Science Instruction that Engages & Prepares Students for Future Success
Author: Bridget Zahradnik
March 23, 2018
The Changing History
Triceratops, Brontosaurus, 9 planets in the solar system, the sun revolves around the Earth, the world is flat—don’t fall off when you sail to the edge of the ocean. What do all these ideas have in common? They were all prevalent science concepts at one time and were a cornerstone of science instruction.
Well, the triceratops was said to have never existed— yes you read that correctly— neither did the Brontosaurus. But Triceratops is back (as of 2018; he was Torosaurus in 2017), brontosaurus is not so lucky. We all learned “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” to remember the nine planets of the solar system; and then they dropped Pluto. Did you know there is a ninth planet again? A new one has been discovered; it’s called Planet Number 9. The sun does not revolve around the Earth and of course the planet is not flat.
The point is, scientific concepts change as scientists continue to discover more about our world and universe. As a result, science instruction needs to change too—no longer should we just be teaching concepts. Students need to be critical thinkers who can DO science, not just memorize it.
Next Generation Science Standards
The Next Generation Science Standards are aligned around three strands: Disciplinary Core Ideas (scientific concepts), Science and Engineering Practices, and Crosscutting Concepts. Science instruction should revolve around all three strands for a well-balanced science experience. Before we discuss what science instruction should look like in a classroom, it’s important to understand these three strands and how they work together.
The disciplinary core ideas (DCI’s) are defined as: The core ideas all have broad importance within or across science or engineering disciplines, provide a key tool for understanding or investigating complex ideas and solving problems, relate to societal or personal concerns, and can be taught over multiple grade levels at progressive levels of depth and complexity. These are ideas that unlike the list above, will not change: energy, molecules, organisms, matter, and motion, to name a few.
The Science and Engineering Practices are actions (things that students and scientists DO) and is where science class ignites! There are eight practices:
- Asking Questions and Defining Problems
- Developing and Using Models
- Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
- Analyzing and Interpreting Data
- Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking
- Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
- Engaging in Argument from Evidence
- Obtaining, evaluating and communicating information
It’s imperative that these practices not be separated from one another. When students have an opportunity to design an investigation from a problem that has been posed, to collect data, to use mathematics and computation to revise a model or to gather new data and evaluate it to reason a claim— that is a beautiful thing! That’s what scientists and engineers actually do and that’s what our kids should be doing too!
Now we add crosscutting concepts to the mix and our students begin to understand how the world around them works. The seven crosscutting concepts cut across all domains of science. They are:
- Cause and effect
- Scale, proportion, and quantity
- Systems and system models
- Energy and matter
- Structure and function
- Stability and change
When science instruction weaves together disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts, we get a 3-dimensional approach. Gone are the days of memorizing science facts, watching a science demonstration at the front of the class, or watching Bill Nye do the science!
Science class today requires our students to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and engineers–not memorizers of facts (that could potentially change in their lifetime), not passive watchers of science, and certainly not capable of reasoning about the world they inhabit and how it works.
So, what should science instruction look like? First and foremost, science should be engaging! Students should have the ability to solve problems that interest them, have context in their lives, and help them understand natural phenomena. How might the flow of science class compare at the kindergarten level, the 3rd-grade level, the middle school level, and the high school level? Not as different as you might think. Actually, the flow should be consistent at all levels if it is centered around the 3-dimensional approach.
Science instruction should begin with some active investigation or tapping into prior knowledge followed by a question to be answered or a problem to be solved. Students then plan an investigation (or are guided in how to do one) to gather some evidence that will help them answer the question or solve the problem. After obtaining some evidence, students should evaluate the data and determine the next steps— perhaps they need to revisit their model and make changes, or perhaps they need some additional trials. Finally, after evaluation and revision, students can then make a claim that they back up with the evidence gathered from the investigation and the reason why the evidence fits the claim.
Wow! That’s a lot, right? Precisely. We want our students to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. The way we do this is to give them problems to solve and time to work through them— even at the earliest of levels. When we allow students to fumble through an investigation, make and correct mistakes, we help them to revise their thinking and truly learn about the world around them. They cannot get this by watching or memorizing, or even worse yet, not even having a science class or only having it once in a while!
Time spent on science instruction
The amount of time spent on science in an elementary school might shock you. Science gets very little instructional time and unfortunately, that pattern has not changed over multiple years. According to the National Survey of Mathematics and Science, the average number of minutes per day teaching science in grades K-3 has declined from 24 in 2000 to 19 in 2012, and from 31 to 24 in grades 4-6.
Some educators might argue that reading and math take precedence especially in the early elementary years when learning to read is a primary focus. I would contend that much of what is learned in science class transcends science class and helps to develop 21st-century learners.
What skills are needed for 21st-century learning? There are multiple lists, but all of them can agree on these four skills:
- Collaboration and teamwork
- Creativity and imagination
- Critical thinking
Science class is the perfect place for all four skills to be developed. This brings me to the title of this blog: Science Instruction that Engages and Prepares Students for Future Success. By incorporating collaboration and teamwork, creativity and imagination, critical thinking and problem solving, we essentially do both: we bring quality science instruction to the classroom by using a 3-dimensional approach and tap into critical thinking and problem solving as a natural byproduct. We stoke creativity and imagination when we allow students to collaboratively design investigations to discover scientific phenomena.
How do we address giving science class more time especially when it comes to reading and writing as a priority? We read and write in science! Students should be reading about scientific principles and utilizing the reading strategies they have learned to navigate informational text. Students should also be constructing scientific responses. Scientific responses include a claim, evidence, and reasoning. When we ask students to back up their claims with evidence, this mirrors the practice of solving a mathematical equation with your work or citing evidence from a text to confirm a character claim or a persuasive argument.
We can share some of the reading and writing workshop time with science because we will read and write within the science instructional time. When doing so, we will utilize the same strategies that students have been learning during reading and writing workshop. It becomes practical application where students read to learn and write to teach— and that always deserves time!
If ever there was a time to make time for science instruction, it is now! Critical thinkers and problem solvers that work collaboratively around new and creative ideas and solutions equal future success. Tomorrow’s careers demand these skills. Today’s educators are called to deliver. Science class is key!
My final thoughts:
- Make time for science instruction in the day
- Use a 3- dimensional approach to science instruction
- Integrate reading, writing, and mathematical strategies into the science class
- Put the “doing” of science in the hands of the students (No teacher demos or videos!)
And finally, have fun with science and allow your students to have fun with science!
Bridget Zahradnik is a wife, mother, educator, and FranklinCovey consultant for Leader in Me. She is also a community volunteer and elementary science coordinator. She currently teaches 3rd grade in Novi, Michigan at Parkview Elementary where two of her three children attend school. She has a daughter in first grade, a son in third grade and another son in 6th grade. She loves teaching and leading. She aspires to always pass on enthusiasm for learning to all her students and her own children, as well as helping them to find their voices and inspire others to find theirs!