City turns attention to elementary science education

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The eight handmade race cars that successfully zoomed down the 5-foot wooden ramp in the hallway at Sarah M. Roach Elementary on Friday not only highlighted the work of a diligent group of Baltimore third-graders, but marked the beginning of a revved-up effort by the city school system to get a long-derailed academic program back on track.

Students at the school celebrated the culmination of a four-week science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) summer program by showcasing their projects, which included race cars made of recyclables, wind turbines powered by generators and boats that clean up oil spills.

In 22 schools across the city, students in kindergarten through fifth grade participated in an array of "design challenges" as part of their summer STEM instruction, which also included building habitats for hermit crabs and designing and building playgrounds.

The summer projects mark the city's first large-scale effort to integrate science education back into teachers' lesson plans, and as early as possible. For too long, school officials said, the focus on teaching to skills tested on state assessments has come at the expense of an engaging curriculum that can drastically improve a student's educational career, from increased achievement and attendance to behavior.

"If we can change the way science is taught, we can lift everything else," said Katya Denisova, science content liaison for the city school system. "Teachers think that it's too complex, that it's not accessible to kids. But when we give a child the ability to create, they will."

According to results released by the state education department last week, the city's fifth-grade science scores on the Maryland School Assessments dropped 3 percentage points to 36 percent passing, while eighth-graders' results rose 3 percentage points to 37.6 percent. The city scores are 30 points below the state average, though the state has historically struggled with science education.

Denisova said that more students are too far behind by the time they get to high school, where they are expected to pass science classes and tests to graduate.

"No one should be surprised," Denisova said of the city's poor science scores, adding that less than 10 percent of instruction time in city schools is spent on science. "Science almost always has no place in the daily schedule."

Denisova, a former high school physics teacher who oversaw the pilot of the summer elementary programs, is leading the charge to strengthen science curriculums throughout the city in the next school year.

The school system was able to invest more than $500,000 in the 22 summer STEM programs this year as a pilot. In the coming school year, the program will continue in those schools and expand to 10 others. The school system hopes to implement the program in all schools serving kindergarten through eighth grade but faces funding challenges. The materials alone cost $20,000 per school, Denisova said, not to mention the cost of personnel and training.

Students, teachers and parents alike said they enjoyed the break from the stringent test prep lessons that dominate the school year.

"We never build stuff during the year, so this kept me more active and from getting bored," said Obabiah Holloway, who constructed a wind turbine during Sarah M. Roach's fifth-grade program this summer. "At least I know now that I like to build stuff and can be good at science."

Obabiah's mother, Carolyn Malone-Ruffin, said it was great to see her son's interest piqued, and to hear the constant chatter in recent weeks about the "wind-thingy" he was building.

"It's a part of life — science is everywhere, science heals people," said Malone-Ruffin. "It seems like we did more of it when I was in school, and now it seems like they just touch on it. Kids are intrigued as long as they can be hands-on about it."

Teachers also welcomed the change of pace.

"Science is put on the back burner," said Annmarie Wilson, a third-grade teacher at Sarah M. Roach. "But this program is good because it's not all about science, it's about application."

Wilson said she watched her group of third-graders transform as they buckled down to use math and science to build race cars out of recycled cans, plastic and egg cartons.

The students placed eggs in the cars to see if they could successfully go down a wooden ramp without breaking. None broke.

"I was amazed — it was like, 'ka-ching,' " she said. "It's really working."

erica.green@baltsun.com

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