Opinion | Pandemic or not, Michigan students need good science instruction

In a pandemic, it is easy to see why understanding science matters, from interpreting epidemic curves to convincing people to wear masks.

Kirsten Edwards is a Ph.D. student studying Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education at Michigan State University.

Science instruction in K-12 schools plays an important role in developing this science understanding. But when school went remote in March, instruction reverted to old and ineffective methods, like reading textbooks and thoughtless worksheets. These methods have students learning facts separate from real-world applications.

Looking toward the fall, parents and community stakeholders must demand schools and teachers have the necessary resources to provide students with high-quality science instruction, including opportunities for students to interact while making sense of science. This will develop scientifically literate students who can respond to vital issues, like erosion along our lakes and access to safe water.

On the 2015  National Assessment of Educational Progress, two-thirds of eighth graders in Michigan were not proficient in science. That’s not as bad as it sounds. It puts Michigan in the middle of the states. But it reinforces the need for consistent, high-quality science instruction, especially during a pandemic.

In 2013, the Next Generation Science Standards gave the U.S. and Michigan a new vision for science education based on how kids learn.

This vision involves students in figuring out the science behind phenomena (like how do viruses become pandemics?) using science practices, including developing arguments from evidence and constructing explanations.

This differs from previous instruction based on rote learning of facts (like defining the word, virus) and disconnected lab skills.

When students are memorizing facts and doing prescribed labs, research has repeatedly shown that most cannot remember those facts or apply them to new situations.

This new vision requires that science learning happen collectively, similar to how scientists work together. Students need opportunities to work with peers to make sense of ideas.    

This collaborative work is important if we want to develop students who will be able to use science knowledge to help their communities address consequential issues like climate change.

When students make sense of how and why things happen together, the resulting knowledge sticks more and can be more readily applied when it matters.

For instance, Carbon TIME, a research project led by Dr. Charles Anderson at Michigan State University, has studied the effects of a middle and high school curriculum aligned with the new standards. The project has found students who were taught with the curriculum performed significantly better on assessments requiring application of science ideas than students taught using other curricula and methods.

The quick transition to remote instruction this spring left students isolated from their peers and many teachers went back to having students learn content through memorization. Students were no longer interacting with their peers (even virtually), but rather watching videos and completing worksheets.

The Next Generation Science Standards were “chucked out the window” and replaced with “content mastery,” said Christopher Thomas, who teaches eighth grade in Ann Arbor Public Schools and specializes in incorporating technology into instruction.

This wasn’t done carelessly. “I am conflicted about this reality,” he said. “My science teacher part of my brain takes over and I’m like, ‘But inquiry is important. Figuring out is important.’ And then I’m like, ‘What the heck is that going to look like?’”

A nationwide survey by the research organization, WestEd, found fewer than one-third of K-8 science teachers had students interacting with other students (e.g., discussions on video or in forums) since the pandemic began.

That’s understandable given the fast transition to remote learning and the constraints on how much teachers could hold students accountable for assignments, but it cannot continue.

We must advocate for schools and science teachers to prioritize science learning that involves interaction and make sure teachers have the necessary support.

If students can’t safely sit around desks talking face-to-face, there are other strategies: exchanging ideas in breakout rooms on Zoom, sharing hand-drawn models or written explanations in message boards.

Whether students are in classrooms or on devices at home, “classrooms” must provide all students with consistent opportunities to interact with their peers while doing science.

This type of teaching is important but isn’t easy, especially in a pandemic. Thomas suggests, “now we need to reinvest in our thinking” even considering teacher leaders “with full-time release” to “provide consistent and quality [lessons] to the rest of the district.”

This pandemic almost certainly won’t be the last. Despite the challenges, we need to provide high-quality science instruction so the students of today become the citizens of tomorrow who can use science knowledge to respond to the next pandemic in ways that protect human lives and livelihoods.

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Andy Schueler
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 1:14pm

Teaching science needs to start with teaching data interpretation. Data manipulation is constantly being used to push certain agendas and people need the skills to interpret valid studies versus biased studies.

Wed, 07/15/2020 - 8:40am

How true and the interpretation needs to start with media reporting unbiased data vs the media's agenda.

Tony D
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 3:19pm

Very amorphous, and very benign. With due respect: how long have you been actually TEACHING in a classroom? What do you do about the kids who don't have a computer, or internet access at home? What do you do about getting the ~20% of students - yes, 20% - who "check-out" and simply choose not to participate in those dynamic NGSS discussions of real-life inquiries? What you suggest is all very good - but does not reflect real-world complications of many kids ill-at-ease with remote learning.