When science teachers know their stuff

Students in science room 809 at the Boston Renaissance Charter School are clustered around tables, squirting water into rain gauges, and discovering what, exactly, defines a gully washer.

There's only one thing unusual about this setup: They have a separate teacher to train them in science, but they're only in the second grade.

It's just one of the tactics schools are implementing to combat Americans' alarming deficiency in science, and the resulting dependency on foreign talent to do technical work.

Educators at Boston Renaissance, which occupies a 16-story downtown building, decided that the traditional elementary pedagogy wasn't working. A teacher shouldn't be expected to teach the constantly changing field of science in addition to math, language, history, and English, they thought. So this year, the school hired three new teachers with strong science backgrounds to teach the subject to Grades 2 through 5.

"Science-only teachers are better equipped to stay abreast of the science curriculum, and to develop students' curiosity, open-mindedness, and persistence - all components that distinguish the scientific thought process," says Headmaster Roger Harris.

Each week, second- through fifth-graders attend three 60-minute science blocks in one of the three science labs. While it's too soon to gauge the effect on academic achievement, the teachers say there's a palpable difference.

"I remember in fourth grade my teacher saying, 'I think we should do science now, because we haven't done it yet this year' - and that was, like, in February," says Julia Thompson, a science specialist who transferred this year from another Boston school. Prior to that job, she was an assistant teacher in two classes at the elementary level, and recalls: "The science kits always sat on the shelves ... and the teachers would say, 'Oh, it's too much of a pain to set up.' "

Indeed, many educators cite the lack of properly trained science teachers as a main reason why the United States lags so far behind many other countries in science. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study found that US eighth-graders ranked below peers in 14 other countries in science. The report also said US students are far less likely to be taught science by teachers with a major area of study in science, despite research showing "that higher achievement in science is associated with teachers having a bachelor's and/or master's degree in science."

The teacher in room 809, Erin O'Brien, holds undergraduate degrees from Salem (Mass.) State in educational studies and biology, and taught middle- school science for the past two years.

"If it ever came down to having to do an off-the-cuff discussion on electrical systems, or whatever science topic, we could do it.... We can take kids to another level, due to our comfort with the discipline," she says.

Still, not all science educators agree that specialists at the elementary level is the best approach.

"The artificial division of education can sometimes be a hindrance at an early age," says Harold Pratt, president of the National Science Teachers Association. "There are a lot of benefits to spending the whole day with a single teacher," who can better assess the needs of each student, and teach writing within the science exercises, for instance.

Meanwhile, proponents say science specialists won't be donning lab coats in many elementary classrooms unless funding for such efforts increases dramatically.

Half a century ago, this idea made some headway, but it "petered out over the years for lack of money," says Jerrold Ross, dean of the School of Education and Human Services at St. John's University in New York. He estimates that fewer than 1 in 10 elementary schools have staff who teach only science or have substantial training in the subject.

The money for Boston Renaissance's new science program is a portion of the $750,000 generated in the school's latest fundraising campaign. However, "in order to help public schools nationwide, there needs to be some sort of a national policy to help pay for better science teachers," Dr. Ross says. "How else will we protect our country in the future from threats like biowarfare?"

But the government often does provide seed money for experiments in science education.

Both the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation helped fund the year-old master's program at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., which purports to be the most comprehensive online program in science for elementary teachers.

"Traditional science teaching was about a lot of facts and lectures," says the program's director, Linda Grisham. "But what human beings really like is to solve puzzles..., and besides, that's what jobs are requiring now - for people to be really creative problem solvers."

That hands-on education seems to work well at a program for inner-city students in San Francisco. Kids between the ages of 8 and 15 can drop by free Community Science Workshops (CSW) in their neighborhoods, to build battery-powered cars or marvel at Lilliputian worlds revealed in a splash of pond water. After a study confirmed that the program gets minority and at-risk youths hooked on science, the National Science Foundation this fall granted CSW $3 million to replicate the workshops in 15 cities.

"We're providing kids a chance to overcome their intimidation about science," says CSW founder Dan Sudran. "To them, it's not 'science,' it's fun."

Back in science room 809, Ms. O'Brien also notes the importance of letting students "discover and inquire" their way through science. During the discussion portion, the kids learn rain terminology; a "gully washer," for instance, means a heavy rain storm.

The rain gauge experiment is by far the highlight, though. Ayanna Monroe has so much fun that she persuades the boy next to her to "be a gentleman" and let her have a third turn at measuring - before he's had even one.

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