How university courses were integrated into a more meaningful experience for preservice teachers
Science and Children—May/June 2022 (Volume 59, Issue 5)
By Lisa Douglass, Cherry Steffen, and David Pownell
School districts face difficult curricular decisions every day. With shrinking budgets and an emphasis on reading and mathematics test scores, many schools have opted to decrease instruction time in science from elementary school classrooms. In an age of increased academic accountability, the argument to limit science education in the elementary grades is predicated on the belief that reading and math instruction must take precedence over the perceived peripheral subject. The Education Commission of the United States (2017) found in their study that, “Only about half of the nation’s fourth-graders do hands-on science activities at least once a week, and only one in four have teachers who focus on inquiry skills.”
In more recent times, there is a push to view STEM education in a more integrated fashion, one that represents STEM in the “real world.” While a more traditional curriculum design may make sense in some cases at the high school level, it would seem that elementary and early childhood education should not only provide students with opportunities to learn the required content, but also to be able to view the world from a STEM lens to solve real-world problems. While doing this, we, as educators, are preparing our students for the future workforce. Understanding and solving real-world problems cannot take place in a silo. It must be done in an integrated fashion to ensure that students have a 21st-century perspective as they prepare for STEM careers in the future. Implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards has helped to provide a more integrated view of STEM education. With the inclusion of engineering practices and links to the Common Core standards, this is more visible and helps to provide a roadmap for teaching science beyond the silo of one content area.
As teacher educators working with preservice elementary and early childhood education majors, we began to examine our own curriculum. We found we were doing little to integrate content in meaningful ways. Our students took a semester of math methods, a semester of science methods, a semester of reading and language arts methods, and a semester of social studies methods. However, none of our methods content was integrated in a significant manner. We asked ourselves, “How will our students integrate their content into their teaching when we have failed to model the practice with them?”
The genesis of this project was our desire to integrate the curriculum in our teacher education program. We started by selecting our elementary math and science methods courses as a kickoff point for experimentation; we also added technology to enhance the curriculum. We felt the need to find creative ways to bring content and pedagogy alive in the college classroom if we are to produce teachers who are up to meeting the challenges of the field. Accordingly, we set out to create a partnership between the math, science, and technology education professors.
Traditionally, elementary education majors were required to take three credits of both science methods and math methods. In an effort to move toward a more STEM-focused program, the faculty decided that, instead of two separate classes, the science and math methods courses should be taught as one integrated STEM course. With this in mind, the two faculty members along with a third professor with expertise in educational technology combined these two courses to develop a six-credit hour STEM education opportunity that included time in field placements in elementary (K–6) math and science classrooms.
The three professors created a combined syllabus, which included the original objectives from the two classes as well as additional objectives intended to reflect the characteristics of STEM as a way to integrate the content areas. It should be noted that all of the students in the class are required to take several mathematics and science content courses as well as an educational technology class prior to participation in this course.
One of the concerns was the need to ensure that the integrity of the separate courses was maintained while introducing the future teachers to an integrated STEM-focused curriculum. Future teachers need to understand and be able to teach the content on its own before developing the ability to integrate the curriculum. To do this, we adopted a flipped classroom model in which the science and mathematics instructors created online lessons concentrating on the science and mathematics methods independently. Students completed these lessons prior to class; class time was then devoted to discussion of the assignments and modeling STEM units. In addition to the science and mathematics content, many of the units reflect a focus on robotics, CAD, and 3D printing, as well as engineering design. Other content areas were also added to units; for example model units began with children’s literature and include a writing component and social studies was integrated into the unit when applicable. Following each unit, the class held an important discussion regarding how the unit reflected the science and mathematics standards, how it reflected STEM in the classroom, and how it could be adapted to the classroom at multiple grade levels.
To help visualize how this all looks in action, we have outlined a typical unit from our STEM methods classroom. The overall unit is titled “Seed Dispersal,” and we teach it in the STEM methods course as it relates to third grade, but it could be modified for multiple grade levels. This unit is actually intended to be a portion of a larger unit on plants including life cycle, basic needs, parts of the plant, plant reproduction, seed dispersal, and habitats. One of the main goals of the lesson is to integrate the science lesson with content from other STEM areas.
We want to engage our students by exploring plants in the local area. We begin by having students download the “Picture This” App (see Online Resources). The students use the class set of iPads or their own smart phones, download the app, and take pictures of flowers or trees around the school. The app helps students to identify the plants. Afterward, we share their findings on the interactive board, discuss the accuracy and the usefulness in the classroom. It is also a good time to discuss geometry (patterns and shapes) found in nature. This is followed by a brief review of the parts of a plant and basic needs. While this is purely a review for the class, we discuss ways that student learning could be assessed in an elementary classroom. An assessment strategy at this point could be either a traditional short quiz (paper/pencil or online Quizlet (iPad/iPhone) or a short written explanation/diagram developed by individual students on plant parts and/or geometric shapes.
Following the introduction to the unit, we move the discussion to the life cycle of a plant. This includes a discussion of fertilization and development of a seed. As a part of this discussion, we read Achoo! Why Pollen Counts (Bersani 2015).
