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The changing landscape of science in the classroom
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Teaching credential student Jason Cooper dresses up in a bee costume while CSUS Professor Iris Haapanen explains the object of the exercise: to not only teach students the anatomy of the bee, but its role in the eco system. Students then volunteered ways in which they could teach the information in more diverse ways such as assigning research projects, writing poems, performing and more.

When pre-service teachers in Iris Haapanen's credential course at California State University, Stanislaus sought out local classrooms in which to observe science lessons as part of their compulsory coursework, the task proved more challenging than expected.

“I did observations last semester and science was taught only one or two times a week. I don't see science being treated as a priority in the classroom," said credential student Amanda Williams.

Haapanen and her students are not the only ones dismayed at the lack of emphasis placed on science as Jamie Garner of local magnet science school Walnut Elementary shares a similar viewpoint. Recently recognized by President Barack Obama for her work in science and mathematics, only one of two teachers selected in the state of California, Garner is well versed in the potential and pitfalls of current science education.

"In my opinion, science has lacked emphasis in the classroom in recent years.  I believe this was due in large part to high stakes testing focused heavily in only language arts and math.  With lack of accountability in the area of science, teachers were not given professional development opportunities or time within their daily teaching schedule to incorporate science instruction," said Garner.

Instructors such as Garner and Haapanen are making strides to increase not only the time spent on science education, but are aiming to cultivate students’ awareness that science is all around them, from the food they eat to the stars in the sky. Haapanen is forwarding her mission through hosting annual CSUS Science Fun Nights at Osborn Elementary School and teaching her credential students projects for their future students, such as “Who am I as a Scientist?” This project allows students to identify the five sciences, which include biology, astronomy, physics, earth science and chemistry, in their own daily life. Similar projects serve as the backbone of education at Walnut Elementary.

“Walnut has been a science and math magnet school since its inception.  Science has always been a priority for us through project-based learning activities, including Space Week, Science Fair, Veggie Car Races, Go Green Week, Energy Faire, and many more,” said Garner. “Science at Walnut is not found in a text book.  It is found in every nook and cranny on our campus.  Evidence of scientific experimentation and learning is everywhere and we would not have it any other way.”

The science-forward thinking at Walnut Elementary is the same approach that Haapanen aims to cultivate in her credential students as they prepare to enter classrooms during a dynamic shift in state standards. The 2014-2015 school year marks the first year that Common Core State Standards will be fully implemented in California schools, which means science will now be taught through a more integrated approach. Since Common Core produces standards for English and mathematics, states are given the opportunity to decide how they will supplement science curriculum within the Common Core framework. California has chosen Next Generation Science Standards, which were implemented in September 2013 and marks the first update in science standards in 15 years. Science curriculum will now become more integrated between English and math by emphasizing more non-fiction reading and problem solving with scientific information.

“Everything we do in my classroom is aligned with Common Core standards so we want to make science an everyday activity. By integrating different subject matter, we can show students how science is a part of every aspect of life. Science is not quite emphasized enough, but we’re getting there,” said Haapanen.

Taking into account the pace of current day technological developments, NGSS focuses on relevant science data and instruction for the next decade. This quest to provide students progressive information and instruction aligns with the President’s mission to cultivate 100,000 Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, teachers by 2021 to ensure that America remains a competitive country in an increasingly scientific and technological world. 

"As a society, we are recognizing that science has multiple real-world applications and that our nation is falling behind as a driving force in this area, due to our lack of educational focus in this subject. As we move forward with the new Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, in combination with a large cultural focus on STEM education, I believe that the tide is changing,” said Garner.