As most schools across the country are decreasing the amount of time devoted to science instruction to meet literacy and mathematics standards, seven Boston elementary schools are taking a very different approach.
Instead of cutting back their science programs, these schools are intensifying them, while also engaging their students in the study and preservation of the natural world. Administrators and teachers believe that this approach will not only build the schools’ science programs, but it will increase the students’ overall academic achievement and environmental awareness.
The Boston approach stands in contrast to the national trend. According to a recent study by the Center for Education Policy, U.S. schools have reduced their science instruction by an average of 33 percent.
“With more standardized testing requirements in English and Mathematics, a decreased emphasis on science had been observed,” says EDC’s Erica Jablonski. “In response, this project sought to replicate the results of another in a California district that showed a strong science program could be brought into the classroom without causing scores in math and literacy to go down.”
The three-year project, called Environmental Science Schools (ES2), focuses on getting classroom teachers in grades 3–5 more comfortable with teaching science, both on its own and together with other subjects, says Jablonski.
In the participating schools, science has traditionally been taught by a science specialist rather than a classroom teacher. ES2 hopes to change this by making science a regular part of classroom instruction. “If teachers are always depending on the science specialists, science will always remain a separate subject and be hard to incorporate into other studies,” explains Jablonski.
In addition to student activities, ES2 increases teachers’ skills in teaching science and forms partnerships with environmental groups and the community at large. The goal is that the project will demonstrate to the district that science motivates students and encourages them to read more, write more, and use mathematics to investigate the phenomena they encounter right in their neighborhoods.
Science in the classroom and the neighborhood
In addition to the impact of the project on the classroom, the project has produced other benefits. Students have planted urban gardens, taken trips to the local seashore to observe wild life, and visited sites such as ecology schools, nature centers, and aquariums.
“The project gets kids interested in the environment, helping them to see that the environment impacts their neighborhood and is not some abstract concept,” says Jablonski. Local environmental groups are involved, as are parents, she adds.
EDC is evaluating ES2 and will use data from both the participating and comparison schools in the district to measure the project’s effectiveness. EDC’s evaluation of ES2 uses an online survey to measure how much time classroom teachers report devoting to science instruction, and whether, with the help of the project, they are better able to integrate science into the other subjects they teach. EDC will also convene annual focus groups of science specialists to discuss the role they play in their schools. Additionally, an inventory will be taken of the science kits used by schools in the district to see what resources are being used most in the classroom.
The impact of ES2 on students will be measured via assessment data, both from classroom assessments and from the results of standardized tests, such as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). Students will also take a survey to measure their awareness of and attitudes about nature in their neighborhoods.
Based in part on the ES2 evaluation, EDC was recently awarded a grant by the National Science Foundation to conduct a three-year study to compare the differences in the quality, quantity, and cost when science instruction is provided by science specialists or by teachers. The new effort will enable EDC to scale up the partnership with the Boston Public Schools on the ES2 evaluation.
Originally published on October 27, 2009