Teaching Hands-On Science : State Wants to Emphasize Inquiry-Based Materials and 'Big Ideas'


Pickled pigs hearts, regurgitated owl meals and pieces of steel wool are just a few items that California elementary school children will come to know if a new hands-on science curriculum takes hold in the state's classrooms.

Instead of asking youngsters to memorize hundreds of quickly forgotten facts, the new approach stresses a limited number of themes or "big ideas," such as evolution, that run through all of science.

"The problem was that after many years of taking science classes, kids still were not able to articulate what science was all about," said Marie Lopez-Freeman, chairwoman of the California Curriculum Commission's science committee.

A major part of the solution--instructional materials that combine hands-on or inquiry-based learning with the "big idea" approach--is expected to be approved at a meeting today of the State Board of Education.

Twenty-seven science programs, from 25 companies, have been submitted for state approval in kindergarten through eighth grades. The Curriculum Commission has recommended eight for adoption. School districts must spend 70% of their state textbook funds on materials from the approved list, which is revised every eight years.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig said the new materials are part of a "growing effort in the last five years to do the things necessary to improve science education."

National and international surveys have found serious deficiencies in American students' science knowledge. According to a survey released this year by the Educational Testing Service, U.S. 13-year-olds were outscored in science by test takers in most of the 20 countries studied, including Canada, England, France, Hungary, Israel and Slovenia.

To meet a new California requirement that at least 40% of instructional time be hands-on, publishers and other producers of instructional materials have supplemented textbooks with everything from laser discs to bags of colored gravel.

The pickled pigs hearts are included in a kit of materials for sixth-grade instruction in human body systems, produced by the Educational Development Center of Newton, Mass. They are used to demonstrate the function of the heart and circulatory system.

Another kit from the same company for the study of bones and skeletons includes owl pellets--regurgitated remains of an owl's most recent meals--which children dissect to compare the bones of small animals and to reconstruct their skeletons.

The steel wool is used in a teaching unit on "properties of matter," produced by MacMillan/McGraw-Hill. Students are told to dip one piece of the material in water, a second in cooking oil and then water, while leaving a third piece dry.

"Predict which will have rusted after two days and observe any changes," they are instructed.

Experiments such as these will help teachers as well as students, Lopez-Freeman said.

"Teachers are being encouraged to participate with their children, as fellow learners, in these endeavors," she said. "This is significantly different from before. The teacher is changing from the 'rage on the stage' to the 'pride on the side' and the result is likely to be better for both the teacher and the students."

The hope is that students, even in the early grades, not only will learn how scientific experiments are done, but will enjoy science classes and retain more of what they have learned.

Del Alberti, superintendent of schools in West Sacramento and a member of the Curriculum Commission science committee, recalled the flurry of interest in hands-on science instruction that followed the first successful Soviet Union space venture in the mid-1950s.

"But those were just isolated 'fun' things that weren't part of the basic science curriculum," Alberti said. "What we're trying to do now is very different. We're using this approach to build in some real depth of what science is all about."

However, Eugenie Scott, executive director of Berkeley-based National Center for Science Education, warned that hands-on teaching can be little more than "cookbook science" if it is not done properly.

"If you just follow the directions to get certain results, that's not science, that's cooking," she said. "We have to watch that these hands-on things aren't just the same old baloney we've had before."

The new materials also stress major themes that connect the biological, physical and Earth sciences.

One of these themes is evolution, a word that was missing entirely from many science textbooks a decade ago but is treated as a key organizing scientific principle in the new California approach.

This caused bitter controversy when the curriculum framework was adopted three years ago. Religious conservatives fought to have creation theory taught, along with evolution, as a possible explanation for the beginnings of life on Earth.

But the conservatives lost that fight and have not renewed it during the textbook adoption process, even though many of them are unhappy.

"Science cannot prove one way or the other, at this point, where the origins took place," said Forrest Turpin, executive director of the Christian Educators Assn., most of whose members are public school teachers. "There's enough science there to say that creation does have its place and children should know that."

But neither Turpin's group nor any other conservative religious organization pressed that argument at the State Board of Education hearing on the new materials last month.

Once the materials are adopted, attention will shift to two other areas: efforts under way to devise better tests and to improve science teaching.

Some experts say improving the performance of elementary school teachers, many of whom know little science and are somewhat afraid to teach it, may be the most difficult task--and a crucial one, if the new instructional materials are to make a difference.

"This is where the real crisis in science education is," said Eugenie Scott of the Berkeley center. "Most elementary teachers don't have sufficient background in science to feel comfortable teaching it and many are reluctant to try something as new as the hands-on approach."

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