In 2008, Tzipor Ulman launched a non-profit program, Science is Elementary, in hopes of improving science education in high-poverty San Francisco-area elementary schools. For years, California has lagged behind the rest of the nation in science, posting some of the lowest average scores on national assessments. In 2009, the state’s eighth-graders scored lower than every other state but Mississippi on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In 2012, only 60 percent of California’s fifth-graders scored proficient or advanced on the state’s science test. A large achievement gap exists between Hispanic students, who make up about 52 percent of students in the state, and white students. In 2011, 41 percent of white eighth-graders scored proficient or advanced on the national science exam, compared to only 11 percent of Hispanic students.
The dismal scores may be the result of science being pushed to the back burner. One study found that 40 percent of elementary school teachers in the state spend 60 minutes or less on science each week. More than 70 percent of those teachers blame this on an increasing emphasis on the more frequently tested subject areas of math and English language arts, or a lack of funding for science supplies.
The Science is Elementary program is attempting to enhance science instruction by placing volunteer scientists and engineers into Kindergarten-5th grade classrooms in six San Francisco-area schools. The volunteers, who visit the schools monthly, lead hands-on science experiments and research projects based on California state standards and the recently released Next Generation Science Standards. The Hechinger Report recently spoke to founder and Executive Director Tzipor Ulman. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Question: Why is there a need for a program like Science is Elementary?
Answer: I think there are two reasons. One is that teachers aren’t really prepared to teach science, partially because there’s no science test until 5th grade in California. Science is not important—or it doesn’t seem important—because students are not tested on it. When we have districts that are worried about their test scores, it’s very difficult for even an amazing, creative teacher to teach in the way that he or she wants to because of the constraints that are put on that teacher.
In terms of teacher preparation, when I spoke to teachers before I started, most of them took maybe one class in their [teacher preparation] program. They don’t feel comfortable teaching science. It’s not enough to have awesome high school programs. We need to start at the beginning of [a child’s] education, which is kindergarten.
Q: How is your program different and perhaps more helpful to teachers than an afterschool or summer program?
A: Afterschool programs and summer programs are great, but they cater to a smaller population. In all the schools we go to, we teach all the grade levels. We reach everyone. We work with lower-income students. A lot of those students have parents who are not aware that the afterschool programs exist, or they can’t afford them. We have continuity. We see the same group of kids every month during the school year, from kindergarten until fifth grade. When we go into the classroom, we go with the same staff person and almost always the same volunteers.
We would rather teach students fewer concepts but in a very deep way so they walk away actually understanding them, and are able to apply it. We do very little lecturing. Everything that we do is hands-on.
Q: Research has found that about 60 percent of the nation’s eighth-graders who are proficient in science will decide not to pursue STEM careers while still in high school. Why aren’t more students interested or invested in science in the long term?
A: Science in general is taught very poorly in the United States. Not just as the elementary level, but I would say all the way through the college level. Teachers tend to give children facts, figures and equations, and then give them problems to solve without really connecting it to anything in the real world. It seems dry and boring. The exciting thing about science is looking at the world around you and asking questions. ‘How come the Golden Gate Bridge actually stands up?’ It’s much more interesting that way.
We need to flip the way that we teach. We need to ask children, ‘what peaks your interest?’ and then go and find out what in the world around you makes that happen. All these things that are so relevant to us that we make use of in our everyday life, those things can all be explained by science.
What are the goals of your program and how do you measure them?
Our goal is, in the younger grades, to get kids really excited about science and curious about it. At the higher grades, I want them to be able to carry on experiments on their own and really understand how to do that. We did several assessments last year and asked them open-ended questions: ‘Draw a picture, here’s a mirror and a flashlight, draw a picture of the light.’ I don’t think that multiple choice is very useful in assessments. [Open-ended] really helps us know if they actually understand it. The problems that the world is facing—climate change, natural resources deprivations, water shortages—all these things are things that really, science and engineering can solve. And without science education, that’s not going to happen.