By Russ Campbell, SMT Center

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – The emphasis of standardized testing in U.S. schools has pushed subjects like science to the sideline of the curriculum, according to education experts.

This is at a time when government, education, and business leaders are lamenting the unimpressive status of students in STEM.

STEM is science, technology, engineering and math. These subjects are considered the basis of a 21 century education; providing critical skills for critical times.

Karen Worth, a researcher for science and math programs at Education Development Center, Inc., said a testing culture has not allowed subjects like science and social studies much time to be taught in the elementary curriculum.

“There’s a problem getting subjects like science back on the actual teaching agenda,” she said. “It’s in the airwaves, but it doesn’t filter down because of issues dealing with time and priority.”

“Science is not on everybody’s radar screen,” added Ron DeFonzo, a science resource specialist for East Bay Educational Collaborative, an education research center in Rhode Island.

“Reading, writing, and math are on everyone’s screen,” he said. “Science is a side topic. But, science is an excellent way to solve problems.”

The goal, DeFonzo elaborated, is to teach students critical-thinking skills.

According to DeFonzo, the broader implications of the scientific approach allows for students to adapt a higher level of thinking skills by taking in information and applying it to new situations in ways that make sense.

“The jobs that are going to be out in the market in 10 years have not yet been created…,” he said. “Students need to be given skills to deal with a broader concept.”

Worth argues that any subject matter should be taught with a lens on critical thinking. She said kids need to think critically about information, ideas, and how they apply to their experiences, but each subject matter has its own rules.

“Science by definition is a collaborative process,” Worth said. “Your experiences alone do not matter unless you share them with other people to verify what you’ve done. It doesn’t matter if you are six or 75.

“If we want scientifically-literate citizens, we need to teach them about science concepts, science practices, and how to communicate science at the same time,” she added.

Brian Campbell, a former teacher and now curriculum developer for Foss, a kit-based science program for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, said using science notebooks to record findings and observations is one way to approach bridging literacy and science lessons.

Campbell co-authored Science Notebooks: Writing About Inquiry with his colleague Lori Fulton in 2003. He explained that by working on writing and recording information about the materials the students are working with, the students are provided with crucial experience.

“It’s experience that helps them to approach text more critically,” he said. “Once they’re familiar with content, the text becomes more obtainable for them.”

While writing and reading are key components of literacy, the third factor – discourse (letting students talk to each other) – is probably the trickiest, especially from a teacher’s perspective.

From Campbell’s own classroom experience he understands the clamor of a classroom full of elementary students talking can be a bit much, but it is a crucial step to their understanding.

“Discourse happens all the time in all aspects of science. Scientists talk to their colleagues and fine tune whatever it is they are going after,” he said. “Kids need to do the same thing. Let kids talk; and though it’ll get noisy, there’s real power there.”

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