Exploding science

If you’re a parent, you may know just how important it is to get kids focused on science. Kids know, too, from watching TV shows like Sid the Science Kid and Magic School Bus. But how to get kids the knowledge they need, when science education is hampered by budget cuts?

In WNC, there are science museums brimming with interactive programs and exhibits (Asheville is home to both The Health Adventure and The Colburn Earth Science Museum). There are summer camps and after-school programs and more (UNCA’s Super Saturday and Robotics programs, The WNC Nature Center and Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute are a few local outlets). And, of course, there are our schools, some of which have specific science and technology mandates, including Hall Fletcher Elementary, Evergreen Community Charter School and the School of Inquiry and Life Sciences within Asheville High School (SILSA).

Turns out there are many good reasons to get our kids to focus on the sciences.

Incorrect formula

According to recent research, America’s students lag behind their counterparts in many European and Asian countries when it comes to science and technology.

Results from a national exam reveal that less than a third of U.S. students in fourth, eighth and 12th grade have a solid grasp of age-appropriate science. These scores, from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, were released in January.

While North Carolina’s fourth graders performed on par with the nation’s fourth-graders, the state’s eighth- and 12th-grade students were significantly behind the nation when it comes to science. In fact, the South trails the rest of the country.

Western North Carolina educators offer a couple of different explanations for the dismal test scores of both our nation’s and region’s students on these (and other) science exams.

Many blame the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires testing in math and reading, but not science. Because the results of the testing directly affect each individual school’s funding, teachers feel forced to teach to the tests, often to the detriment of other subjects.

“I think [the low test results in science] are an unintended consequence of the No Child Left Behind testing program,” says Jason Carter, associate director for grades 5-8 at Evergreen Community Charter School. “I think if we don’t test it, we don’t value it as much.”

The U.S. Department of Education administers the National Association of Educational Progress assessment, while North Carolina requires end-of-grade science tests for grades 5 and 8 — but those statewide tests in science were first administered in 2008.

“It’s only been in the past few years that elementary and middle schools have been testing science at all,” says Greg Townsend, principal at SILSA, whose curriculum emphasizes health and life sciences. “The emphasis has been on high-stakes testing in math and reading.”

Educators also note that there are fewer qualified teachers and fewer teacher positions, both of which impact science study. Budget cuts have decreased the number of teacher jobs in North Carolina significantly. These cuts have impelled many teachers to widen their specialties in order to keep their jobs. At the elementary-school level, science teachers are rare. Asheville City Schools employs one science coach for all five of its elementary schools.

And, of course, testing often can only reveal so much in terms of student knowledge and ability. Educators emphasize the importance of learning the scientific method in order to apply its logic to other aspects of school and life.

“It’s not knowledge that’s as important in science. It’s a process and a way to explore the world around you using the scientific method,” explains Carter. “It’s about learning skills that will last way beyond school.”

Inoculating our kids with science not only can help them catch up with the rest of the world’s students, but can offer life-long benefits to them and to our society as they move from the educational world into the work world. From farming to construction work, from law to the health-care profession, ability to apply the scientific method can be key.

“I think that what you learn through the study of inquiry-driven science is process,” says Townsend. “I think it’s essential that we continue to develop the ability of the students to solve problems. This is the challenge we face in all of our educational environments: How do we change what we’re doing in a way that enables students to move forward in a time of uncertain future in terms of career development and nontraditional work? If we can give them the ability to problem-solve in a variety of situations, we’ve developed their capacity to succeed.”

Hungry to get ahead

If many of our schools are failing our kids, with testing mandates and budget cuts, where can parents turn?

There are the previously mentioned extracurricular science programs, one of which, the national Science Olympiad, fields teams from at least 13 Western North Carolina public and independent schools.

Carter co-coaches Evergreen’s Science Olympiad team, which consists of 18 middle-school students who compete in science competitions at the regional, state and national levels. The students spend their Saturdays preparing for both written and experiential tests, which include building actual contraptions and applying the scientific method in situations such as crime solving.

“All the students have to be ready to go into two or three different events,” Carter says. “These competitions really get kids entrenched in science. They’re giving up their Saturdays to do this, and they’re excited and hungry for it.”

Despite the popularity of the program in the state, Governor Beverly Perdue's proposed budget cuts include cutting funding for the Science Olympiad, which could leave the students involved having to raise money to continue competing.

More teachers are working together — across age groups — to support science learning. For example, SILSA technology facilitator and lead teacher Shannon Baggett helped organize a Kids Inquiry Conference between SILSA students and 12 Asheville City Schools elementary classrooms. The SILSA students visited classrooms to work with kids in grades 3 through 5. Then, on March 30, they’ll help the younger students present their science projects at a special event held at UNCA.

There are other regional examples of educators, nonprofits and institutions who are stepping up to the science plate in order to feed that student hunger. Whether or not North Carolina students will catch up to the rest of the U.S., and U.S. students will catch up to the rest of the world, remains to be seen. In the meantime, parents can avail themselves and their progeny of the myriad opportunities in our area. And to quote Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy.”

— Anne Fitten Glenn is an Asheville-based freelance writer.

who: ashevillecityschools.net/schools/sil

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One thought on “Exploding science

  1. Lady L

    This is a very timely article and one that touches on a subject that is more important than many of us realize. I’ll own up to the fact that I am a high school science teacher and so may be a bit biased in my opinions about the importance of science education, but I truly believe that if our students don’t receive a solid grounding in scientific process skills and the critical thinking that working on an experimental design can foster then they will miss out on one of the key aspects of a good education.

    Its been my experience that kids who are taught science as an inquiry-based subject love it. They love the challenge of thinking for themselves, of figuring out how to solve a problem, of learning things for themselves instead of listening to someone tell them the answer. Admittedly, these are really hard skills for the kid who has been taught to be a passive learner to pick up. Most kids who enter my classroom are really good at taking multiple choice tests, because that’s what we have been emphasizing in schools for years. If that’s what it took to be successful in the real world then I’d be all for it, but actual employers and the pressing global issues that we will have to face in the next 50 years are going to require a little more of our students then knowing how to pick the best answer out of four choices. When I ask my students to think it can be quite a shock to them, but once they get over it and realize that I really want them to be active participants in their own learning nine times out of ten they can be successful.

    Science is the magic subject in that you can teach reading, math, and history through the lens of scientific discovery. Elementary teachers, in particular, can use science as the springboard to covering their other goals and objectives. For example, my daughter’s kindergarten teacher does a unit on Monarch butterflys that covers the science aspects (life cycle, ecology, etc) while meeting reading goals (by reading fiction and non-fiction books about butterflys), math goals (by making graphs and counting butterflys as they begin to show up in spring), and social studies/geography goals (by discussing migration routes).

    Somewhere along the way from the 1950s/Sputnik challenge and the push to improve US science we got sidetracked into standardized testing that, when all is said and done, is pretty much useless considering the fact that to make a level 3 on the NC Biology EOC you only have to get something like 30% of the questions right. As a society we need to bring the focus of education back to mastery. Student mastery of goals, objectives, and the ability to communicate their thoughts and ideas through writing and speaking. Life is not about bubbling in little circles and trying to guess you way through a 60 question test. Life, in all its wonder, is about how things work, how things fit together, why things are the way they are. Science is our tool for figuring those things out. Science can be a lot of fun, but what’s even better is that it can be the means to getting us back to where we need to be.

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