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Teaching Teachers

Breathing New Life Into Elementary Science Preservice Teacher Education

Science and Children—July 2018 (Volume 55, Issue 9)

By Taylor J. Mach and Mandy M. Mach

The world of science is becoming increasingly collaborative and multidisciplinary; thus, the needs of students are changing both in the amount and depth of content knowledge and the habits of mind required to succeed in scientific endeavors (NGSS Lead States 2013). Gone are the days of lecture, memorize, regurgitate. However, the bulk of our preservice teachers’ educational experience has been dominated by this outdated approach. We realized that without direct instruction coupled with experiential learning, preservice teachers would default back into this less-than-ideal educational style in their classrooms.

Course Design

After asking ourselves countless questions about what preservice teachers needed to be successful in the science classroom, we decided that we should go broader. We needed to structure the course in a way that creates teachers who have the traits necessary to cultivate the characteristics we want in elementary science learners. This is why we open and close our semester-long course with a focus on Nature of Science with “What is Science?”— an activity where we work out what a scientist is, what a science student is, and what a science teacher is. We draw pictures and label them with adjectives and nouns and then compile a class drawing. There are so many misconceptions about these “simple” questions and overcoming these misconceptions is one of the major goals of our course.

Our brainstorming session ended with a list of concepts to grapple with and a set of activities to demonstrate what is possible in the elementary setting. It takes our preservice teachers off guard on the second day of class when we tell them that our course is not going to tell them how to be the perfect science teacher. Instead, it is going to expose them to a variety of concepts and issues in science education in the hopes that they will become reflective practitioners. Our hope is that by pondering the topics of our course they will build their “educational character” as these deep-seated beliefs are ultimately what will make them the teacher they become.

The full progression of course topics can be found in Table 1, along with the corresponding literacy and daily teaching strategies used in class (see NSTA Connection for descriptions of Table 1 strategies). The standout features of the resulting preservice curriculum are an emphasis on inquiry, utilization of local science resources, and exposure to a plethora of teaching techniques through application to course readings and activities.

Cultivating Growth Mindsets Through Inquiry

We both believe very strongly in constructivism, inquiry, and the 5E instructional model (Bybee et al. 2006). In the first iteration of the redesigned course, we found that while preservice teachers desired a structure for planning lessons, they struggled with the 5E format and understanding what belonged in each section. To help alleviate that, we now introduce the concept of 5E through having the preservice teachers carry out a fourth-grade investigation about erosion written by us in the 5E format. On the day before they do any reading about inquiry and 5E, the preservice teachers work through the lesson in groups. During the lesson they are challenged to protect a city (folded note card) from a deluge of water using two of the provided resources (craft sticks, paper cups, rocks, branches, straws). Their designs and findings are documented via photos and short explanations in electronic notebooks using Notability on iPads. The groups then watch, document, and analyze each group’s successes and failures after the teacher “brings the rain.” They then choose the best and worst design from the class and explain their choices in the e-notebooks. During the Elaborate phase, the students learn that the community sledding hill is suffering from erosion and the city council is seeking proposals for how to save it. The preservice teachers then work in their groups to come up with proposals for how to save the hill. To connect to and extend the experiences from the previous lesson segments, a series of mini-lessons are interspersed throughout group work time. The first connects human-made to natural erosion solutions (plants with roots). The second has students up and moving, acting out several scenarios to help students evaluate the effectiveness and appropriateness (safety considerations) of certain design solutions to the sledding hill problem. Throughout this series of mini-lessons, the designs morph from elaborate schemes with overt water diverters, barriers, and walls, to hills covered with trees, and finally to a mix of low-growing plants with extensive root systems supported by subtle human-made systems. The groups then pitch their ideas and the other groups critique the proposals, culminating with a “city council” vote where the class selects the best proposal.

In the following class period, we work through an explanation of the 5E model and some of the subtleties of the categories. For example, Engage is supposed to be exciting and get the students interested, but more important, it needs to activate prior knowledge in a manner that enables conception remodeling. Then the preservice teachers sort the lesson parts from the previous day into each of the 5Es and discuss why they put each part where they did. This gives the students a chance to see that this format, while being highly structured, is less rigid than preservice teachers often think of lesson plan formats.

The preservice teachers take a lot away from this activity, including a recognition of the possibilities for doing inquiry activities without a lot of fancy supplies. Everything needed for the erosion lesson can be easily and cheaply obtained if it is not already available at the school. Several students also take the lesson into their practicum experiences in one form or another and consistently tell us how much their cooperating teacher and students enjoyed the activity.

The 5E lesson format is a wonderful tool, but structuring things isn’t enough to ensure student learning. We believe that as a teacher you have to believe that the students, ALL students, can improve their understanding, and you have to cultivate the same feelings in ALL students. So alongside the other activities at the beginning of the semester, our preservice teachers read Mindset by Carol Dweck (2016). The concept of student mindset is a consistent theme throughout the remainder of our course, permeating many of the discussions in one way or another. We watch videos useful for developing student mindset and discuss ways to change student language in a way to effect mindset change throughout the course of the school year. We were concerned that the preservice teachers would balk at the requirement to read an entire book in a matter of weeks, but they love it, talk about it, and use the language from it through the remainder of the term.

