The Triple Helix @ UChicago

Spring 2014

"Elementary Science Education: No Teacher Left Behind" by Sydney Reitz


An alarming trend has risen: as the need for scientists and engineers increases, elementary science education remains stagnant—and in some cases, it is getting worse. Unprepared teachers who have often studied little to no science themselves are pressed to teach science subjects with which they themselves are unfamiliar, and more alarming yet, class time devoted to science is shrinking nationwide.[1] 

Skills learned throughout elementary school have long been considered the foundation of higher education. For example, the basic essay structure is taught during this time, and students learn information that allows them to expand on this structure and grow as writers throughout their careers. However, studies have shown that students in U.S. schools are far more proficient in English and math than in the sciences early on. Teachers and science institutions nationwide are working hand-in-hand to combat this phenomenon. 

Debbie Leslie, an expert on elementary science education at the University of Chicago’s Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education, attributes this trend to two simple facts: science is not prioritized in classrooms nationwide, and teachers are often unprepared to teach science.[2] 

Elementary science has fallen in priority in the classroom for a wide variety of reasons. On an administrative level, statewide science tests are less frequently administered and scores hold less impact on funding decisions than English or math test scores, leading to less attention in the classroom. In Illinois, statewide science skill evaluations are only administered the fourth grade and then again in the seventh grade, while English and mathematics evaluations are administered during grades three through eight.[3] 

For this reason, teachers and administrators generally allocate fewer classroom minutes to science than to English or math. A study showed that in the 2007-2008 school year, teachers of grades one to four designated 11.7 hours on average to English and Language Arts, while they only designated 2.3 hours to science education per week.[1] 

Additionally, elementary science educators are often not scientists; this experiential discrepancy can lead to educator discomfort, lack of confidence, and a decline in quality of instruction. Bryan Wunar, Director of Community outreach at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (MSI), is a primary coordinator of the MSI’s elementary education outreach program. He speaks to the need to restructure science education and better train teachers.[4] 

Restructuring science education is no small feat. To train good young scientists, educators must understand what needs to be taught, and how to teach it. However, the standards addressing elementary science education until recently were low. In April of 2013, the National Research Council (NRC), the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve, all prominent voices in science education, released the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).[5] The release of the NGSS is an enormous step in creating a standard for how science is taught in elementary schools. Unlike the Common Core curricula which educators are required to follow, these standards are not mandatory but give science educators a concrete framework for educational material. 

Additionally, these standards introduce the concept that scientific inquiry and process are just as important as fact-based knowledge, and explore relationships such as cause and effect and measurements in a wide array of areas. Says Wunar, “The NGSS is a set of educational standards that will help to identify what all kids should know—and what they should know how to do—as a result of science education.” 

However, teachers are already at a disadvantage; few are trained specifically in science education, leaving them to rely upon relics from their own elementary education. The MSI plays an enormous role in promoting the betterment of science education by providing training for teachers. These year-long courses promote science literacy and give educators tools for utilizing the NGSS to become better teachers. 

Furthermore, the MSI provides these educators with the materials needed to not only structure curricula but also allow the students to engage with science, such as magnifying glasses or markers. Wunar emphasizes that the MSI is invested in teaching “habits of mind and practices used by scientists rather than a set of facts.” The courses and materials are at no cost to educators or the school system; the program is entirely funded by patrons of the MSI. Because resources to fund this program are finite, the MSI targets schools with higher percentages of students eligible for the reduced or free lunches program, a widely used measure of the socioeconomic status of students attending. A recent study showed that there is a 28-point achievement gap on the NAEP Science Scores between fourth-grade children who are and aren’t eligible for free or reduced lunch, with children who are eligible scoring 17% lower on average than children who aren’t eligible.[1] Teachers attend the MSI’s courses in pairs from each school, and 32% of Chicago schools have alumni from the MSI’s program. Wunar and the other members of the MSI’s educational outreach programs aim to enroll teachers from all Chicago public schools. By promoting teacher confidence when addressing science education, the MSI’s outreach program and the NGSS as a pair have the potential to raise the standard for science education, thereby promoting allocation of more classroom minutes to science and increasing child science competency. 

While Wunar and Leslie agree that the need for proficient science teachers is still incredibly high, programs like those at the MSI and other science institutions nationwide are working fervently to better U.S. elementary science education. By increasing inquiry-based science education based on learning as scientists do, Chicago’s MSI and other institutions alike will aid in the burgeoning of a new era in elementary science education.


[1] Rolf K. Blank, “What is the impact of decline in science instructional time in elementary school? Time for elementary instruction has declined, and less time for science is correlated with lower scores on NAEP.” Paper prepared for the Noyce Foundation, 2012. 
[2] Unpublished interview: Debbie, Leslie. Interview by Sydney Reitz. Phone interview. Chicago, May 9, 2014. 
[3] Illinois State Board of Education. 2013. Illinois Standards Achievement Test: Interpretive Guide. New Jersey: Pearson. 
[4] Unpublished interview: Wunar, Bryan. Interview by Sydney Reitz. Phone interview. Chicago, May 8, 2014. 
[5] Next Generation Science Standards. 2014. “Development overview.” Last modified 2014.

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