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Elementary Science is Crucial

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The future looks bright to Kevin Anderson when elementary school students can insightfully answer his questions about their scientific investigations.

“Research suggests that by 4th to 6th grade, most kids have begun developing their academic identities, deciding that they’re a science person or not, or a math person or not,” says Anderson, who is the science education consultant for the Department of Public Instruction. 

“So if we don’t start to establish that they’re capable in those subjects at a fairly early age, then it’s going to be 20 times harder when they’re in high school.”

State Supt Tony Evers with two students doing an experiment.
Fifth graders in Wisconsin Rapids demonstrated how they determined the most effective ways to remove spilled oil from water, during Evers’ visit. The students were able to use evidence to answer challenging questions about how they arrived at their conclusions.

Recently, Anderson tagged along with State Superintendent Tony Evers in a visit to see one of the state’s exemplary K-12 science programs in action, in Wisconsin Rapids School District.

Evers visited Kim Marshall’s fourth-grade classroom at Washington Elementary and Amber Applebee’s fifth-grade classroom at Woodside Elementary.

While 5th graders worked with oil and water, 4th graders figured out which layer of soil best supported a building by determining how deep the holes for a building’s supportive pylons needed to be in a model soil system.

“In both classes, students were doing in-depth investigations, they were having good conversations,” Anderson says. “I went in there and pushed them, on ‘why did you think this?’ They were able to talk about what they were discovering, and use evidence to talk about it.”

Anderson has noticed that districts doing K-12 science well often find it helpful to designate a district-level science coordinator. In small- to medium-sized districts, including Wisconsin Rapids, the coordinator is usually part-time, also working as a teacher.

As in many districts, Wisconsin Rapids took the development of the Next Generation Science Standards and related work throughout the country as a cue to revisit their K-12 science curriculum.

State Superintendent Tony Evers with two students explaining their experiment . They have soil in a container.
Fourth graders were figuring out how deep the holes for a building’s pylons needed to be in a model soil system.

The result in Rapids was a coherent approach, designed by a K-12 science committee that met monthly, laying out what science education should look like at each level in the district. The district made sure all elementary teachers were trained in the new plan.

This kind of coordinated, “thoughtful scope and sequence” is important, Anderson says – “so that it doesn’t end up dinosaurs and butterflies at every grade.”

When Anderson surveyed the field over a year ago, he found that about 80 percent of Wisconsin school districts were using or referring to the Next Generation Science Standards in some form or another. Deliberative work at the state level to identify a set of Wisconsin science standards, and produce related helpful materials for educators, will begin in 2017.