Table 1

Taking Advantage of Local Science Resources

Field trips are a great way to build student excitement for learning, but more than that, they can provide an impetus for lifelong pursuit in a particular academic area. The teacher’s challenge is ensuring that they also simultaneously serve as a memorable event where understanding of science content was developed. Pulling off a successful field trip involves a multitude of people, careful planning, and thoughtful connection to the inschool curriculum progression. To provide our preservice teachers with as authentic a field trip–planning experience as possible, we elected to leverage our area resources and have the students preview an exhibit at a local science-related museum or activity center. They then had to write a teacher background section about the exhibit, come up with “I can” statements for their students, and design an activity to be completed in the classroom following the field trip (see guidelines in Figure 1). Then, during the portion of our course time spent on management, we work through the other necessary components for pulling off a successful field trip experience (see NSTA Connection for field trip–planning guide).

A great resource in our area is the Jeffers Foundation, a nonprofit environmental education and awareness group. Each semester the folks at the Jeffers Foundation come out and provide a four-hour hands-on training session for our preservice teachers where they learn best practices for taking students outdoors to learn. During the training session, July 2018 85 we bounce from indoors to outdoors and back again learning the techniques by actively doing them. The folks at Jeffers do a wonderful job of providing a balance between direct instruction about how to manage children in a safe and instructionally effective way and engaging the preservice teachers in activities that are directly relevant to the elementary classroom. Despite being an evening session outside of normal class time our preservice teachers love it, some even saying that it is their favorite experience of the semester in all their courses. The preservice teachers also leave the training with their own set of classroom resources and a connection to a great local organization with which to perform further sciencerelated professional development.

Make and Take Teacher Education

In an effort to be as practical as possible, increase the preservice teachers’ exposure to current best practices, and give them a starting set of resources for use in their future classrooms, we structured the course around the following trade books rather than a traditional science methods course textbook. Excluding Mindset, the bulk of the books are published by NSTA Press: Even More Picture-Perfect Science Lessons, NSTA Quick Reference Guide to the NGSS, and Science Formative Assessment Volume 1. To expose them to a great resource for brushing up on their science content, we also have them choose one of the following: Stop Faking It! Energy or Stop Faking It! Force & Motion. At first the students are surprised and concerned about the number and size of the books, but by the end of the semester they are grateful for the practical resources. Many of them even comment that they are actually going to keep the books from our course. In place of the course readings from a traditional science methods text, the preservice teachers read the introductory material from each of the trade books as well as supplementary articles, websites, and blogs that are relevant to each course topic (some of which are listed in the Internet Resources section).

To increase student interaction with the course reading material, we instituted reading accountability assignments. However, instead of doing quizzes or coming to class each day and beginning with discussion, we took this as an opportunity to engage the preservice teachers in literacy strategies that they could use in their future classrooms to help their students make meaning. These strategies included the Frayer model, paragraph shrinking, SQ3R, and many others. To further expose the preservice teachers to instructional methods, we committed to using a different instructional strategy or formative assessment during each course meeting period. By the end of the semester, the students had experienced a total of 24 literacy strategies and 28 instructional strategies. Many of these strategies are listed by name in Table 1 with their associated course topic. So the students might carry their favorite strategies into their future classrooms, we also have a courselong strategy portfolio assignment. In this assignment, the students create an electronic compilation of literacy strategies and formative assessments. They use a template provided by us that requires them to write step-by-step directions that are detailed enough that another teacher would be able to carry out the strategy, create a blackline master, and include student work examples. This is another example of an aspect of the course that at first the students do not appreciate, but in the course evaluations it is almost unanimously the most valuable assignment from the semester.

Our practical approach is especially important for the university students of today. They want to know how this applies to them and their future practice. Theory is important, but in our experience, unless the theory is presented within the context of concrete student learning, the preservice teachers of today do not internalize it. This is why we opted to have our preservice teachers actually do each activity and strategy that we discuss and why we committed to using an instructional strategy ourselves in the course every time we met.


Exhibit Topic Overview

  • Identify common vocabulary
  • Identify common exhibit content misconceptions

Vocabulary Box

  • List and define pertinent vocabulary

Background Information

  • Provide relevant background information about at least three sub areas within your chosen exhibit

Internet Resources

Jeffers Foundation

Literacy Strategies

Notability App

NSTA Connection

Download a field trip–planning guide and descriptions of the strategies in the Supplemental Resources section at the top of the article.


Bybee, R.W., J.A. Taylor, A. Gardner, P.V. Scotter, J.C. Powell, A. Westbrook, and N. Landes. 2006. The BSCS 5E instructional model: Origins, effectiveness, and applications. Colorado Springs, CO: BSCS.

Dweck, C.S., 2016. Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Keeley, P. 2016. Science formative assessment: Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Morgan, E., and K. Ansberry. 2013. Even more picture-perfect science lessons, K–5: Using children’s books to guide inquiry. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Willard, T., 2015. The NSTA quickreference guide to the NGSS: Elementary school. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

5E General Science Inquiry Literacy NGSS Pedagogy Preservice Science Education Teacher Preparation Teaching Strategies Elementary

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