Engaging Within Time Limits: An Integrated Approach for Elementary Science
With the continued restraints on elementary level science instruction due to accreditation and assessment requirements, science curricula needs to be flexible while still emphasizing high quality 21st Century learning (Center for Educational Policy, 2008). Such curricula needs to accommodate instruction from other disciplines and target skills, principles, and standards that are shared with science; inquiry and related process skills should be high priority (Henderson, Hatheway, Gardiner, & Zarlengo, 2006; National Council of Teachers of English, 1996; National Council on Teachers of Mathematics, 2000; National Research Council [NRC], 1996). A Framework for Science Education (NRC, 2012) attempts to clarify what is meant by scientific inquiry—it is not an isolated set of skills, rather it requires the coordination of scientific knowledge and skills in the form of scientific practices. This is especially critical for elementary age children because first and second grade instruction sets the ground work for later success in school (Eshach, 2006; Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, 1997).
Engaging student interest and their participation in the process of investigation are paramount to the promotion of science learning (Minner, Levy, & Century, 2010). The availability of the Elementary GLOBE (EG) curriculum represents one recent effort to engage K-4 students in hands-on science learning in this time restrained teaching environment (Hatheway, Gardiner, Henderson, & Zarlengo, 2006). EG provides opportunities for children to utilize manipulatives in fun and adaptable activities that promote science inquiry in the context of learning earth science concepts, and the curriculum is unique in that it combines earth system science with literacy (Henderson et al., 2006). The earth systems focus facilitates environmental literacy at an early age, which is a growing concern of global dimensions (Lubchencho, 1998; Chepesiuk, 2007). An earth systems focus coupled with inquiry also provides opportunity to immerse children in the essence of science, which is the attempt by humans to understand the natural world (Bass, Carin & Contant, 2009). Additionally, EG responds to the concerns of Jerome Bruner (1999), who believed that teachers need to provide numerous materials for exploration, so students can represent their new knowledge through actions, drawings, or words (Howe & Jones, 1993). Preservice teachers' confidence, motivation and dispositions toward the teaching of science are important in realizing more science instruction at the elementary level (Watters & Ginns, 2000). Exposing preservice teachers to "fun" science learning experiences may increase their confidence and lead to greater provision of science instruction.
This study examines elementary preservice teachers' perceptions (via a reflective assignment) about their experience with EG in a university science methods course. The principal research question was: What do preservice teachers perceive as the salient features of EG relative to using this resource in their future teaching?
Edwards (1997) and the National Science Teacher Association (1998) promoted engaging students in the application of thinking skills for inquiry-based instruction. The processes of inquiry/science process skills (e.g., observing, measuring, predicting, and experimenting), when coupled with science content, become "scientific practices" that foster meaningful understanding in students as well as advances in scientific knowledge by researchers (Llewellyn, 2002; NRC, 2012). For students, the teacher becomes the facilitator for engaging in scientific practices, guiding them in developing context for solving problems related to the real world. This builds on connections made between experiences, permitting the linkage of knowledge, skills, and attitudes.
Paramount Role of Inquiry and Practices
An emphasis in preservice science teacher education for at least the past decade has been on the pedagogy of scientific inquiry (NRC, 1996, 2001). "Inquiry refers to the abilities students should develop to be able to design and conduct scientific investigation, and the understanding they should gain about the nature of scientific explanation" (Lind, 2005, p. 6). In grades K-4, students obtain competency in inquiry by achieving the following benchmarks: "(1) ask questions which can be answered with scientific knowledge; (2) plan and conduct a simple investigation; (3) employ simple equipment to gather data; (4) use data to build a reasonable explanation; and (5) communicate explanations based on the investigation" (NRC, 1996, p. 122). A Framework for Science Education (NRC, 2012) broadens the focus of scientific inquiry to "scientific practices," and emphasizes that young learners need experiences that develop their capabilities to observe, measure, and record (including drawing) as well as opportunities to communicate.
