used as supports to teach the disciplinary core idea emphasizing specialized knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge. The methods courses (formal and informal) are explained using key assignments and experiences. The structure of the ESC provides EPSTs with more opportunities to learn specialized teaching approaches for each discipline of science within a variety of environments.


Students at every grade level need a strong foundation of scientific knowledge and understanding of the practices of scientists and engineers (National Research Council [NRC], 2012). The new conceptual framework for K–12 science education (NRC, 2012) introduces the practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas of science and engineering that should be built on at each grade level. The elementary classroom should provide the early experiences to build this foundation.

A Framework for K–12 Science Education (NRC, 2012) highlights the NRC’s (2007) report Taking Science to School, which concludes that developing competence in science is multifaceted and requires a wide range of experiences to support students’ learning. This report provides four threads of classroom instruction that should be sustained and interwoven to advance successful science learning:

  1. Knowing, using, and interpreting scientific explanations of the natural world.
  2. Generating and evaluating scientific evidence and explanations.
  3. Understanding the nature and development of scientific knowledge.
  4. Participating productively in scientific practices and discourse.

These classroom threads and the emphasis on connecting the specialized science of the disciplinary core ideas of the Framework provide a new structure for teacher education programs, especially for elementary preservice teachers. Traditionally and currently, elementary teachers are prepared as generalists. This “generalist” preparation requires preservice teachers to learn and practice strategies for teaching all subjects. This traditional method of preparing teachers does not allow time to address the specific disciplinary core ideas of science or the varying pedagogical approaches best suited for teaching elementary science.

To address this concern, science educators at a southeastern university developed an elementary science concentration (ESC) for elementary majors. The ESC includes three discipline-specific courses (physical, life, and Earth science) along with two methods courses (formal and informal) taught by science education professors. The design of the ESC includes the following components: (a) discipline-specific content, (b) specialized methods for teaching each disciplinary core idea of science in elementary school, (c) application of meaningful field experiences in formal and informal settings, and (d) using a humanistic lens that connects concepts through real-life approaches and problems in science (Kier & Lee, 2017). The 18-hour coursework includes a one-semester course of science (e.g., biology, physics, or geology) within the College of Arts and Sciences. Then preservice teachers take the specialized content and pedagogically focused courses (e.g., physical, life and Earth sciences) during the first and second semesters of their sophomore year. The specialized content courses have a similar design and assignments. After completion of the specialized content courses, we require a general science methods course during the junior year (a requirement for all elementary education majors), which focuses on teaching science in a formal school setting. Then, as a capstone course in their senior year, students take an informal science methods course, which focuses on designing events and teaching science in informal settings.

In this article, we (two science educators) outline the structure of the ESC specialized content courses by providing a snapshot of one course, physical science. In this snapshot, we explain key assignments we developed to support elementary preservice teachers’ (EPSTs) understanding of the disciplinary core idea of energy. We also describe how these content courses provide a foundation for the methods courses. A brief overview of the methods courses follows.

ESC content course design

The three elementary science content (15-week) semester courses of the ESC (physical, life, and Earth) are divided into four content modules aligned with the disciplinary core ideas of the Framework (NRC, 2012) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States, 2013). To provide an example, we discuss how one of our courses, physical science, is designed to help prepare EPSTs to implement NGSS in the classroom.

The physical science course is divided into the following four disciplinary core ideas as modules: PS1: Matter and Its Interactions; PS2: Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions; PS3: Energy; and PS4: Waves and Their Applications in Technologies for Information Transfer. Through our assignments and modeling of effective teaching practices, EPSTs explore the disciplinary core ideas within each module. To assist EPSTs in their growth as learners and as future teachers, they complete a science notebook entry for each investigation (Assignment 1). At the end of each module, EPSTs complete two assignments, a science talk (Assignment 2) and a quiz (Assignment 3). We use quizzes as a summative assessment of each disciplinary core idea and a final exam as a comprehensive summative evaluation. These assignments are designed to address the need to deepen EPSTs’ understanding of discipline-specific science content, exemplify best teaching practices, and demonstrate their application in an elementary classroom. In this article, we explain the assignments used for teaching the disciplinary core idea of energy in our physical science course.

EPST Assignment 1: Science notebooks

Throughout the semester, EPSTs participate in science investigations for which they submit individual science notebooks. Science notebooks are used in elementary classrooms as a means to engage students with scientific practices (Fulton & Campbell, 2014) and to use science as a language. EPSTs maintain a science notebook for several purposes. First, notebooking requires EPSTs to use the language of science by documenting investigations as they record observations, thoughts, and data as scientists do. As they write, they engage in the scientific practices of making and defending claims, engaging in argumentation based on evidence and communicating their findings (Fulton, 2017). The final section of the notebook, “Connections,” requires that students connect their understanding of the science content explored in the investigation to the assigned readings from our text, Science Matters (Hazen & Trefil, 2009; see Appendix A for a sample science notebook entry, available at ). Second, science notebooks are modeled in the content courses as pedagogical tools to assess student learning (Fulton & Campbell, 2014). In the formal methods course, EPSTs develop and implement science notebooks to document and assess student understanding. Finally, we use science notebooks to help EPSTs synthesize the four classroom threads of proficiency that support successful learning of science as mentioned in our introduction (NRC, 2007, 2012).

