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Status of science education in SF Bay Area elementary schools

November 6, 2007

News like this is both sad and frustrating.

A study done by the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California conducted a survey asking more than 80 school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area about the state of science education at their school. Here are some of the unfortunate findings:

  • About 16 percent of the elementary teachers said they spent no time on science at all. (Most taught at schools that had missed the reading and math benchmarks of No Child Left Behind and were trying to catch up.)

  • Most kindergarten to fifth-grade students typically had science instruction no more than twice a week.

  • Ten times as many teachers said they felt unprepared to teach science (41 percent) than felt unprepared to teach math (4 percent) or reading (4 percent).

  • Fewer than half of Bay Area fifth-graders (47 percent) scored at grade level or above on last spring’s California Standards Test in science. (Only fifth-graders are tested in science at the elementary level.)

I haven’t had the time to read the entire report. The above bullet points are from a news report in the SF Chronicle. The study does have a section titled “Growing Potential for Improvement”…hopefully there are some good ideas in there.

I’m sure some of the other geo-bloggers who are active science educators may have some thoughts about this problem. It seems to me that those of us who run the gauntlet of getting a graduate degree in science aren’t very likely to pursue a career as an elementary school teacher. Some of us might…but, my guess is that the vast majority of us that go into science education will do so at a level where they can utilize their expertise. An elementary school teacher needs to teach everything, not just science.

There are numerous ideas out there for ways to solve these problems…feel free to put some down in the comments.


11 Comments leave one →
  1. November 6, 2007 11:55 am


    But not surprising.

    My Earth Systems Science class is one – just one – of the options for the elementary education major here. One semester to take the students from a phobia of science to the ability to teach it with creativity and passion. It is not enough time, not nearly enough time to make a real difference, regardless of how well I teach.

    A few years ago, one of the geology majors decided that she wanted to be an elementary teacher. She had to nearly start over – very few of her science classes fit into the requirements of the major.

    And then continuing education credits are required to be at the graduate level… when the teachers would be well served by taking, say, Historical Geology or Paleontology or Geomorphology or Plate Tectonics. Do we give graduate credit for undergraduate-level classes? I think, somehow, we need to, because we’ve got to help the teachers get more comfortable with science.

  2. November 6, 2007 10:50 pm

    I saw that and immediately thought “oh, so this is why my students are all dumb as posts!”. I’m a horrible person.

    You wouldn’t want me in an elementary school classroom (see: horrible person – I need an age group capable of appreciating sarcasm) but I’ve been sort of half-assedly looking into ways to get paid for teaching the teachers, or helping to write curriculum. Haven’t turned up much, other than the vague sense that doing what I want would require an awful lot of entrepreneurial grant-writing. It’s also hard to establish credibility with teachers if you don’t have classroom experience – sure, I can make lofty pronouncements about how science should be taught, but would my lesson plans actually work?

    It’s easy to stand and yell “more science! MOAR!1!” – but I don’t know what I would take out to make room, other than getting rid of NCLB (and other high-stakes testing) so that schools/teachers have more freedom to follow their students’ interests and needs.

  3. November 7, 2007 12:06 am

    Kim says: “…when the teachers would be well served by taking, say, Historical Geology or Paleontology or Geomorphology or Plate Tectonics.”
    Should we be developing/teaching courses that are specifically geared towards teachers, and not undergrads?

    Yami says: “…teaching the teachers, or helping to write curriculum”
    It seems like this approach will get more traction as time goes on. Especially if there are people willing to put the effort into making it their career. It seems logical to me…we can’t expect elementary school teachers to not only be fluent across the whole of science, but also keep up with new goings-on in research. Why not have programs that teach teachers?

    Yami also says: “getting rid of NCLB”
    You’ll notice in that SF Chronicle article that NCLB was cited as one of the big problems by at least one educator.

  4. November 7, 2007 6:23 am

    Maybe we should have a look at some curriculum requirements when we’re next starved of post ideas…

  5. Dr. Friday Glasses permalink
    November 7, 2007 10:33 am

    I’m so glad that this discussion is happening! It is obviously very frustrating and it is easy to feel like we can’t do anything about it. I have worked with a couple of Bay Area organizations that are doing great things to improve the science understanding of K-12 teachers.

