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In elementary education, ‘doing science’ rather than just memorizing it

June 21, 2016 at 8:00 PM EDT
The battle over Common Core education standards is playing out across the country, but a new set of requirements for teaching science is creeping into curricula without the same fanfare. Some states are voluntarily adopting the practices, which emphasize more consistent science instruction as well as hands-on experimentation. Special correspondent John Tulenko of Education Week reports.
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GWEN IFILL: But, first: For years, Common Core academic standards for math and English have been the subject of battles all over the country.

But there’s also a move afoot to set new standards for science as well, and a number of states are starting to adopt them voluntarily.

Special correspondent John Tulenko of Education Week reports.

JOHN TULENKO: It takes just 10 minutes to cross through Gillette, Wyoming. This small city sits in the northeast corner of the state, surrounded by hundreds of miles of prairie.

But schools here in Campbell County are on the edge of something big, the next generation science standards.

CHRISTY MATHES, Sage Valley Junior High School: You are going to build a strand of DNA, and you are going to decode it and figure out what that DNA actually says.

JOHN TULENKO: For Christy Mathes at Sage Valley Junior High School, the new standards are about learning to think like a scientist.

CHRISTY MATHES: There’s a lot of really good stuff in them. Every standard is a performance task. It’s not, the child needs to memorize these things. It’s the student needs to be able to do some pretty intense stuff. We are analyzing, we are critiquing, we are creating, we are actually doing the science.

JOHN TULENKO: Take today’s lesson on genes. Mathes had her students pick fictional character cards with the name, height, hair and eye color of each character.

CHRISTY MATHES: This is a secret. Just you and your group know.

JOHN TULENKO: In teams, they built a genetic model of their character’s traits and then the groups traded models.

CHRISTY MATHES: And then they’re going to figure out who you had based on what you code for.

JOHN TULENKO: OK, so orange, red, red represents what?

STUDENT: She has blue eyes.

JOHN TULENKO: Blue eyes.

What did you grasp about genetics from doing this exercise today?

STUDENT: That there are so different many parts of genetics that go into so many different things. Something as small as like the size of a gene, it’s really, really small. It can change drastically how your life turns out.

JOHN TULENKO: Developed by the National Academy of Sciences and others, the next generation standards are more comprehensive than what teachers here had been using.

MICHAEL MAHONEY, Sage Valley Junior High School: You might have had a teacher that liked a dinosaur unit, and they threw it out in the 2nd grade, and then the same unit get taught in the 3rd grade and in the 4th grade, and you’re like, well, I know a lot about dinosaurs.

JOHN TULENKO: Before the new standards, middle school teachers like Mike Mahoney were left to fill the gaps.

MICHAEL MAHONEY: I would always have to start at the — like nobody knew anything, at the very beginning: What is science? And it’s kind of tough to get into a lot of the different curriculum things that you want to teach when you have to spend so much time just on the basics.

JOHN TULENKO: The new standards brought more structure, spelling out for the first time what should be taught, grade by grade, in elementary school.

CHRISTY MATHES: Every 5th grader is going to have this experience. Every 4th grader is going to have this experience. Then those kids come to junior high and it’s not a catch-up game. You know, what did you miss? What did you get? What do I need to do? They are always building on what came before and what comes next.

JOHN TULENKO: In Wyoming, Campbell County is leading the way with these standards, which the state has yet to adopt officially; 17 other states are already on board, accounting for an estimated 35 percent of public school students nationwide.

David Evans heads the National Association of Science Teachers.

DAVID EVANS, Executive Director, National Association of Science Teachers: I think that the most important reason for developing new standards is that we have actually learned a lot about the way children learn. And children learn science best by actually doing it.

JOHN TULENKO: So far, there’s been little pushback. Unlike the Common Core, there aren’t yet state-level science tests to hold schools and teachers accountable, and the federal role has been different too.

DAVID EVANS: The federal government and the Department of Education really hasn’t had anything to do with the next generation science standards. It’s really just that simple. There have not been strong incentives and there hasn’t been any arm-twisting.

JOHN TULENKO: But these new standards still have a long way to go.

DAVID EVANS: There’s an established line of data right now that documents the fact that we’re not spending very much time teaching science in elementary school.

JOHN TULENKO: Nationwide, schools spend 143 minutes a day on math and reading, but only 20 minutes on science. And there’s another big concern.

DAVID EVANS: The majority of elementary school teachers don’t feel comfortable teaching science. Most elementary school teachers don’t receive a lot of preparation in science itself or in science education.

WOMAN: So how does the light travel?

JOHN TULENKO: To help its teachers, Campbell County is using a federal grant worth just under a million dollars to develop new lessons for every grade.

Jamie Howe teaches 4th grade.

JAMIE HOWE, Paintbrush Elementary School: I have learned to step back and let their exploration take over. And, before, you know, you would always want to help them and guide them and tell them what the answer should be. So I have had to learn to step back and let them be in charge.

STUDENT: We got it.

JOHN TULENKO: That’s Gillette, a good-size city for Wyoming. But the rest of the state looks more like this, tons of open space and very few people. That means the schools out here are often very small, and they face a unique set of challenges in implementing next generation science standards.

Wright Junior Senior High School, 40 miles south of Gillette, is a good example. It has some 200 students and only three science teachers.

SARAH SEAMANDS, Wright Junior Senior High School: One guy teaches 7th and 8th grade. One guy teaches 9, 10. I teach 11 and 12.

Have you guys converted Celsius to kelvins?

JOHN TULENKO: Small schools like Sarah Seamands’ can’t support having specialists to teach just biology or physics. She has to do it all.

How many subjects do you teach here?

SARAH SEAMANDS: I teach four subjects. I teach anatomy, chemistry, environmental science, and physics.

JOHN TULENKO: What’s that like for you?

SARAH SEAMANDS: It’s challenging. Some weeks, I nail the chemistry and physics and maybe environmental science, and then, my anatomy class, I neglect them.

So then I got to do really interesting things with anatomy, and then my chemistry class kind of falls off. At least, that’s how I feel.

JOHN TULENKO: With the new standards, teachers like Seamands will have to change not in one subject, but four.

SARAH SEAMANDS: They have just told us it’s coming, that it’s in — it’s on its way, and be prepared, because things are going to change.

JOHN TULENKO: Ready or not, Wyoming is on the verge of adopting the new standards statewide, but with one big exception.

This is coal country, and officials removed language that had emphasized the major role of human activities, such as fossil fuel combustion, when teaching students about the causes of global warming.

DAVID EVANS: Changing the standards to prevent teachers from teaching what is clearly scientifically accepted documented information is unfortunate.

But the practices of science and the way that science is done and teaching students to be able to go out and ask their own questions, collect the evidence, and know how to engage in a scientific argument is very encouraging.

JOHN TULENKO: Today, Wyoming has put its modified standards out for public review. They could make it to the governor’s desk for approval by late fall.

In Campbell County, Wyoming, I’m John Tulenko of Education Week, reporting for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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