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The mystery of teaching science ... solved!

Hands-on learning is key to engaging middle-schoolers in math and science - and filling the pipeline for careers in related fields.

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 1, 2005

"This class is mad!"

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That's eighth-grader Michelle Morris's high praise for her science teacher. As she and her classmates hover over tables creating models of our solar system using plastic buttons, glue, and paper - a quick exercise to think about the size and distance of the planets - Darren Wells watches his brood make predictable mistakes. But he's relaxed, trusting that the follow-up lessons will stick later because the students are having fun trying to figure things out for themselves now.

"This is a class you can't fall asleep in," Michelle insists. Anthony Rivers, a fellow student at the Timilty Middle School in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood, agrees: "It makes us use our brains.... He even teaches us math," he says with a touch of awe.

Creating such buzz in middle school classrooms is an urgent challenge, many observers say. Without more home-grown scientists, they warn, the United States is in danger of losing its edge in the global competition for innovation. Increasingly, efforts are targeting a younger, more diverse pool of students - aiming to both inspire them and prepare them for the demanding coursework that can lead to a science career.

Just as the US produces top basketball players because such a big pool of children play the game, "everyone needs a positive experience with math and science so you have the richest field of kids who are interested in it," says Dennis Bartels, president of TERC, a nonprofit in Cambridge, Mass., which has spent 40 years working to improve the teaching of these subjects.

There's still a long way to go, according to a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences. Among the concerns it highlights:

• 93 percent of public school students in Grades 5 through 8 learn physical science from teachers who do not have a college major or certification in the subject (based on data from the year 2000).

• For math students, that figure is 69 percent.

• Most K through 6 classrooms have science education for about 16 minutes a day.

Teaching in the younger grades needs to improve, the report says, in order to fulfill the goal of increasing the number of students who take advanced science and math courses in high school. Although educators are divided on how much the federal No Child Left Behind law will help, it is spurring more teachers to take science- and math-certification courses.

The need for home-grown scientists is nothing new to American universities, where a growing portion of science degrees are granted to foreign-born students. Columbia University announced in October that it is working with New York City to create a public school focused on science, math, and engineering for Grades 6 through 12.

Hands-on experience key

A buzzword in the drive to enhance science education is "inquiry-based learning" - giving kids hands-on experiences that tap into their natural curiosity about how the world works.

"The best middle-school teachers present mysteries," Mr. Bartels says. Rather than simply memorizing answers, students learn to ask questions and test ideas - in other words, to think like scientists. He's not touting hands-on experience just for the fun of it. Teachers have to bring the lessons back around to the tools of scientific vocabulary and math formulas, Bartels says. But "the reading assignments make a whole lot more sense when [students'] relationship to science is in the first person."

As a follow-up to the Timilty eighth-graders' recent activity trying to line up the planets, Mr. Wells will have to break the news that their models are wrong: Because the distances between the planets are so large, they can't all fit to scale on a small sheet of paper. But such exercises help his students see that it's OK to learn as they go, he says, and for the next exercise, they'll be armed with new knowledge.