In the physical science module on energy, EPSTs explore energy transformations in several investigations. For example, to investigate methods of heat transfer and properties of insulators and conductors, EPSTs research heat transfer and solar oven design, then build and use their solar oven to melt a s’more. In their science notebook, EPSTs identify how heat is transferred from the lamp and throughout the oven. Through comparisons of group designs and results, EPSTs confer with each other (see Figures 1 and 2) to determine which design features result in greater temperature rise. Appendix A (available at ) documents this investigation denoting key observations and times when the design alterations result in temperature change.

Elementary preservice teachers designing solar ovens. Photo courtesy of the author.

Elementary preservice teachers designing solar ovens. Photo courtesy of the author.

Elementary preservice teachers redesigning solar ovens. Photo courtesy of the author.

Elementary preservice teachers redesigning solar ovens. Photo courtesy of the author.

EPST Assignment 2: Science talks

Academically productive talk is identified as one of the four classroom threads that support successful science learning (NRC, 2007). Through our experiences with EPSTs we have learned that EPSTs lack effective discourse skills and need structured support to develop them. To better prepare EPSTs for the challenge of creating effective student discourse, we developed a science talks assignment.

During each content (disciplinary core idea) module, EPSTs in the three ESC content courses prepare, facilitate, and reflect on one roundtable discussion called a science talk that they facilitate for a group of six to eight peers. Facilitators are provided with an assigned Page Keeley assessment probe that includes a scenario focused on student misconceptions and preconceptions (Keeley, Eberle, & Farrin, 2005) of the disciplinary core idea being studied. Appendix B (available at ) is an example of a talk plan assignment on the disciplinary core ideas of conservation of energy and energy transfer using the Keeley probe, Apple in the Dark. Prior to leading a 20-minute talk, EPSTs research and document their understanding of the science content related to the probe and develop a talk plan, including questions they plan to ask. EPSTs cite talk moves they will use to engage their peers in the discussion (Duschl, 2008). Talk moves are pedagogical tools to navigate and promote effective discourse such as revoicing, restating, and asking students to apply their own reasoning to a peer’s response. Talk moves are used to make student thinking visible and to encourage peer–peer interaction. In addition to talk moves, EPSTs use “map out” questions to guide the exploration and discussion of any findings. To encourage thoughtful questioning, EPSTs label their questions as high and low cognitive demand and provide desired responses. After the talk, EPSTs view and reflect on the videos of their own talk as well as those of their peers.

Following a year of implementation, we have seen growth in EPSTs’ abilities to lead discussions of NGSS core ideas. From EPSTs’ science talk reflections and from reviewing science talk transcripts, they identify and effectively use talk moves and strategies to promote discussion. They also comment on the many challenges of leading discourse as well as their increased confidence in leading such science talks. Students often reflected on their growth, as evidenced by comments such as, “For example, when determining if some of the items on the list represented melting, we would give our reasoning, and she would then help us decide if our reasoning was accurate or not, by guiding us to the answer” and “I was unsure of how the talks would go, but I actually ended up taking a lot of new teaching techniques out of it.” In a pre- and post-survey of discourse skills, EPSTs reported prior to the course that only 19% were confident in their abilities to effectively use talk moves, whereas at the end of the semester, 76% reported confidence in using talk moves, a fourfold increase.

EPST Assignment 3: Summative assessments

To assess student understanding of concepts within the disciplinary core ideas, we use their science notebook entries within each module and require a quiz at the end of each of the four modules as well as a cumulative final exam. In addition to providing a summative assessment of our coursework, this type of assessment prepares students for the science content tests required for their teaching license. Quizzes are focused on science misconceptions and application of concepts.

Formal science methods course

During the third year, after the three content courses, EPSTs take the required general elementary science methods course as part of the ESC. This course focuses on state and national science standards, content, and methodology of teaching science. The major component of the course is the formal teaching experience in the local elementary schools.

The formal methods course reflects the eight scientific and engineering practices of NGSS. We use the following four practices: (a) planning and carrying out investigations, (b) developing and using models, (c) constructing explanations and communicating information (science discourse), and (d) engineering design process (defining problems and designing solutions) as a way for preservice teachers to view multiple teaching approaches for teaching science. For each of the four practices, we model a lesson emphasizing that particular practice and demonstrate how to integrate other practices while learning the science content. EPSTs document their work and their understanding of the practice in a science notebook entry. Then as a group EPSTs create a lesson based on a state science standard using each of the four practices and develop a science notebook template for each lesson. EPSTs use the science notebook templates in their own lessons as assessment tools for documenting student learning.

