Rethinking science in elementary classrooms

With a state grant for more than half a million dollars, WSU faculty are looking to boost science education in classrooms across the country.

Andy Cavagnetto, a science educator in the College of Education and the School of Biological Sciences, is the lead principle investigator of the grant, which was provided last January by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. It totals $541,000.

“One of the issues in elementary in particular… is there’s oftentimes not enough time to teach science,” Cavagnetto said. “Because there’s an emphasis on reading and mathematics, that’s what’s tested, so that’s what draws a lot of the instruction.”

Because of this, educators face no repercussions for neglecting scientific topics, he said.

Researchers petitioned for the grant in the fall of 2012 after they interacted with local school district administrators. Cavagnetto said a primary goal of the project is generate interest in science by creating appropriate educational environments.

State policies regarding science education have become more stringent recently, and Cavagnetto said that’s a driving force behind the project.

“Our work is really to help teachers work towards those standards,” he said.

Judy Morrison, an associate professor in the WSU Tri-Cities Department of Teaching & Learning, is a co-principal investigator on the project. Morrison said these next-generation standards need to be fully addressed in classrooms.

“We really need to provide teachers support on how to apply and understand these standards,” she said.

Morrison and Cavagnetto said science is crucial for societies around the world, yet it’s commonly overlooked in elementary school classrooms.

“Science has kind of a big impact on our society,” Cavagnetto said, noting that many of the job industries in Washington revolve around science and engineering. “I think that’s important for future citizens, especially in a democratic country where they have a voice in the decisions that are made.”

The grant-funded research will focus on providing students with fundamental understanding of scientific concepts, for instance, how to make knowledgeable claims based on evidence. Another goal is to involve teachers in their educational methods.

“What we push our teachers to do is set up situations in which students can identify problems that are important, find out ways to answer those problems and test those problems, and then interpret their observations and make claims that are based on some sort of evidence,” Cavagnetto said.

He said while the duration of the grant is three years, the process of implementing change will be long and difficult.

“That means changing what many people have experienced in science teaching as opposed to teaching and giving people knowledge. That doesn’t really work,” he said. “We don’t work that way. We don’t think that way. We have to make an understanding for ourselves based on what we understand about the world.”

Cavagnetto said he hopes the research will create opportunities for teachers to reflect on what they do in the classroom and how that impacts their students. He said this kind of reflection can lead to instructional approaches that coincide better with students’ learning habits.

“We’ve all been in these situations, where the assumption is that if I’m talking, you’re listening, and this is a bad assumption,” he said.

The study is currently taking place in schools in Clarkston and Pomeroy. It compares traditional classrooms, the controls, with classrooms that implement newly designed teaching strategies.

Data is collected at the beginning and end of each school year. Collected information includes videos of teachers teaching as well as various comprehension and critical thinking exams for both them and their students.

The program might create positive influences on students’ motivation and critical thinking development, but it’s difficult to tell how long these changes will last after the program ends, Cavagnetto said.

Even with positive outcomes, it will be especially difficult to continue effective change on a large scale, he said.

“Even if you have a good approach that works for instruction, how do you disseminate that to a large number of people?” Cavagnetto said. “Especially when it’s a pretty complex form of instruction that we might not be used to?”

At the end of the program researchers will compile their information into presentations. Morrison said she hopes to publish their findings for others to utilize.

“What we want to be able to do is help other people who are doing the same thing,” she said.