How do we best teach inquiry-based science and more broadly develop in students' scientific practices, given the time restraints of mandated assessments created by preparing and executing federal mandated testing (Posnick-Goodwin, 2006)? This is a daunting task, given that students should have opportunities to observe, pose and investigate questions, analyze and represent data, and communicate findings (Lind, 2005; Martin, 2003). The teaching of inquiry-based science to young learners is likely best accomplished through science curricula that incorporate other disciplines, especially reading/language arts and mathematics. This approach affords more time to develop and hone inquiry skills, such as making inferences from reading and/or observations and communicating via the construction of graphs (Bass, Content, & Carin, 2009). It also provides the opportunity to continually make connections between learning experiences and from one context to another. A quality level of engagement ushers forth from successful immersion with inquiry methodology.
Study Design and Methodology
While considering the aforementioned aspects of elementary science, a study was designed to examine elementary preservice teacher perceptions about the value/utility of the Elementary GLOBE (EG) curriculum as a resource to provide inquiry-based science learning opportunities for children (Henderson et al., 2006). The study took place at a land grant institution in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States and was approved by the university's Office on Research Compliance. The design used phenomenological data (Patton, 2002) in the form of reflections about an EG experience (orientation to and hands-on activities) completed by preservice teachers near the beginning of the elementary science methods course in which they were enrolled. EG consists of 5 modules— seasons (phenology), soil, water, clouds, and earth as a system—to develop earth systems literacy. Each module includes a storybook featuring "the GLOBE Kids" exploring local environments and is rich in other applications to literacy (e.g., building vocabulary, journaling). EG provides a checklist of inquiry process skills (Helm, 2008) that elementary students utilize as they engage in a variety of learning activities, many in the natural (outdoor) environment. Further description of EG is provided by Henderson et al. (2006) and on-line free at (http://globe.gov/web/elementary-globe/documents). A through overview of curriculum is at http://www.globe.gov/web/elementary-globe/overview. Additionally, the developers of EG created Ducks in the Flow storybook which highlights changes seen in the oceans as the planet changes. It can be retrieved at http://www.windows2universe.org/teacher_resources/ocean_education/currents_main.html.
These resources provide features that build teachers' understandings of earth system science. They build civic involvement when students learn about issues impacting them at school and in doing so learn about ways they can become involved with projects to advance the discussion.
Participants were a convenience sample of 60 elementary preservice teachers (PT): 40 were enrolled across two sections of an undergraduate science methods course (Fall, 2009) and 20 across two sections of a graduate, initial certification science methods course (Summer, 2010). These science methods courses were very similar in scope and focused especially on inquiry-based learning, science process skills, and the 5E learning model (Bybee & Landes, 1990) as a part of elementary science instruction.
The reflections data were collected from all 60 PT soon after they had completed the EG experience. The reflections were part of a normal class assignment in which PT were asked to reflect on EG as follows:
- What are your thoughts about the value of Elementary GLOBE as part of the elementary school curriculum?
- If you were to use Elementary GLOBE for instruction, how would you implement it in your classroom? (For example, what modifications might you make based on your student's interests, prior knowledge, learning needs, etc.)
- What impact has this exposure to Elementary GLOBE had on your knowledge, interests, and/or attitudes about science and science education for children? (Please explain)
Inductive analysis was applied to the reflective assignments. Specifically, open coding was employed, which lead to the formation of categories and finally themes (Patton, 2002).
To verify the categories, the reflections were read a second time, and there were no new emerging categories. The data was examined multiple times and the findings were the same.
Findings and Discussion
PT described in some detail their answers to questions 1, 2, and 3, and identified several areas of significance in regards to teaching elementary science. Table 1 lists words that surfaced repeatedly in their reflections.
The broader categories from a condensation of Table 1 were ease, fun, environment, integrated, reading, and adapted. Seventy-eight percent (47 out of 60) of PT found the curriculum to be "fun." This category surfaced throughout the PT reflections. Sixty-five percent found the curriculum to be easily adaptable (e.g., bilingual instruction, special needs) for use with teaching. Fifty-seven percent of PT liked the reading format found in EG. This included opportunities to use a "reading theatre" and for vocabulary development. The engaging stories associated with the curriculum permitted integration of subjects like math and social studies. Fifty-five percent of PT identified integration of science with other subjects as a positive reason to use EG. Only 13 percent (8 of 60 PT) mentioned teaching science through inquiry methodology. This is of concern, given the importance of inquiry in science instruction (e.g., NRC, 1996) and EG.