There are national concerns regarding elementary teachers’ lack of science content and pedagogical content knowledge, which often corresponds to limited amount of science taught in elementary classrooms (Olson, Tippett, Milford, Ohana, & Clough, 2015). Studies have suggested the need for more hours of specialized science training for elementary preservice teachers (Bennett, 2001; Kind, Jones, & Barmby, 2007; Osborne, Simon, & Collins, 2003) to become more confident and comfortable with teaching science. As discussed, EPSTs in the ESC experience the four practices within each of the content courses. For example, EPSTs in the ESC have written science notebook entries on how to plan and carry out investigations while using the engineering design process to build a solar oven. When designing their own lessons in the methods course, EPSTs again use the science notebook template (Appendix A, available at ) as a form of assessment to determine if students have met the learning objectives of lessons they create. EPSTs in the ESC have also designed science talks using models to promote discourse. EPSTs use the practices of promoting discourse in their lessons as well in the methods course. As a result, they have had additional opportunities to develop a more advanced knowledge of science content and pedagogy through our courses. In a previous study, EPSTs reported having more confidence and knowledge of teaching science due to their involvement in the ESC (Kier & Lee, 2017).

Informal science methods course

Informal science education is defined as learning that takes place outside of formal school settings (Rennie, 2007), such as, but not limited to, museums, science and nature centers, afterschool science programs, zoos, and science camps. Studies have shown that when elementary students are engaged in informal science events that are relevant to their lives, illustrate science as challenging and hands-on, and involve the science community as an essential component to the events, students’ interest in science and their aspirations to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers are increased (Sadler, Burgin, McKinney, & Ponjuan, 2010; Thiry, Laursen, & Hunter, 2011). Research has also shown that practicing teaching in informal settings allows preservice teachers to be free of the constraints found in formal classroom settings, including lack of science teaching time, managing large groups, testing regimes, and social pressure to teach in traditional ways (Calabrese Barton, 2000; Luehmann, 2007). For the above reasons, we designed a unique methods course that emphasizes the impact of informal science on students’ learning of science and on preservice teachers’ enjoyment and interest in science and science teaching (Harlow, 2012). The informal course provides them with the opportunity to create, plan, and implement several informal science events for the local community.

The informal science methods course focuses on three overall goals: (a) designing an outdoor environmentally focused learning event, (b) designing science competition events, and (c) engaging the local community in science. Next, we briefly explain how these designed events help us to meet these goals.

Technological devices have detached us (especially children) from our natural world and we (as teachers) need to provide opportunities for students to explore and discover the outdoors (Louv, 2005). To address goal one, EPSTs work with naturalists from the state museum, educators from the wildlife commission, and environmental educators from a local nature science center to design, plan, and implement an outdoor learning event for students at a local nature center. At our event this year, activities included nature walks, exploring rotting logs, and using dip nets for pond study. We discussed how to adapt these lessons for a school campus as well as how to plan nature-based field trips focusing on local natural areas.

Science competitions such as Science Olympiad have been shown to enhance students’ interest, motivation, and engagement in STEM content (Ricks, 2006; Sawyer, 2006). Therefore, the second goal of our informal science course is to expose EPSTs to competitive events such as Science Olympiad. During the course, EPSTs are assigned two Science Olympiad events that involve engineering (e.g., Describe It, Build It or STEM Challenge) and assessing students’ science knowledge (e.g., Backyard Biologist or Data Crunchers). EPSTs lead the class in the various engineering events providing their colleagues with coaching advice for helping students experience success with the event. In addition, EPSTs create an assessment for the knowledge-based event including multiple-choice and short-answer questions and performance tasks. Last year, three events designed by EPSTs were used in the Regional Elementary Science Olympiad competition.

The cumulating task is a family science night, which EPSTs design and implement as a local community science event. EPSTs select a theme and design stations emphasizing scientific concepts and practices around that theme. This year EPSTs designed stations centered on the theme of the history of science. During the planning stage, EPSTs make decisions about how to organize the flow of the stations, the amount of materials needed, how to advertise, and how to engage families in the event. On our final course evaluations, EPSTs comment on how these experiences provided them with confidence in leading such events in the future—for example, “I feel very confident leading a family science night because in the course we actually got to plan one and lead one on at an elementary school”; “I feel confident leading a family science night now, and I could help guide teachers to topics and activities and lead the event”; and “As a teacher I would love to lead informal science events such as family science night and Science Olympiad. I would really feel confident doing this as I have had multiple experiences now with both events.”


In this article we discussed the sequence and design of an ESC focused on specialized content and pedagogical knowledge for teaching elementary science. We used one disciplinary core idea (energy) in physical science to illustrate the design of one module in one content course. The assignments (science notebook, science talk, and summative assessments) combine pedagogy and content of each NGSS disciplinary core idea. In addition to a general formal methods course, we have created an informal science methods course that provides EPSTs with the knowledge of how to implement alternative science opportunities for students and their families that promote student learning and science literacy (Robelen, 2011). The pedagogical strategies presented illustrate best teaching practices from which all learners of science can benefit. We are encouraged that the ESC is helping to create the next generation of science specialists and leaders in elementary science.

Tammy D. Lee ( is an assistant professor and Bonnie Glass is a teaching instructor, both in the Mathemtics, Science, and Instructional Technology Education Department at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.


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