Quality science education demands a greater test

Fifty years ago this month, an aluminum ball 23 inches in diameter and weighing 183 pounds was launched into outer space by Russia.

Sputnik was a giant wake-up call to the United States regarding our technological and scientific progress. We had no idea that another country could/would explore outer space before us. The video “October Sky,” a true story about high school students in West Virginia who were intrigued and motivated by the idea of outer space/rockets, offers insight into how some people reacted to this historic event.

There was an immediate and concerned response from the U.S. government for increased emphasis on math and science in our schools. In response to this, a number of publishers began creating materials and new textbooks, and inservice instruction for teachers began. Here we are 50 years later, and the same cry is being heralded — only this time with the goal to pass the state science tests.

There have been numerous programs developed, a favorite among school districts being commercial kits with a single topic focus: Water, trees, solids, liquids, structures, solar energy, electricity and magnetism to name a few. The kits include content information and instructions as how to present the material. In some cases, outreach activities are also included.

A teacher has the kit for a specific amount of time before it is to be passed on to the next class. In many schools at the K-6 level, science is taught once a week for 40 minutes. If our concern began 50 years ago, and since that time, many of us have gone through the K-12 system, why is there such a lack of enthusiasm by most learners about science? It usually has to be mandated for students to take it in high school and at the same time, there never seems to be enough qualified instructors to teach it.

My science education really began during my last year of college when a three-credit course called “science for classroom teachers” was required. It had both a lecture and three-hour lab requirement. On the evening of my first lab, in the oldest building on campus (the one with the most smells and diverse displays), 30 females waited expectantly for the arrival of the professor.

At 12 minutes after the hour, in walked Dr. Thaw. He was about 5 feet 4 inches tall, had a crew cut and horned-rim glasses. Without a word, he climbed on top of his desk — and it was then that we saw he was holding a chalkboard eraser and a dustpan.

When he had our full attention, he dropped both at the same time and announced, “This, ladies, is science. And there is nothing you can see around you in your everyday lives that doesn’t have science at its core.” Well, he had our attention!

He then announced that during our lecture time, we would meet at a specified location on campus to support the statement that science is everywhere and it should be understood and valued. This approach had a profound effect on us all as we went on to become science teachers. I taught at a K-6 school with 1,200 students in California.

Since then, I have traveled the globe in pursuit of enhancing science education for teachers and students. If you pick up an elementary science textbook, you will see the same topic areas that have been there for at least 40 years: Making a complete circuit with a bulb and battery, seeing how sound travels through a string that connects two cans, dissecting a flower to see its innermost parts, and many water experiments showing its diverse properties.

What is evident, when reviewing the kits and textbooks, is that the science that schools seem to offer is really about activities. Activities in and of themselves — with little connection to the world in which we live. A high school text has hundreds of pages and is usually divided by specific forms of science: Earth science, physics, physiology, zoology and biology, each taught separately from one another.

Yet, as I sit in my office, I look outside and see a wetland: An interdependent ecosystem that connects biology, zoology and botany — a valuable and necessary part of the environment in which we live. Down the road, we have Mt. Rainier. Puget Sound is nearby with its host of islands, wildlife and recreational possibilities. If you go into downtown Seattle, you immediately see multiple docks off-loading containers as fast as the machinery can handle it. These are perfect locations for the study of physics, as are both of our stadiums, in which case you could also teach geometry and other aspects of math in relation to the structures.

All of this is to say if we continue to teach science in separate topics, or within separate categories (biology, earth science, physiology and physics) with little application to the world and our place in it, we miss the greater understanding of science, and our ability to be good stewards is marginalized.

Clearly if science had been taught conceptually, with all of its implications made clear through the lens of a number of “big ideas” — change, interdependence, cause/effect, adaptation, stability — we may have noticed if global warming (alluded to for many years) had validity.

Now, throughout the United States, schools are once again being told to “teach science.” I submit that we should be teaching the world around us from a conceptual base, allowing us to understand that science is not a simple subject to be tested on a standardized test.

Rather, students should be tested on their ability to apply their understanding of “science” as the foundation of just about everything we experience in our lives. The real test then becomes an indicator of a student’s ability to recognize critical issues, predict outcomes and to know appropriate action to take as we live and care for our home environments for both the present and future generations.

Think about it.

Susan J. Kovalik is an educator, international consultant and author in Federal Way. She is founder of The Center for Dynamic Learning in Federal Way who can be reached at

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