Four themes emerged from the reflections assignment. The theme of concern for the environment from a global perspective vies for being the most important found in the reflections. This is supported in the literature: "Today's children will one day be responsible for making decisions that will shape the future health of the environment...they need a sound environmental education as a foundation upon which to make those decisions" (Chepesiuk, 2007, quoting Deborah Miller).
Three additional themes emerged from the reflections assignment and are listed with concern for environment as follows:
- PT believed fun is a major motivator for teaching elementary science. 'Fun' occurred as a theme in the highest frequency in PT reflections and also emerged from interviews conducted separately with a small subset of PT, which indicates internal homogeneity. This finding supports substantive significance and indicates consensual validation (Patton, 2002).
- The integration of reading and stories is a favorable reason to use EG for science instruction. This includes the integration of social studies and math. The PT reflections showed convergence on this theme especially with 55 percent and 57 percent of PT including the terms reading and integration, respectively, in their reflections. (Table 1).
- PT expressed a dislike for science but now enjoyed teaching the subject with EG. This was highlighted with the findings from the reflections where 68 percent (41 of 60) PT indicated their view of science had changed. This shows substantive agreement among the PT data (Patton, 2002).
- Concern for the environment from a global perspective.
PT believed fun is a major motivator for teaching science. Fun is identified as a motivator for learning and coincides with many other frequently occurring words related to science investigation by students outdoors. "However, by reading the [EG] implementation guide and working on the modules, I discovered how much fun science can be for children" (Sally—fictitious names are employed for all excerpts). PT frequently used the word "fun" in describing how the curriculum would affect their science teaching, as conveyed in excerpts shown subsequently to support other themes.
PT liked EG for integration of reading and stories related to the storybooks component of this curriculum. Since the EG storybooks correlate with a science exploration, this has an impact on students' reading, comprehension, and literacy development. PT liked the EG curriculum due to its ease of integration with language arts and math in elementary school. Over one-half thought the curriculum had value in instruction for reading, which is a core subject used in building foundation for learning. Susan reflected about this ability to integrate:
Allowing student[s] to be exposed to colorful picture[s] that are exciting to read and relatable to students is a really great feature that the program has to offer. Also, this program provides teachers with the ability to create simple labs within the classroom that helps students explore the wonderful nature of science and realize learning can be fun.
PT expressed a dislike for science but now enjoyed teaching the subject with EG. Many PT expressed a new found enjoyment of science teaching after having been exposed to EG. Mary related this to her previous science experiences:
I feel that being exposed to Elementary GLOBE has helped change my outlook on science. To be completely honest, science was never a favorite subject of mine but that was just due to the fact it was always presented to me in a boring manner. With a program set up such as Elementary GLOBE I feel that it makes science fun, exciting, and adventurous for both teachers and students which is a wonderful thing!
Stephanie also recalled the past and was explicit about the potential of EG to bring about positive dispositions toward science:
In the past my experience with science has never been a positive. I can remember back when I was in elementary school and science to me was a mess of confusing term[s] and complicated processes that didn't make sense to me. I feel that if my science classes back then used tools like Elementary GLOBE I might not have felt so negatively towards the subject.
The science education literature reveals that elementary teachers often have had negative or few science experiences, and as such, are in need of positive encounters with the discipline (Gunning & Mensah, 2011; Watters & Ginns, 2000). According to PT participating in this study, engagement with EG provides one such experience.
PT liked the accommodative capability of EG for use in their future classrooms. This theme showed up with the second highest frequency among the reflections. This is noteworthy when considering how to adjust lesson plans for student ability. Since instruction time is a major factor on deciding what to teach, curriculum should be easily implemented according to student needs. Molly conveyed the scope of this issue and elaborated on her plans to address it:
As we all know, there are many types of students in [the] classroom. There are gifted, ESL, LD, ADHA, and BD students. For these specific students, accommodations need to be made. For ESL students, I plan on having [the] Spanish version available for them to have as well as an English version...For gifted...[If] it [curriculum] requires them to write one sentence, gifted students will need to write three.
The process of adapting science lessons for special needs students' needs to be relatively seamless, given the limited time that most elementary teachers have to do this. Jenny described how EG would facilitate this:
I have to be sensitive to the needs of students that are involved in special education. ..I think it would be relatively easy to implement Elementary GLOBE materials into the curriculum because picture books, hands-on activities, and text to real life connections make learning meaningful and help make the materials easy to understand.
