Elementary science materials still lag behind standards. Can free resources help?

Teaching elementary school science can be difficult.

Math and English dominate the schedule in the early grades, often leaving little time for science. .And most elementary teachers have no scientific trainingmeaning there can be a steep learning curve for educators who want to dive deep into scientific topics.

Another hurdle: finding materials that meet these challenges — while also aligning with state standards.

“A lot of teachers here in our public schools feel like they have to create everything from scratch,” said Jennifer Williams, head of the science department at Isidore Newman School, a private, independent school in New Orleans.

An upcoming curriculum project aims to fill this gap.

OpenSciEd, an initiative to provide free, open-source teaching materials aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards, begins developing elementary units to complement its growing base of middle school lessons. The group plans to start rolling out the units in the next few years.

Developed by a collaboration of states and science education organizations, the Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS, were released in 2014. Since then, 20 states and the District of Columbia have adopted them, and 24 states have developed their own standards based on this framework.

But elemental materials are still “catching up” to these new standards, according to a recent report on the state of the field by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Organizations that review curricula for compliance and ease of use have given strong ratings to only a few products.

In part, this lag between standards and materials development has to do with how different the NGSS are from the way science has been taught in the past, said Vanessa Wohlbrink, associate project director for NextGenScience, a team at the research and consulting organization WestEd that supports implementation. of the standards in the districts.

“Maybe you think you need to renovate your house. But you have to tear this house down and rebuild it,” she said.

Amid big learning changes like this, free curricula can play a big role.

For example: When the Common Core State Standards first came out in early 2010, New York State developed EngageNY, a resource library of aligned materials that teachers can download. In the first few years, the content was downloaded more than 20 million times from teachers in other states in the country.

How NGSS are different from previous ways of teaching science

The Next Generation Science Standards aim to make science something that kids do do, rather than a class where you only learn about what others have done, said Brian Reiser, a professor of learning sciences at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy. The goal is to make science feel connected to students’ lives, he said.

Reiser, whose team at Northwestern led a group of developers creating the OpenSciEd building blocks, also helped develop the science framework that guides NGSS.

A distinctive feature of the new standards is student inquiry. Lessons and modules are designed around phenomena – observed events such as hurricanes or climate change— then have students work to explain using scientific principles. At the same time, they learn how to use the practices that scientists and engineers use in their work.

“With the new way we teach science under the NGSS and with meaning, we have to release control,” said Williams, New Orleans’ science department chair. “It’s a complete mindset shift for our veteran teachers.”

This pedagogy challenge exists at all grade levels, but there are also unique barriers that elementary teachers face in aligning their instruction with the new standards.

As reported by Education Week, primary school teachers often lack in-depth scientific knowledge. Most preparation programs for these teachers do not require coursework in biology, chemistry, or physics.

Elementary school students are also at a different place in their cognitive development than older children. A 5th grader might assess his understanding of a “phenomenon” and then think about what else he needs to know. But that process may need to be simplified for a first-grader, said James Ryan, executive director of OpenSciEd.

“Some of the routines we’ve built into the middle school and high school materials are going to have to be adjusted,” he said.

Finally, there is the obstacle of time: Science often fails in elementary school classrooms, displaced by math and reading—subjects that are the focus of mandatory tests. Only after a school has high test scores in math and English/language arts does it “feel comfortable spending time on science,” Ryan said.

“If a school is struggling and not giving good tests, they double down and spend more time on those subjects — and they do it by abandoning science,” he continued. “And what appears to be a very unfair system.”

Developing “creative” ways to fit science into the school day

The OpenSciEd development team is trying to address these obstacles. For one thing, the units will be designed to help schools be “creative” about fitting science into the curriculum, said Amelia Gottwals, an associate professor of science education at Michigan State University and a member of the development team.

“We’ve been thinking about lessons as components or sections that you can break up to be at different times during the school day,” she said. Some elementary schools have a science block every other day; others alternate weeks of science and social studies time. “We’re trying to create the curriculum that’s usable for all these different models,” she said.

The materials will also integrate numeracy and literacy skills to touch math and ELA standards, as well as those in science. “We’ve found what we can point to is really helpful for administrators [that] out,” Gotwals said. For example, a text set that helps students make sense of a scientific phenomenon can be used as part of a read-aloud unit.

Incorporating more science and social studies into reading periods is an idea that has gained traction in the ELA community as well, among advocates of “knowledge-building curricula.” Studies show that building students’ background knowledge, including key science content such as biology and earth science, can help their reading comprehension when they encounter these topics in other texts.

Incorporating science read-alouds is one way to make more time for science in the day. But Gottwals and Reiser emphasized that this shouldn’t be the only time students are introduced to the subject.

Instead, the text should serve as a way for students to look up the answers to the questions they come up with, Reiser said.

How might an introductory lesson be structured?

Get a 4th grade lesson on how water waves work. The teacher would not begin by describing a model. Instead, Reiser said, the teacher might start the lesson like this: “We’re going to start this part with an interesting story about people who found thousands of bags of Dorito chips washed up on the beach.”

Why—and how—did this happen?

“This conversation raises lots and lots of questions,” Reiser said. To answer some of these questions, students can read a passage about how storms affect wave patterns. Reading serves a purpose.

“We don’t do it because it’s reading time; we don’t do it because it is [about] waves. We do it because we have all these questions,” Reiser said.

The way students record their findings and keep track of the evidence will look different for the youngest students as well, Gottwals said. “With our older students, we can often use print words to help them reflect on their thinking,” she said.

Kids can keep track of their wonderings on a running questions board throughout the block, she said. For students who still cannot read fluently, the team devises other ways to serve the same purpose.

Development of the OpenSciEd units is on a multi-year timeline: The project will not be fully completed until 2026. Teachers will need to modify existing resources to bring them closer to the standards.

And Williams, a science teacher in New Orleans, said she and her colleagues have built place-based phenomena — such as hurricanes, restoration projects or native invasive species — into the lessons they teach. “It shows the kids the real-life connections,” she said.

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