Elementary Science Education in the K-12 System

Article excerpt

"Any collection of things that have some influence on one another can be thought of as a system. Thinking of a collection of things as a system draws our attention to what needs to be included among the parts to make sense of it, to how its parts interact with one another, and to how the system as a whole relates to other systems."--American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 1989, p. 166.

An essential component of higher-level thinking is the ability to think about systems--how parts relate to one another and to the whole. Systems thinking can help us see and understand science education in new ways. This is why one of the goals of my presidency, a goal also shared by current NSTA President Pat Shane, is to take a K-12 system approach to supporting the need for high-quality elementary science education in every school district.

Elementary science is a critical part of the K-12 science education system. Tragically, the enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has greatly diminished the time spent on teaching science in many elementary schools. In some schools that have not attained adequate yearly progress (AYP) status, science is not taught at all, and teachers are told point blank not to teach science so they can spend more time on reading and mathematics. The good intentions of NCLB eroded the fundamental foundation for science in our K-12 education system. One of the crucial parts for a fully functioning system is missing or damaged.

Learning in science begins in early childhood. This is a time when young minds are curious about science and ready to engage in the practices and language of science that form a foundation to be built upon and strengthened throughout a student's K-12 education. Young children bring to science views of the natural world and ways of thinking that have a major impact on their learning as they progress from one grade level to the next. Ignoring these ideas and delaying the development of science language and practices until students formally encounter science in middle school certainly violates what we know about systems: If one part is missing, it affects the other parts of the system.

"Something may not work as well (or at all) if a part of it is missing, broken, worn out, mismatched, or misconnected."--(AAAS 1994, p. 264).

We know science education is not working well for many students in the United States. We also know our system of education is strongly connected to our ability to compete in an increasingly global economy dependent on highly skilled workers in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Strategies in the past few years have included funneling more funds into Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses in high schools, undergraduate, and graduate education; recruiting qualified secondary science teachers; and increasing the rigor of middle level classes. These strategies might work if they match well with the other parts of the system. However, we can't expect students who have missed six years of science to suddenly be prepared to take on more demanding opportunities to learn science in middle and high school. All the parts of the system that should include the K-6 years of knowledge and skill building are not there to support the cumulative steps that contribute to high levels of learning.

When we look at the progression of learning over time, starting with fundamental ideas and skills developed in preK-2 and built throughout the elementary years, teachers are often surprised to find middle school and high school students have major misconceptions about fundamental ideas developed early on that went unchallenged through school. …