What Do We Do About Poor Science Scores? Take Kids Outside

A radically simple solution to improving science education in America

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It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, so let’s start this column with a nod to my 9th-grade science teacher, Bruce Butler, who lit a spark in me by making geology and environmental science fun, interesting — and rigorous. I still think of him whenever I’m out hiking or fishing and come across some geological curiosity. He went on to a successful career as a principal and is retiring this summer, but would no doubt be happy to know that today’s science teachers seem to be having an impact on kids, too, according to science achievement-test data released yesterday. The data, from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, a test given periodically to a national sample of students, shows that overall scores are rising a little and that the racial achievement gap is narrowing.  Still, there is a long way to go: just one in three 8th-graders scored at the proficient level, a tiny increase from the last time the test was administered two years ago.

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At last month’s White House Summit on Environmental Education, there was much handwringing by my fellow panelists and other advocates about the sorry state of environmental education — and science education in general — in our schools. Cabinet officials reiterated their support for making environmental education more important, but there was little in the way of specifics. Ideas such as using innovative technology to simulate environmental experiences were touted, but perhaps the most promising way to improve science teaching and environmental education is also the simplest: get kids outside more. Children will learn more about the natural world by spending a few hours in it than days in front of a computer — and it’s healthier for them too.

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The NAEP data released yesterday shows that students who rarely do hands-on science underperform those who do it almost every day by 16 points on the NAEP’s scale — that’s about a full grade level’s worth of learning. Hands-on science is not only more fun for kids; it helps teach critical thinking and problem solving, valuable skills in an ideas economy.

But if you want better science education for your kids, don’t wait for Washington. Here are a few things schools, parents, and policymakers can do right away to improve environmental and science education:

For schools. When Brian Fedigan teaches high school biology in Boise, Idaho, he takes his students out into the Owyhee Desert to see sage grouse strutting. It’s a chance to teach students about the grouse’s life cycle and predators as well as invasive threats, such as a type of grass threatening the bird’s habitat and the impact of development. Being so close to amazing wildlife is not something that applies at many schools. But almost any teacher can do what Fedigan does early on with his kids, which is to spend an hour walking around the school introducing students to the types of birds and other species living there. Pigeons, sparrows, ants and trees of some sort can be found in almost any concrete jungle. And sadly, even in beautiful, resource-rich Idaho – where more than half the state is federal land – Fedigan says few of his students have spent much time outside.

There are also plenty of conservation organizations that offer hands-on support to teachers. For instance, Trout Unlimited — I’m a life member, so you know where my heart is – offers a “Trout in the Classroom” curriculum unit in which students raise and release fish and in the process learn about the temperature, water quality, and stream conditions that cold-water fish like trout need to survive. Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups offer similar support for teachers. The M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust sponsors a “Partners In Science” initiative for high school science teachers that enables them to do research and science during the summer. This program not only helps improve teaching, but means science teachers do not have to choose between teaching science and doing scientific research.

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For parents. If your kid’s teacher isn’t getting the class outside or making science experiential and interactive, then dig into your school district’s budget. If administrators say there isn’t money for field trips and other hands-on things, then figure out where the money is going. In her 2010 book Educational Economics: Where Do School Funds Go, Marguerite Roza pointed out that schools frequently spend less per student on science than they do on classes like gym or ceramics and other electives. If a school tells you that the hang-up is standardized testing, don’t buy it. Good schools have an integrated curriculum and rigorous science in the outdoors helps teach math and reading too.

You can also go a long way in supplementing your child’s science education yourself. Even the most blighted areas have small parks nearby, and many communities have terrific nature centers with walks and other programming for kids. You don’t have to be a science expert to help children appreciate some of the basics and most importantly get them interested in asking questions and figuring out the answers – even if that’s afterwards at the library or on your home computer. My personal choice would be a fishing trip. As the weather warms up, most states have a free “take a kid fishing” day where you don’t need to worry about getting a fishing license for yourself or your child and can fish for free. Tell teachers and other parents about these kinds of things, and maybe you can organize a trip for everyone. If fishing is not your thing, there are birds, butterflies, streams and all sorts of other marvels outside that will get kids interested in the natural world.

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For policymakers. Like parents, wonks should pay attention to where the money is going. And as I wrote in my column last week, we need better tests. The NAEP is innovating using technology to offer better quality questions that approximate real-life problems, for instance having students figure out payload weights for a hot air balloon. In the meantime the NAEP has some good questions that require students to write out responses. Better curriculum is a must, too.

Policymakers also need to come up with more ways to help science teachers – and all other teachers – connect with their discipline and develop new ways of teaching and reaching students. The education world is split over whether to reward the best teachers with higher salaries, but there is more agreement around giving the best teachers sabbaticals or opportunities to teach their colleagues. Building that sort of activity into policy and budgets is long overdue.

The bottom line is that science can be a hat trick: It’s a great way to get kids outside and moving, teach them about the natural world, and make science come alive for them. The benefits of that extend far beyond better test scores. So rather than bemoan our performance on the NAEP, do something about it – even if it’s just taking your child fishing for a day.

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