An alarmingly few amount of students are choosing to major in a STEM (Science, technology, engineering and/or math) field today, at a time when federal and international agencies are calling for more rigorous science as a critical and fundamental need to ensure the survival of our planet. Today, teachers are preparing students for careers that do not exist yet; thus, STEM education is a significant priority. The need for students to be both scientifically literate and able to think critically about environmental, biological and technological solutions is imminent and profound.
With so many socio-scientific issues of importance to modern society (for example, climate change and cloning), the presence of science curriculum beginning in elementary school is becoming critical to our future. Students without prior science background knowledge are less prepared for secondary school science and may have a lower expectancy for success in science, potentially affecting their choice of college major. In fact, every year the federal government contributes hundreds of millions of dollars into recruiting students into STEM majors because the numbers are too few. Students may not choose to enter STEM fields for a number of reasons, and among the many possible reasons is a low self-efficacy for understanding and ‘doing’ science due to insufficient preparation in American universities, they don’t value the subject based on valuations of the current accountability model (passed along indirectly by teachers’ value of science), and they have been historically marginalized in their science identities (Carlone, Haun-Frank, & Webb, 2011; Carlone, 2004). If science were equitably and effectively taught science during the early learning years, students would likely develop deeper scientific thinking and practices and would be more likely to choose science courses in high school and beyond (Hurd, 1958); this idea was described by Paul Hurd in ASCD’s flagship publication, Educational Leadership, in 1958 and yet we still seem to be facing the same challenge in 2016. I argue this is (at least partially) because we have not broken the negative self-efficacy cycle that surrounds science education.
While this is a problem that is broadly plaguing our school system, the problem begins most pervasively at the elementary level. Many elementary teachers do not have a strong sense of self-efficacy for teaching science (Palmer, 2006; Shrigley & Johnson, 1974; Ramey‐Gassert, Shroyer & Staver, 1996; Menon & Sadler, 2016; Cannon & Scharmann, 1996; Riggs & Enochs, 1990), and thus, many elementary teachers do not teach science regularly (Spillane, Diamond, Walker, Halverson & Jita, 2001). This can lead to students’ lack of science experiences upon which to build background knowledge in science. This lack of background knowledge leads to low student self-efficacy for learning and doing science in future years, and that results in student choices that steer away from science or science teaching. Thus, a negative cycle of science self-efficacy is created. However, elementary teachers are certainly not to blame… at large, elementary educators work exceptionally hard and place a high value on professional learning. The structure of the US educational system is to blame… and we must begin to address it.
Low self-efficacy for elementary science teaching may stem from: teachers’ inadequate preparation due to a failure of teacher education programs to require science content courses and science teaching methods courses for elementary educators, lack of prior science experiences during childhood years, pressure from the accountability system in US education (which privileges reading and math), insufficient science teaching resources, insufficient coaching and the lack of attention on science by school leadership. The lack of attention by school leadership is primarily connected to current accountability measures which deprioritize science in elementary schools because science is often not tested (or much less often tested), compared to reading and math (Spillane et al., 2001). Thus, the culture of high-stakes accountability that has infiltrated our schools recently has driven teachers away from teaching any topic that is not immediately assessed, driving science (and social studies) to the bottom of the priority list.
However, if the accountability system recognized the impact of science instruction on literacy achievement and if elementary teachers’ were adequately prepared for teaching science during their teacher education programs, science would be more likely to be regularly and effectively taught in elementary school. In order to promote students’ future engagement in (and value of) science, we must begin teaching science early in the schooling years, when learning and self-efficacy beliefs are most malleable. To be clear, I am not arguing for the addition of more high-stakes measures; rather, I argue for an overhaul to the accountability system entirely. The pervasive problem of lack of teacher preparation in science and a misalignment between the accountability system and the call for STEM education is one that deserves more attention in research and implementation. This is an important endeavor because the fate of our planet and our species could one day rest in the hands of students who are in elementary school right now, sans a science education.
Cannon, J. R., & Scharmann, L. C. (1996). Influence of a Cooperative Early Field Experience on Preservice Elementary Teachers' Science Self‐efficacy. Science Education, 80(4), 419-436.
Carlone, H. B. (2004). The Cultural Production of Science in Reform‐based Physics: Girls' Access,
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Carlone, H. B., Haun‐Frank, J., & Webb, A. (2011). Assessing Equity beyond Knowledge and Skills‐based Outcomes: A Comparative Ethnography of Two Fourth‐grade Reform‐based Science Classrooms. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(5), 459-485.
Hurd, P.D. (1958). Science literacy: Its Meaning for American Schools. Educational Leadership, 16(1),13-16.
Menon, D., & Sadler, T. D. (2016). Preservice Elementary Teachers’ Science Self-Efficacy Beliefs and Science Content Knowledge. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 27(6), 649-673.
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