I Geek Science

I do. I always have. Since my dad bought me a chemistry set for Christmas in 1960; since my dad got me a microscope the following Christmas; since I got my very own subscription to National Geographic on the same holiday from my Aunt Jane; since I had Bea Derrickson and Cliff Brown in 5th and 6th grades, respectively, at Jennie E. Smith Elementary School in what was then the Newark School District. They were one hell of a powerful teaching team. Looking back, I imagine that they must have been delighted to teach in the same school, one grade after the other. This was my first exposure to genuine science instruction and having a regularly scheduled, dedicated science class. [If only Bea had not made me hold that snake, I would still love her. Now, I only appreciate her. That snake thing was traumatizing—for life.] In both Bea’s and Cliff’s classes we did not just read about science; we got to do science. Plus, Cliff was a master at science demonstrations—the kind usually reserved for junior high or high school classes.

Since Mr. Strine’s 7th grade science class at Ogletown Jr. High School; since I won the regional science fair in that same year by creating a primitive form of casein plastic from an odd and nauseating smelling mixture of milk and vinegar. [My dad, a civil engineer by training, showed me how to do a “professional” graphic presentation of the good old scientific method, and trained me to do high-quality lettering—I think that probably helped.] Since Sam Simmons’s geology class in 8th grade at A. I. du Pont Jr. HS—to this day I love rocks, minerals, fossils, and tectonic/seismic events; since Mr. Abrams introduced us to the wonders of astronomy in the planetarium at the same school. 10th grade biology was a bust, but it did not deter my interests in science. I should have taken more science in high school, but I was intimidated by the mathematics involved in chemistry and physics. I did, however, manage the math in college chemistry, astronomy, and statistics. And I loved the biology class.

[Please note the importance of science teachers in my life and in my love of science. This is no mere coincidence.]

But, I especially geek science since I had the chance to turn myself into a science teacher–back in 1989, when I moved from an elementary school, where I was responsible for teaching every subject (reading, math, English, writing, spelling, social studies, science, health, etc.) and tried hard to do my best in each area, to a middle school where I knew that I could finally specialize in one subject.

And, I was assigned to teach science. A new colleague hesitantly asked if there would be any chance that I would teach science. I enthusiastically replied that I would.

I am not certified to teach secondary science, which includes 7th and 8th grade science—my certification is for elementary instruction. But, in Delaware, I could teach 6th grade science—even in a middle school. So, I sent myself back to college to bone up on science content, pedagogy, and literacy skills. In the end, I had taken enough science courses at the University of Delaware and Delaware State University that I could qualify for HQ status when No Child Left Behind regulations came along. With my teaching experience, my master’s degree in instruction, my science coursework, and my five years as a Coalition Science Specialist, I was able to cobble together enough “credits” to be awarded that all-important “highly qualified” status. [I had to raise a bit of a stink with DEDOE when I realized that the folks who had taken science kit training from me were slated to get credit, while I, as the instructor and coach, was not initially allowed to use this experience for some of the required points.  I pointed out the fallacy in this kind of thinking, and they changed the rules the following year.]

Which gets me around to the Science Coalition of Delaware and the amazing science kits, still in place as the science curriculum in K-6 public schools across the entire state. [At the time, many districts’ elementary schools were a K-5 configuration, but a few included 6th grades, so 6th grades across the state were included in the program, long before the kits were carried over into middle schools.]

Future leaders of the Science Coalition and curriculum directors from the first seven participating districts worked together in 1995-96 to win a multi-million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation—a BIG win at the time. From fall of 1997 through spring of 2002, hundreds of kindergarten, first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth grade teachers in Delaware participated in the mandatory kit training. The grant came to an end after five years, but the program continues today. If a teacher is responsible for teaching science, then he/she must have kit training before using the kit(s) and the kits are the only science available in most school districts.

