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What about science?

By September 27, 2012June 13th, 201610 Comments

Science blogSo often we hear parents talk about their children digging in the dirt, chasing butterflies during baseball games, and climbing trees. Or that their children are experimenting in the kitchen by mixing salt, water, and corn syrup…just to see what happens. Children are natural scientists, enthusiastic and motivated to discover more about the world around them.

Research suggests that the majority of adult scientists developed their interest in the field prior to middle school (Maltese & Tai, 2010) suggesting that early exposure to science at the middle and younger grades is important to attract students into science and engineering (Tai, Liu, Maltese, & Fan, 2007). Yet many children do not receive adequate science instruction in the early grades. At a time when educators could turn children’s curiosity into a lifelong passion for science, instruction is often narrowly focused on mathematics and reading.

In 2009, only one-third of U.S. fourth graders scored proficient or above in science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Inadequate exposure to science content among students, low levels of student motivation toward science, and poor teacher preparation and self-efficacy in science may lead to this marginal science achievement. Students who do not learn science during the elementary years are likely to have poor science understanding through adulthood.

While we recognize the need for scientifically literate citizens, the time and demand for good elementary science teaching often does not get the same attention as mathematics and literacy. We might not realize that both mathematics and literacy are integral to learning science and can therefore be naturally woven into a science lesson. For example, a student who digs in the dirt might be asked to examine how many different species of life can be found in a 2 meter square area. With that science content, the student can create a graph, write about the results, or read about the insects found.

Why don’t we capitalize on this opportunity to provide exciting and meaningful science experiences for our young children?  What challenges or barriers do you face in teaching science?

Written by McREL lead consultant, Cynthia Long, and senior director, Sheila Arens.



Maltese, A. V. Tai, R. H. (2010). Eyeballs in the fridge: Sources of early interest in science. International Journal of Science Education, 32(5) 669-685.

Tai, R. T., Liu, C. Q., Maltese, A. V., Fan, X. T. (2006, May 26). Planning early for careers in science. Science, 312 (5777), 1143-1144. (NOTE: I think Cyndi inadvertently indicated this was 2007 in the blog; it should be 2006).

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Matt Telecky says:

    This is a great article, I think many schools are changing since 2009, I know in our school elementary school in Minnesota we have committed much more time and resources to science education. Which is important for us middle school science teachers. I can certainly see a difference in the science backgrounds of our students as they enter the middle school.

  • Jessica Moyer says:

    This blog makes some very interesting points. It is amazing to see how the time spent on science education now compared to 10 years ago has changed so significantly. Fifteen minutes every other day is just not enough time. Science is the world around us and it is a shame that students do not realize that. I am lucky that I work in a private school where students get 1 hour of science every day. Even the elementary students get 30-45 minutes depending on the grade level. When we get students from the public schools, I am amazed at the lack of science education they received. Great points about science being cross-curricular as well. I use math and literacy daily in my lessons.

  • Meghan Fitzpatrick says:

    In my district, science is certainly not emphasized in the elementary grades. Last year, I taught third grade. Upon entering the grade level, my partners told me that they do science and social studies “if they get to it”. We are doing a grave disservice to the children by doing this. As stated in the post, students are natural scientists. Children love exploring and experimenting. Science also teaches essential critical thinking skills such as making inferences, predicting, synthesizing, and drawing conclusions. Science also provides a practical contextual platform for math. Scientists constantly measure, create graphs, and analyze data. I think that teachers are not comfortable with science content, therefore avoid the subject. Districts should provide more professional development on science. We should capitalize on a subject students love and are motivated to learn more about.

  • Kari Nguyen says:

    I agree that science does not get the same time and devotion as other subjects (like math and reading). In many classrooms, teachers feel like if they have to ‘drop’ one subject, science and social studies are it. Yet, when I ask my students what their favorite subject is, almost all say science. In Georgia, science has become an indicator for AYP, so my school has really made science a focus. We plan our science units thoughtfully and have a big celebration of learning at the end of each semester. Science is important–it’s where our future is–so I believe teachers should make it a priority.

  • Tonya Prentice says:

    It’s sad that only 1/3 of our fourth graders scored proficient or above on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Science is all about teaching our kids to question and discover how the world around them works. I feel it is the easiest subject to motivate and engage our students, because it should be hands-on. Also, students can connect and relate science to their own lives. I agree that lack of time and confidence to teach science has caused teachers to put science near the bottom of the priority list.

  • Science is one of the most important subject that children must have. This can enhance their skills about matters and other related forms about Sciences.

  • Bonita says:

    If teachers are not teaching Science to younger years due to lack of time, confidence etc., is this a case then for the introduction of science subject teachers who take the class for a period of time each week instead of the regular classroom teacher? Does this have merits for science education in the long run? Or does it simply create more difficulties for the organisation of schools?

  • Jo Norrish says:

    As a teacher I want my students (yr 8) to do more science hands-on activities at home but without ‘forcing’ them. I want to inspire them to explore. I need help in planning for this in my lessons.
    I am at an impasse as I have conflicting feelings about it.
    (Because, as a parent I hated having assignments or activities for my children -then yr 4-6- to be done. Usually by me, because some sort of assessment was attached and the child was distressed as time had run out.)

  • Amy Farlee says:

    I think this is a great article to emphasize the importance of science in earlier education. A lot of emphasis is put on math and reading instruction, while science sometimes gets pushed onto the backburner. A great point is addressed also with incorporating many other standards within the science curriculum. Students love to do hands-on activities, and science has a lot of opportunities for many types of instruction.

  • Rachel Delaney says:

    This year our school is introducing a new science special to our children. Our school is in the process of working towards STEM certification. The science specials teacher will be working with the teachers to help them implement more science into their classrooms. I’m really looking forward to this year with more science in the classroom! My students love doing science experiments but we often do not have enough time due to schedule restrictions and lack of equipment and supplies. I’m hoping to learn some new ways to incorporate science this year!

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