Science Education: What Happened to Science Class?

By Judy Molland

Science instruction has taken a back seat in elementary school classrooms for several years now.

Teachers point to several reasons why:

• The No Child Left Behind education law has forced them to focus more time and energy on math, reading and English instruction. Until NCLB mandated science testing this school year, math, reading and English were the subjects that required standardized testing.
“The competing pressures of No Child Left Behind have made it virtually impossible to devote enough time to science,” says fourth-grade teacher Linda Fleming.

Victoria Nilsson, the mother of a fifth-grader, echoes the sentiments of many parents. “When my daughter is excited about something, she tells me. The only time I heard about science is when it’s time for the science fair – and that project is completely unrelated to any curriculum as far as I can see,” Nilsson says.

• Kids are spending less and less time outside, resulting in what some call a “nature deficit” and a lack of interest in learning about our natural world, says Janice Koch, Ph.D., a professor of science education at Hofstra University.

• Nationally, there is a lack of urgency around the importance of science education, and given the high stakes of remaining competitive in a global economy, “that is scary!” Koch says. She points to President Bush’s 2006 State of the Union address, in which he called for an “American Competitiveness Initiative” with the goal of encouraging more children to pursue math and science. The initiative has yet to receive federal funding.

• Many teachers feel under trained in science and are “hesitant about emphasizing it in their classrooms,” notes Harold Pratt, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Along with other science educators, Pratt points out that excellent instruction in science means a lot more than enforced rote memorization from a book. It means hands-on experiments, problem-solving and learning by doing.

“When I was a little kid,” says sixth-grader Eva Fernandez, “I hated science because the teacher talked too much and I got bored. Now we get to do stuff in class, and I can learn it in a snap.”

The Crisis in Science Education is a 4-part feature

Confronting the Crisis
What Happened to Science Class?
What’s Being Done About the Crisis in Science Education
What You Can Do about the Crisis in Science Education: Three Steps to Science Learning