This whole program was the brainchild of talented, creative, charismatic folks like Rachel Wood, the DEDOE Science Associate at the time; Jack Cairns, retired Dover chemistry teacher and Science Olympiad guru; Jack Collette, a DuPont executive with a dedication to outstanding science education; as well as science specialists from public schools (like 5th grade teacher Doris Morris) and local universities (like Nancy Brickhouse and David Ahn). I am certain that there were others whose names I fail to recall; however, I was not there at the project’s inception. I came on later—once the grant had been secured.

The program’s successes relied upon the collective power and persuasiveness of these individuals, combined with the leadership and decision-making bravery of local district curriculum directors who made the commitment to transform science instruction by:

> starting in kindergarten, not in high school                                                                              > enlisting the expertise of classroom teachers                                                                   > recognizing that “old school” ELEM science curriculums were “an inch deep and a mile wide”—in other words, the textbooks covered almost every imaginable topic, but no topic thoroughly or in depth                                                                                                                > reducing redundancy and building a sensible vertical articulation of subjects and depth of coverage; previously some “popular” science subjects like weather and dinosaurs were “taught” year after year, with little differentiation                                                                > understanding that child development should play a role in selection of science concepts to be taught—the younger the child, the more concrete the experience should be; whereas abstract concepts should be reserved for older students                           > realizing that science is doing—that kids should have constructivist, hands-on, inquiry-based science, not just read about science—a momentous turn for Delaware classrooms, from textbooks to kit-based science.

At the same time, every district who participated identified one or two dedicated Coalition Science Specialists (CSS)—to be paid partially by grant money and partially by their home school districts. These were elementary classroom teachers who loved science and had demonstrated effective science instruction, and whose full-time job was now to serve as the liaison between their home district and the Coalition. So, I stepped out of the science classroom for five years to serve as one of two CSS for Red Clay schools.

It was the responsibility of each CSS to attend weekly training and program meetings at the science warehouse (first in Smyrna and then in Dover, where it remains today); to help decide which kits to select (from FOSS Science, out of Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California, or the National Science Resources Center (NSRC), affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute); to learn the kits from the inside out; to provide kit training to elementary teachers in their home districts; to facilitate 3-4 kit deliveries throughout the school year to each and every classroom; to help provide service to kit users by delivering extra materials and live specimens like worms, crayfish, fish, crickets, plants, etc.; to provide additional professional development, 3-5 times each year of the five-year grant period, to the Science Lead Teachers—one teacher from every elementary school in the participating districts.

This was a high-flying program, with support from DEDOE, school and district leadership, many teachers, the business community, local scientists, as well as science organizations in Delaware and across the country. It produced a nationally-renowned science education program, complete with outstanding curriculum based totally on national science standards, excellent instructional materials, in-depth training and mentoring for classroom teachers, fascinating and well-integrated topics, and a well-designed scope and sequence—including cleverly conceived vertical articulation from grade to grade. It was “da bomb!”

Most of all: kids love science and kids in Delaware loved the new freedom to DO SCIENCE, not just read about the science that someone else had done.

These were heady times for science education and school improvement.

So, where are we today? Where are we ten years later—after the grant money was spent, the project itself wound down, and the promises of the grant had been kept? Promises that included: a fantastic set of end-of-unit assessments developed by CSS and assessment experts like Julie Smith and Sister Mary Ellen (last name escapes me) from Boston University; the creation of thoroughly designed, researched, and vetted rubrics by which the assessments were scored; and intense, challenging, and repeated training to develop inter-rater reliability for all CSS and many Lead Teachers who examined hundreds of pieces of student work and assessment responses.

Tune in next time for Whatever Became of Elementary Science? (a.k.a. How did time for elementary science get swallowed up by reading and math? What do you mean you can’t teach needed skills and strategies for reading and math during science class? Why on earth is elementary science getting such short shrift in the 21st century? How can you expect to build a world-class STEM program with little understanding by so many leaders of the marvels of a K-5 science instruction program that languishes but still exists?

This entry was posted in A Good Education, Interesting Bits, Quality Teachers/Quality Teaching, Science Education, Teachers and Teaching, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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