One major part of the discussion of fertilization is the way that pollen is distributed between different plants. For this section we include some robotics with the class. We begin with the Lego WeDo 2.0 pollinator (Lego Group 2018). Students build the bee model, programming it to stop at the flower to model the movement of pollen from one plant to another. For younger students or those less familiar with coding, Beebots (Terapin Software 2016) are another option. Students can program the Beebots to move from flower to flower in a simulation of moving pollen from one plant to another. This section of the unit provides students with opportunities to both model pollen distribution and to integrate coding into the lesson. Since the completion of the programming requires that students understand how pollen is dispersed, the robotics provide an assessment of understanding of the concepts.
Following the segment of the unit on pollination and seed development, we move to a segment on seed dispersal. At this point, we read Miss Maple’s Seeds (Wheeler 2013). This fantasy-fictional book explores how seeds are dispersed in a fun way. This is a good place to talk about the difference between fiction and nonfiction and how we can use both in the classroom. We discuss the parts of the book that are fantasy and the parts of the book that represent facts about seed dispersal. We use this as an introduction to why seeds disperse and why this is so important. We then go into how seeds are dispersed.
We focus on one specific type of seed dispersal, wind. Students are given the opportunity to explore wind dispersal by using the engineering design process (EDP). We use the EDP with most units, but we review again the basic steps of identifying the problem, imagining solutions, planning a solution, creating a solution, testing it, and then redesigning. We give students some beads (representing seeds) and other miscellaneous art supplies. The problem to be solved is: How can you get the seeds to disperse via wind as far as possible? A hairdryer atop a table serves as the wind. (We discuss possible safety concerns and how teachers should address these with their students. This includes a discussion of using small items such as beads, working with scissors and sharp items to create the seed dispersal mechanism, and using the hairdryer to blow small items around the room.) The students design a dispersal mechanism, test it out, and redesign until we call them back together. Using their best design, we have a contest to see whose seeds travel the farthest by wind. Each group is allowed three attempts. The distance is measured and the numbers are averaged and graphed (both of these mathematical content areas are discussed before implementing). We then discuss what other mathematical content could potentially be done at this point. The students typically come up with: measures of central tendency, basic computation, data analysis, etc. The students would need an individual math assessment at this point on graphs and averages. A short pencil/paper quiz or online Quizlet could provide feedback on individual understanding of the math taught in this part of the unit.
We end every unit in the same manner. We review what encompassed the unit and all of the content that was touched on in each part of the unit. Because this is twofold (students are the learners and students are learning to be the teachers), we discuss the roles of all participants. We talk about how the EDP is so useful to integrate all content and have the students suggest other ways this might happen (i.e., social sciences). Finally, we have them look through the content standards and determine the appropriate age/grade level of the unit. They generally discover that any unit can be adapted for not just different grade levels but for different levels of students within grade levels. The final assessment is the creation of the seed dispersal unit that was tested. To further assess individual students, they would need to write out their learning on the unit as a whole, with guiding questions provided by the teacher. Students work in groups to answer a series of questions including:
Finally, students are also asked to develop an authentic assessment technique to ensure student understanding of the concepts in the unit. (Examples that the students develop include creating an e-book, making up and presenting a skit, or writing a story or poem that traces the life cycle of a plant from pollen dispersal to plant growth.)
With some planning, science can be integrated with current language arts and mathematics curricula to provide meaningful learning experiences that will address all subject areas and streamline classroom time. But what does cross-curricular integration look like? How are units and lessons developed so that they are effectively and meaningfully cross-curricular? The unit described here is one example of how preservice teachers can explore the answers to these questions in a STEM-methods course. It is best to sum this up from the words of some of our students:
“This is an interesting way to integrated content that brought all STEM aspects into it because it involved science, mathematics, and technology through apps, books, class discussions, and experiments.”
“Overall science, technology, engineering, and math were all taught in this unit. And in a fun way! It’s hard to believe how much better it is to learn this way, rather than the way I was taught in school.” ●
Picture This app
Lisa Douglass (email@example.com) is a professor of mathematics education, Cherry Steffen is a professor of science education and department chair, and David Pownell is a professor of technology education, all at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.
Bersani, S. 2015. Achoo! Why pollen counts. New York: Arbordale.
Education Commission of the States. 2017. Will elementary science remain the forgotten stepchild of school reform? Education Commission of the States. http://ecs.force.com/studies/rstempg?id=a0r0g000009TLbJ
Lego Group. 2018. Lego Education WeDo 2.0 Core set. https://education.lego.com/en-us/products/lego-education-wedo-2-0-core-set/45300?cmp=Shop-US-LEWeDo-KAC-Jan-18-WeDo-CPCS-Bing-BrandGeneral-ED-LEGO-&s_kwcid=AL!790!10!81982368987637!81982359181512&ef_id=W9nyKQAAAZtq@@mM:20181031181921:s
Terapin Software. 2016. Bee-Bot and Blue Bot.
Wheeler, E. 2013. Miss Maple’s seeds. New York: Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Young Readers Group.
Wonder Workshop, Inc. 2018. Dot and Blockly. https://www.makewonder.com/robots/dash/
Interdisciplinary STEM Teacher Preparation Elementary
Web SeminarScience Update: The Science of Oil Spill Response and Cleanup, September 28, 2023
Join us on Thursday, September 28, 2023, from 7:00 PM to 8:00 PM ET, for an edition of NSTA’s Science Update. Major oil spills are rare, but...