    They are able to function because scientists are willing to lend their time and expertise to the cause. Science museums also typically hold summer/weekend teacher workshops. I encourage you to seek out organizations in your area; its amazing what’s already out there.

    There is also quite a bit of NSF money available for people at the university level that want to work on K-12 programs. These are in the form of both grants for specific teacher professional development projects and outreach components to major scientific research grants.

    Yes, the stats are abysmal. Yes, you can do something about it. I’ve seen 1st grade teachers go from zero confidence to “I can’t wait to get back to my classroom and share my new knowledge with my students” in one week.

  6. November 7, 2007 12:41 pm

    I agree with many of the posts, but I don’t believe the issue is entirely related to whether elementary/secondary educators are exposed to science and geology, so much as whether they’ve had to develop spatial and temporal skill sets. It’s one thing to present and teach ‘science’ but unless some kind of intellectual framework exists for integrating that material into a knowledge base, it does seem like an uphill battle. So should the burden be solely placed on science teachers or should vast tracts of curriculum be re-envisioned? They take history, they take art, and most students take a language. All three disciplines that require spatial and temporal abilities, yet many students have abysmal understanding of geography and historical time lines (e.g. – Romans vs. Egyptians or cotton gin vs. steam engine, etc). Those same skills are translated into Earth Science, as well as other sciences, and so I think we need to look at the bigger issues of curricula, rather than focus in on primary and secondary science education… just my 2 cents. :)

  7. November 7, 2007 3:09 pm

    “…so I think we need to look at the bigger issues of curricula”

    Agreed. But, if we were to all sit down and agree what the big issues are regarding curricula, and then agree what ideally needs to happen, what are the steps towards implementing them?

  8. November 7, 2007 5:23 pm

    In reading the SF Chronicle article the most disturbing figure to me was the number of teachers who feel uncomfortable teaching science. Alas, neither was it surprising, given what I’ve seen of education majors passing through my intro geology classes. Although a number of my best intro students were education majors, a 40% science phobia rate seems sadly accurate. And that’s the among the education students that even take geology classes. I hope that I’ve had an impact in reversing that phobia for at least some of them, but I don’t know that I could say that with a great deal of certainty.

    Recently, I have had the opportunity to teach education students at the graduate level and in continuing education units. This has generally been very rewarding, as most teachers that enroll in these programs are eager learners, but even here some carry an obstinate science phobia. Nonetheless, I do feel that I am helping to make a difference by teaching these classes. I’m actually a co-investigator on a grant funded through ESSEA to teach classes for in-service grade school teachers. This semester I taught a one month unit on Global Climate Change and next spring I’ll be teaching a full semester course with three units dealing with hurricanes and volcanoes. In past summers I’ve actually taught continuing education workshops that were funded through NCLB, so even though I recognize the problems associated with its standardized testing regimen I can’t say it’s been a completely negative program.

    Still, the issues raised here are bigger than all of this. I think that our society fundamentally undervalues geoscience education, especially at the secondary level, with serious repercussions for collegiate geoscience departments and broader implications for democratic decision making on issues of public policy that ought to be informed by scientific studies. This is not a problem that is likely to be fixed quickly, despite our best intentions and efforts. I think that addressing the shortcomings of the education system is just part of the cure. A larger goal is to increase the societal understanding of geology and the sciences and their impact on our standard of living. This is one of the areas that I believe that blogging can be helpful and I think that ChrisR is onto something in suggesting that we perhaps take this issue up in one of our future Accretionary Wedge installments.

  9. November 7, 2007 7:23 pm

    Dr. FG…thanks for that list!

  10. November 7, 2007 10:47 pm

    Ron…sorry your comment didn’t come up for a while…it got caught in my spam filter for some reason.

    You raise some very big points w/r/t the undervaluing of earth science in society. What’s the saying — ‘we learn geology the day after the earthquake’

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