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Bring thrills and skills to science teaching

submitter: E=MC2
published: 10/22/1998
posted to site: 10/22/1998
Reprinted with permission from the NJEA REVIEW, official journal of the New Jersey Education Association, Vol. 72, No. 1, pages 28 through 32.

Bring thrills and skills to science teaching

How do students learn science best? By asking questions, experimenting, developing theories, & communicating ideas. That's the premise of inquiry-based science & E=MC2, a professional development program which promotes that approach.

by Lynn Maher

"The utilization of subject-matter found in the present life-experience of the learner towards science is perhaps the best illustration that can be found of the basic principle of using existing experience as the means of carrying reamers on to a wider, more refeed, and better organized world."

-John Dewey, Experience and Education, 1938

Sixth-grade students at Lawrence Intermediate School in Mercer County had no sooner completed their experiments with mixtures and solutions then they moved on to the next unit in the science curriculum: oceanography. Two students, Elizabeth and Erica, jumped right in by trying to re-create the water cycle--from vapors to liquid--in a bottle.

"Ah ha!" Erica cried as she looked into the bottle. The girls realized quickly how clouds reach their saturation point and become rain. A lesson they'd learned earlier about mixtures and solutions had suddenly sprung to life.

Jessica Heller, who taught these budding scientists, believes inquiry-based science education enabled Erica and Elizabeth to transfer their knowledge from one unit to another and thereby enjoy the thrill of discovery.

In West Windsor-Plainsboro's Village Elementary School, flrst-grader Michael was a star. A bright child, he had a quick grasp of almost every sublect--especially science. Again and again, his hand shot up in class. "I know the answer," he'd cry out . . . and he did. His peers grew frustrated. Then one day the class began an intriguing science lesson. They set out to discover how a flower's stem carries water upward. The students were intent on understanding the mystery. So they cautioned Michael: "Don't tell us the answers, Michael! We want to find out for ourselves."

Like her counterpart in Lawrence Township, Sheila Pandiscio--who taught Michael and the other young West Windsor-Plainsboro scholars--credits inquiry-based science education for her class's determination and enthusiasm.

What is inquiry-based science education?

Inquiry-based science education is a particular approach to science education through which children learn to ask questions, experiment, develop theories, and communicate ideas. It consists of five elements:

  1. a research-based, inquiry-centered curriculum;
  2. professional development;
  3. materials support;
  4. assessment strategies; and
  5. community and administrative support.
The value of this approach to student learning is well-documented.

Studies show that students who had been taught science in inquiry-based elementary school classrooms were more successful in middle school and high school science classes than students taught in more traditional ways. They were also better at problem solving, verified Arthur J. Reynolds, Thomas B. Hoffer, and Jon D. Miller of Northern Illinois University in "Investigating the effects of inquiry-based elementary science programs," a paper presented at the 1991 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

Other research demonstrates that the use of inquiry-based science programs not only improves students' creativity, but also raises their scores on tests of perception, logic, language development, science content, and math. Ted Bredderman, an assistant professor at State University of New York/Albany, wrote about some of these studies 16 years ago in "Activity science--The evidence shows it matters," an article published in the September 1982 issue of the National Science Teachers Association's magazine ScLence and Children.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) agrees. Its Benchmarksfor Sctence Literacy, published in 1993 by Oxford University Press, states, "For students in the early grades, the emphasis should overwhelmingly be on gaining experience with natural and social phenomena . . . By gaining lots of experience doing science, becoming more sophisticated in conducting investigations, and by explaining their flndings, students will accumulate a set of concrete experiences on which they can draw to reflect on the process."

School districts across the nation are implementing inquiry-based science programs, with major initiatives underway in Montgomery County, Md., Spokane, Wash., Baton Rouge, La., San Francisco, Cal, and Green Bay, Wis., to name a few.

State standards promote inquiry-based approach

New Jersey's Core Curriculum Content Standards in science recognize the value of inquiry-based science. Standard 5.2 states: "All students will develop problem-solving, deciston-making, and inquiry sktlls reflected by formulating usable questtons and hypotheses, planning experiments, conducting systematic observatLons, interpreting and analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and communicating results."