Jaclyn perceived that EG "accommodated the different learning styles...visual learners are able to look at the pictures in the stories...touch/experience learners are able to explore the different topic[s] by doing hands-on." Importantly, the experience with EG enabled PT to see how science instruction easily can be differentiated to meet a variety of student's needs.
The themes emerging from this study reveal characteristics that are desirable in science curricula in order to realize more science instruction in the elementary classroom. These characteristics are making learning fun, integrating learning with other disciplines, accommodating special needs learners, and incorporating the outdoors/environmental aspects. From the perspective of the participants (elementary PT) in this study, EG manifests all of these characteristics. Accordingly, the findings of this study suggests that a "best practice" in elementary science methods is to introduce early in the course a curriculum like EG as a model for science instruction. Although seemingly trite, the perception by PT that it is "fun" to learn through this curriculum is of considerable importance (Kayla & Lundeen, 2010). PT gave ample evidence that these "fun" experiences served to counter the negative attitude towards science that many PT bring to the elementary methods classroom (Gunning & Mensah, 2011). A recent study found that inservice elementary teachers' attitudes towards science instruction also changed when using EG (High, 2012). These changes showed in the PT excitement to teach science, corroboration with colleagues on science teaching, and motivation to make science fun in the classroom.
Equally important is the realization by PT that science learning easily can dovetail with literacy/reading instruction (Henderson et al., 2006). This attribute enables PT to connect science learning to the multiple methods courses that they take targeting literacy and reading. Additionally, given the increased time being devoted to reading/language arts and the national mandates for achieving competence in reading, PT come to realize that there is more room in the day for science instruction when it provides the context for reading and other components of literacy (CEP, 2007, 2008). This may lessen the obstacle for teachers of insufficient time to teach science (Plevyak, 2007). A curriculum such as EG can be implemented within the time limitations of present scheduling restraints of elementary teachers. Future research should address further how to counter the time limitations for science instruction imposed by the present day mandated assessment tests. Until then, curricula like EG can assuage the lack of time to teach science lessons in the "time starved" elementary school curriculum.
Accommodation to meet the needs of all learners—be they special needs students or students with different learning styles—was recognized by PT as an important responsibility in the teaching profession. They perceived that EG would help them facilitate this process, which can be a tremendous challenge depending on the diversity of one's class. Helping all students to be successful learners through differentiating instruction and other processes is a primary goal of schooling.
Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods (2006) has brought to public attention the growing "nature deficit disorder" in today's youth. Given that science is our attempt to make sense of the natural world, it is logical that science instruction should devote more time to earth science curricula and outdoor "environmental" experiences. Environmental literacy is an important federal endeavor as evidenced by numerous and current funding opportunities, most notably by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (http://www.fundee.org/pdf/DirectoryofEEFederalGrants.pdf). EG is a model for age-related inquiry activities in or about the outdoor environment. Accordingly, EG provides teachers with a tool to meet the growing need for environmental literacy and through a hands-on inquiry approach.
This study and others suggest that PT awareness of the importance of inquiry remains a challenge (Bryan & Abell, 1999; Edwards, 1997). It was surprising that few (8 of 60) PT in this study listed inquiry as a factor in teaching elementary science, given that EG explicitly and extensively incorporates inquiry skills. In part, this may be due to the fact that the reflection questions did not explicitly address inquiry. Given the national emphasis on inquiry and that the process cuts across disciplines, PT need to recognize its importance, gain the respective pedagogical content knowledge, and be able to include in the curriculum ample inquiry experiences for children (Forbes & Davis, 2010; Minner, Levy, & Century, 2010; NRC, 1996). This takes on additional importance in light of recent challenges articulated by the California Council on Science and Technology (2010): Many elementary teachers in California report that they are not able to include any inquiry-based science in their curriculum. Future research should examine different instructional approaches with PT towards increasing their recognition of the importance and adoption of inquiry-based methods for teaching science. Towards this end and as a logical extension of EG, the authors of this study are integrating garden-based learning with the preservice methods courses and connected practicum experiences in professional development schools (High, 2012; Rye, Selmer, Pennington, Vanhorn, Fox, & Kane, 2012).
About the Authors
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