A Plea to My Physics and Physical Science Colleagues: Please Consider Developing an Introductory Physical Science Course Tailored to the Needs of Future Elementary School Teachers

By Darling, Gerald | Journal of College Science Teaching, November-December 2012 | Go to article overview

A Plea to My Physics and Physical Science Colleagues: Please Consider Developing an Introductory Physical Science Course Tailored to the Needs of Future Elementary School Teachers


Darling, Gerald, Journal of College Science Teaching


Having children and being a physics professor, I've become interested in the physics and physical science topics taught in our nation's elementary schools. I was amazed when I read the National Research Council's (1996) National Science Education Standards, specifically the science content standards for grades K-4 (with an eye on what's usually covered in Grade 5 as well, because many elementary schools are K-5). Clearly, someone at the National Research Council has done their homework! This document indicates an extremely well-planned program in science education for our nation's elementary school children. The Physical Science Content Standard B topics include the highlights of any introductory physics course: motion, light, heat, electricity, and magnetism. With force and energy discussed in Grade 5 (or earlier), this is an impressive list. A similar list of well thought-out physical science topics exists in the Earth and Space Sciences Content Standard D: properties of Earth materials, objects in the sky, and changes in the Earth and sky. You can download these impressive standards from http://www.nap.edu/ catalog php?record_id=4962 and examine them for yourself.

Given these impressive lists of physics and physical science topics to be covered in elementary school, I started to wonder: What postsecondary courses in physics and physical science do future elementary teachers take in preparation for teaching these ambitious content standards? When I started to ask my children's teachers, I was astonished to find out that many elementary teachers take only one science content course, and usually not in physics or physical science! I couldn't believe what I was hearing, so I investigated what colleges and universities require for students planning on a career in elementary education. I found that at my institution, as well as at many other colleges and universities, only one science content course, in any science discipline, is required. Now I really became concerned, because I know that very few high school students planning a career in elementary education take high school physics, so in all likelihood, there are many elementary school teachers out there who have never had a postsecondary course in physics (or physical science), nor a high school course in physics!

It became clear to me that we are not preparing our elementary teachers for success: On one hand, the National Research Council has created two wonderful science education content standards drawn from topics in physics and the physical sciences, but on the other hand, many elementary teachers have never had a single course in physics or physical science in their entire postsecondary preparation for teaching. The result of this bewildering policy is that many current elementary teachers have never been exposed to physical science topics that they are required to teach!

With this current policy, we are not only failing our elementary school teachers, but their students as well. At no time has there been a greater need to have physical science literate citizens to make informed and educated decisions about the complex physical science issues that face our society (energy resources, global climate change, technology, a sustainable environment, etc.).

As a science educator, I started to wonder: What could I do to make a difference in preparing these students, so they could succeed as elementary school teachers of physics and physical science? …

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