In a descriptive statement of the science standard, the N.J. Department of Education notes. "Students best learn science by doing science. Science is not merely a collection of acts and theories, but a process, a way of thinking about and investigating the world in which we live."

Words like "disassemble," "design," "evaluate," "assess," "demonstrate," "participate," "illustrate," "investigate," "apply," "prove," "compare," and"explore" are sprinkled throughout all 15 of the State's science standards.

Here in New Jersey, teachers in districts across the state are participating in various inquiry-based science training programs. Groups of educators in Bloomfleld, Carteret, Cranbury, Elk Township, Franklin Township (Somerset County), Hawthorne, Manville, North Brunswick, Pennsauken, Plainfleld, Princeton Regional, Riverdale, Roosevelt, South Brunswick, and Tinton Falls, for example, are implementing such programs.

Science shines with E=MC2

Janice Fay, a second-grade teacher at Ewing Township's Antheil School, stresses that inquiry-based science is beneflcial for all students, but it offers stunning success for children with learning disabilities.

She recalls one second-grader with a serious learning disability who had been observing mealworms daily for several weeks. One morning the student looked wide-eyed and starstruck. "Ms. Fay," he called out, "it changed into a darkling beetle!" With that discovery, Fay's student underwent a metamorphosis, becoming a scientist. The student went on to improve his reading and math skills as he pursued his new love--biology.

Fay is a participant in an exemplary inquirybased science training program for kindergarten through sixth-grade educators called E=MC2, a project that currently provides training to teachers in three New Jersey school districts: Lawrence Township, West WindsorPlainsboro, and Ewing Township.

Funded by the National Science Foundation for flve years to provide staff development, E=MC2 includes all five elements of a good inquiry-based science training program. It gives teachers both the technical skills and physical tools they need to create and deliver science lessons which excite everyone in the classroom, including the educators.

The lessons emphasize not just one-time, hands-on experiments, but they explore specific scientiflc concepts in the context of the broader picture.

For example, in the fourth grade, the 16week study of electric circuits starts with students examining batteries, bulbs, and wires. Students are asked to flgure out how to complete a circuit to light the light bulb. They then move on to exploring and determining how a flashlight works. The culminating lessons involve teams of students building a four-room house out of cardboard, wiring it, and lighting each room with miniature lights which can be individually turned on and off.

"In other ways of teaching any lesson, the teacher was always the person on the stage, with the teacher giving the information to the students," says E=MC2 prolect director Sona Polakowski, an NJEA member who is on professional leave from her lob as a Lawrence Township flrst-grade teacher. "In this approach, teachers model learning and become the guide on the side. The students have to find the answers. We're there to help students if they get stuck, but they come up with the solutions themselves.

"It's hard to teach teachers to simply stand by and not give the answer. Instead of saying, 'Here's the answer,' teachers have to learn to say to students, 'Why don't we develop that question? Is the place to flnd the answer in a textbook, or on a computer, or by doing an experiment?' "The key is getting students to learn by doing the experiments. That's how they wfll remember the answer best.

"Even with experiments, students have to recognize that they may not get the same result every time, and they need to work with others to analyze the results of all their experiments." Polakowski notes that in the real scientific world, scientists often work in teams. E=MC2 models that approach.

"Before, whether we were teaching science or reading, we were measuring what students could do. Now we're measuring what they can think and do."

In the three participating E=MC2 school districts, all elementary classroom, special education, ESL/bilingual, health, gifted, computer, and media teachers participate in the training and in implementing the program. They are helped by "lead teachers" who have demonstrated an interest and expertise in inquirybased science teaching.

Teachers design, lead the programs

At each elementary school in the three districts, two to six staff members are lead teachers. For example, Sheila Pandiscio, Janice Fay, and Jessica Heller are lead teachers in their respective schools in West Windsor-Plainsboro, Ewing, and Lawrence. They and their fellow lead teachers serve several roles. These include:

  • conducting professional development activities for other teachers;
  • assisting with materials;
  • field testing new modules; and
  • developing new approaches to student assessment.
They also undergo intensive training during the summer and receive stipends and released time to assist and direct their peers through training sessions and monthly support groups in their schools.

