Higher Hopes

Johann Mitchell, a 4th grade student in Lindsey Smallwood’s class, compares basalt, limestone, sandstone, and marble as part of the FOSS Science Curriculum. Credit: Lindsey Smallwood

As Californians, we have a keen appreciation for science, and an understanding of its importance in the classroom. At least, that’s what you might assume. However, a new statewide report, conducted in part by the research group at UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science, exposes a frightening imbalance between these values and the reality in California’s elementary schools. In the face of these findings, a long-standing Lawrence Hall project shines as a ray of hope, providing improved access to engaging science education for the state’s children.

Entitled “High Hopes—Few Opportunities: The Status of Elementary Science Education in California,” (High Hopes) the Lawrence Hall study asked teachers and administrators in California’s schools about science’s place in the classroom. “The alarming finding was a general scarcity of quality science-education opportunities,” says Dr. Rena Dorph, a researcher at the Hall. According to the report, English and mathematics are prioritized over science in the state’s current elementary school curriculum. As a result, less time is spent on science, leaving students with fewer chances to learn important concepts. This problem is compounded by a lack of laboratory infrastructure for inquiry-based learning, limited science-specific professional development for teachers, and ineffective assessment of science knowledge. Not surprisingly, all of these shortcomings weigh more heavily on students in low-income communities.

However disappointing, these conclusions are no revelation for the scientific community at UC Berkeley, where researchers have been working for years to improve California’s science education. One particularly fruitful effort has been the Full Option Science System (FOSS), a research-based science curriculum for grades K-8 that was first developed at the Hall over 20 years ago. Rather than having students listen passively to a teacher’s lectures, FOSS emphasizes active learning, whereby students learn science by doing science. This inquiry-based approach strikes at the heart of the shortcomings found in High Hopes, and has been demonstrated to be more engaging for students than a textbook-based curriculum.

In her FOSS Solid Earth module, Lindsey Smallwood, a 4th and 5th grade teacher at Oakland’s MLK Elementary School, supervises students conducting investigations and analyses using laboratory equipment and interactive technology. “Both teaching and learning are improved when activities are introduced with a lead question,” she says. The Solid Earth module is made up of five sequential investigations, each of which begins with a lead question that introduces a key concept about the different types of rocks and landforms found on Earth’s surface. This lead question guides the students as they learn to critically approach a multifaceted problem.

Most lessons within the Solid Earth module are structured around a hands-on experience with rocks and minerals. For example, to teach the processes that slowly change the Earth’s surface, Ms. Smallwood demonstrates “chemical weathering” by having the students soak limestone in vinegar and “physical weathering” by shaking granite in a jar. Precise scientific vocabulary is then connected to these experiences. Much like professional scientists, students collect data and record observations in a science notebook, test predictions, and eventually attempt to draw conclusions about the lead question based on strong evidence.

To supplement hands-on classroom activities, the FOSS website has a vast collection of reading material, audio books, teacher preparation videos, online activities for students, and an archived “Ask a scientist” forum that can be accessed by anyone in the community, including other teachers, students, and their parents. These supplementary resources also help to address the access problems identified by High Hopes, as any classroom that adopts FOSS can use the website for free.

To help teachers and administrators better gauge gains in understanding based on the FOSS curriculum, the Lawrence Hall staff has focused on improving the assessment of science knowledge. The FOSS curriculum encourages frequent teacher observations, science notebook reviews, and assessments at the end of investigations, followed by student self-assessments, and end-of-module exams to make sure students are on track. By all accounts, FOSS students are on track. The High Hopes report found that the best prepared teachers were those using FOSS modules in their classrooms and the most successful school districts offered professional development based on FOSS resources.

Unfortunately, these categories represent only a small fraction of teachers and districts. According to the report, only about 10% of students in California are exposed to adequate science education. Though the State of California adopted FOSS as one of several recommended curricular resources for teachers in 2006, broader implementation is needed before it can reach students across the state. Moreover, once a district has adopted FOSS, teachers must be given the time to properly use it. “It takes more time and work to prepare a FOSS lesson than a traditional science lesson,” notes Smallwood, “but the payoff is seeing students engaged in the scientific process in such a meaningful way.” In the meantime, the Lawrence Hall staff continues to work with schools and districts that have already adopted FOSS.  By incorporating feedback from scientists, education researchers, teachers, administrators, community members, and parents, they aim for future iterations to better engage the diversity of students in a typical California classroom. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, that typical classroom will be using tools like FOSS to provide students with the engaging science education they deserve.

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