One of the problems that is unique to science teachers is dealing with gaps in science instruction. While math and language arts are heavily emphasized in early elementary, science instruction often gets pushed to the back burner.
For example, in California, where I teach, students in grades k-6 must receive a minimum of 200 minutes of PE every 10 days. There is no minimum requirement for science instruction.
This is frustrating for those of us who are implementing NGSS because early science instruction is vital for success in higher grade levels. For example, middle school standards require that students be able to develop and use models, design their own experiments and create high level arguments. This feels nearly impossible without adequate background knowledge that is built during the elementary years.
Here are a few things that you can do to help deal with the gaps in science instruction:
1. Talk to your administrators.
Most administrators are not aware of the complexities that are involved in NGSS, even if they were science teachers at one time. Sitting down with your admin team can go a long way in helping them to set realistic expectations and provide support.
Additionally, your admin team probably meets weekly with other administrators throughout the district. If they understand the problem, they can start to advocate for additional science instruction in earlier grade levels at these meetings (hopefully!).
2. Offer to help.
Offer to help with science instruction in lower grade levels. This sounds daunting because the reality is that most of us don’t have extra time to pick up new project. However, this is a fantastic use of your time because it should lead to a reduced future workload.
Here are a few things that you can do to support teachers in lower grade levels that can help but don’t require a ton of extra time:
- Offer to show teachers how to access and read the NGSS standards. Teachers who have a basic understanding of the standards will be more likely to incorporate them into their classroom. Or, if you know a teacher who is interested in finding out more about the standards, send them to this blog post where I explain how to read the standards.
- Help teachers modify already existing course work. Many teachers are already doing something science related in their classroom. Some of these projects would only require minimal modification in order to align them with NGSS. For example, perhaps your feeder elementary school has an annual science fair. Providing them with information about the experimental design process is an excellent way to help them to incorporate NGSS standards. Here is a growing experimental design bundle for grades 4 and 5.
- Invite teachers from lower grade levels to visit your classroom. Most teachers love the opportunity to see what the expectations are for the students that are leaving their classroom. Seeing your students in action with help them support their own students as they transition to higher grade levels.
If you are interested in spending more time helping out lower grade levels, don’t be afraid to ask for pay or release time to do so. Having current district teachers provide support is generally far less expensive than hiring outside trainers. You can also ask if your administrator would consider giving you credit for your adjunct duties if you provide support to teachers in other grade levels.
3. Start your year with the Science and Engineering Practices.
From my experience, students who have not previously had an NGSS science class really struggle with the Science and Engineering Concepts. If they have done labs or hands-on activities, they have mostly been in a prescribed manner. NGSS requires a higher degree of critical thinking which can be demonstrated through an overview of the Science and Engineering Practices.
I usually start with experimental design. I recommend teaching students to identify variables and graph data starting in fourth grade. Even if you aren’t ready to allow students to design experiments themselves, they are very capable of identifying these elements.
4. Pre-Assess students each time you start a new unit.
Lately I have been writing short assessments using google forms and giving them to students about a week before we start a new unit. I give them questions that require a written response so that they can show me what they do and don’t know. This also helps me to see what misconceptions they have.
I look at my standards when I am writing these pre-assessments.
If you look at the bottom of any set of standards, there will be a small space designated for Articulations of DCI’s Across Grade Levels. I look back at what students should have learned in previous grades and use those concepts to write my assessment.
5. Realize it may take a little longer… at least at first.
Build in time, especially at the beginning of the year, to play catch up. It is frustrating and stressful, especially when you think of everything you need to get through in the school year. However, the extra time is necessary to make sure that you are bringing your students up to speed.
How do you deal with gaps in your student’s science instruction?