"This is a teacher-driven professional development program," says E=MC2 project director Polakowski. She emphasizes that teaching staff members control every level of the project.

A Science Leadership Team, composed of 10 to 12 professional staff members, leads the program in each district. This team oversees the local professional development effort and reviews the curriculum.

Coordinating the programs in all three districts is a 10-member Management Council. This Łoup, which includes two teachers from each of the three districts, a science project coordinator, and three co-principal investigators, meets monthly to integrate the operation.

Science kits reflect inquiry approach

E=MC2 is housed in the Invention Factory Science Center at the historic Trenton Roebling Works in Trenton.

The Invention Factory Science Center participates in E=MC2 by supplying schools in the three participating districts with activity-based "kits" through its "Science To Go" program.

Aligned with New Jersey's Core Curriculum Standards and the National Science Standards, each kit includes a lesson plan, equipment, and the supplies needed for one curriculum unit.

Units focus on topics such as rocks and minerals, insects, living things, solids and liquids, mixtures and solutions, ecosystems, the human body, air and weather, electric circuits, and a host of others. The subjects are developmentally targeted to specific grade levels.

School districts pay for the kits, grant released time for their staff members, and provide space in their schools for training activities. When teachers complete a unit, they return the kits to the Invention Factory for refurbishing.

Under the leadership of project directorfounder Judy Winkler, "Science to Go" has provided approximately 850 science learning modules that have served more than 450 New Jersey teachers and 35,000-plus students.

Meanwhile, the Invention Factory Science Center expects to open its on-site facilities in late fall and to provide education in science, technology, and local history by using interactive exhibits, programs, and telecommunications.

Apart from its work with E=MC2 districts, the Invention Factory also provides inquirybased science training for teachers in the Trenton, Florence, Hillsborough, Montgomery, and the Hopewell Regional school districts.

Supported by partnerships, field experiences

E=MC2is an initiative of "Building Bridges to the Future," a partnership of businesses, schools, higher education, and communities which is headed by S. Anders Hedberg, director of Bristol-Myers Squibb's Center for Science Education. The partnership's mission is to serve as a catalyst and resource for implementing hands-on, inquiry-based science education in Central Jersey.

Corporate members of "Building Bridges to the Future" include American Cyanamid Co., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., FMC Corp., and Union Camp Corp. The school districts of Ewing, Lawrence, Montgomery, Trenton, and West Windsor-Plainsboro serve as members, while Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Princeton University, and Science Advisors/Sigma XI represent the higher education community.

Another element of the partnership is Princeton Universlys "Quest" program, a science and mathematics workshop taught by Princeton University faculty for upper elementary school teachers.

Through this program, E=MC2 teachers increase their knowledge of science and mathematics through hands-on laboratory experiments, field experiences, and pedagogical discussions with their colleagues and the faculty.

"Quest' begins in the summer with a twoweek program. This summer, teachers participated in workshops in life science, geology, physics (particularly electricity and magnetism), and chemistry.

The program continues during the school year with a full agenda of follow-up activities, including workshops and study groups that meet after school to explore topics such as integrating science and mathematics instruction, assessment, and teaching science in an interdisciplinary context. The teachers design inservice programs and present them to colleagues in their school buildings at a day-long colloquium during the spring.

"This is the kind of professional development teachers are hungry for," observed NJEA Secretary-treasurer Joyce Powell, who addressed several hundred E=MC2 teachers who were participating in training at the Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. in Princeton this summer. Noting the teachers' eagerness, Powell added, "E=MC2 is the type of program that helps teachers keep their love of learning alive and instills in children the love of experimental inquiry."

And isn't that what professional development is all about?

Lynn Maher is an associate director for public relations in NJEA Communications. For more information on E=MC2, contact Sona Polakowski, 650 S. Broad St., Trenton, NJ 08611, (609) 396-2235, e-mail