THE SCIENCE CURRICULUM
Traditionally, the elementary school science curriculum offers a mix of basic life sciences (drawn from biology, botany, zoology, ecology, etc.), physical sciences (physics and chemistry), and earth sciences (geology, oceanography, and meteorology, plus astronomy). Science is a huge field, of course, and time is limited. Good elementary school instruction strives to offer a first look at the natural and physical worlds. The goal is to introduce students to a range of important topics and thought. Lessons supply many facts and concepts that lie at the foundations of science. They also teach some basic skills involved in scientific inquiry.
The following sections will give you an idea of what thorough instruction looks like in grades K through 8. The lists of topics to be covered in each grade are summarized from the Core Knowledge Sequence, an excellent course of study (see page 100). A word of caution is in order, though. The science curriculum is extremely varied in U.S. elementary schools. There is a wide range of topics to cover and no generally agreed “best” order in which to study them. In some good schools, fourth graders might spend a lot of time growing and studying plants, while fourth graders in other schools might devote more attention to studying the earth’s resources. One district may introduce genetics in the seventh grade while another waits until eighth. Keep in mind that what follows is meant to be an example of what a very good program looks like, rather than a precise blueprint that every school must follow.
That said, we also emphasize that, for science education to be effective, lessons must come in some sort of carefully ordered sequence-not a random hopping from dinosaurs to stars to ozone holes to maple leaves. Science is, by definition, a system of ordered knowledge, and that calls for a well-structured curriculum. Learning a new concept almost always requires prior knowledge. You can’t really understand density, for example, unless you first know something of mass and volume. Each new lesson must build on what has come before.
An ordered sequence also helps avoid big gaps in knowledge (like making it through school without ever having studied light) and needless repetition. To be sure, some repetition helps drive home concepts and gradually increases students’ sophistication about topics. A teacher getting ready to teach about plate tectonics may need to go back and remind students of what they learned last year about the earth being divided into concentric spheres of rock and metal. That kind of review is fine. What you don’t want to see is children returning again and again to the same topic with no real increase in sophistication. That’s the sign of a curriculum in disarray.
Ask to see a summary of your school’s science plan for all the grades. Compare it to the model set forth in the next few pages. In all likelihood, the two will not match exactly on a grade-by-grade basis. Your school should, however, be able to show you a coherent plan of study that is highly specific about the knowledge and skills children are expected to attain. If no one is able to produce a list of such goals, consider it a bad sign.
You can use this model and your school’s plan of study to raise some questions. Are there any major topics that your school’s curriculum doesn’t cover? Is there a healthy mix of life sciences, physical sciences, and earth sciences? Does your school’s curriculum seem about as demanding as the one summarized here-or are children in sixth grade just getting around to learning where the earth is located in the solar system?
Children learn a great deal of science by reading good books and listening to good teachers explain how things work. They also learn by doing science, and in a good classroom you’ll find students looking through microscopes, digging into dirt samples, poking at specimens, and weighing things. Hands-on explorations are vital. They teach about scientific inquiry, which includes steps like collecting information, forming hypotheses, conducting observations, and making inferences. Children must practice those skills to learn them. Getting their hands dirty in the lab shows students that science is for everyone, not just scientists, and it makes this subject fun. Most teachers will tell you that experiments and demonstrations are great for stimulating curiosity.
There are a few other marks of excellence you should look for. One is lessons and teachers that grab kids’ imaginations. The best science teachers often have a streak of the showman in them. They lure their customers into the store with a nifty trick or two. You might see a good teacher mixing up a batch of slime, lifting three students with a lever, or using static electricity to make her own hair stand on end. She might show a video of an astronaut dropping a hammer and a feather side by side on the moon. These kinds of “gee whiz” science lessons spark interest and set the stage for serious learning.
Look to see that the science curriculum is integrated with other core subjects. As your child progresses, you should see him putting math lessons to use in science class by measuring, calculating, graphing, and using equations like S = d/t (average speed is equal to total distance divided by total time). English lessons should be put to use by teachers asking for concise written explanations of the results of experiments. Students should gain historical perspective about scientific endeavors in both their history and their science classes. They should hear and read stories about Copernicus studying the heavens, about Jonas Salk’s fight against polio, about Marie Curie’s work isolating radium. Such episodes provide concrete examples of how the scientific enterprise works. They are also an important part of our intellectual heritage.