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If pre-K and elementary teachers are going to be better equipped to teach science, they need better training during teacher preparation programs — and that training should be followed by long-term support. That’s one of the main findings of a new report by the American Institute for Research, (AIR), which looks at strategies to improve science teaching in the early grades.

Researchers sifted through more than two dozen studies of programs that aimed to improve science teaching from pre-K through elementary school, and found several key strategies that enhanced teacher content knowledge, boosted the quality of science lessons and led to better student outcomes in science. Among these approaches were making sure aspiring teachers have a strong grasp of science concepts, giving science training to mentor teachers (who often support new teachers), and offering educators long-term guidance as they roll out science lessons in the classroom.

These findings could be helpful as schools and teacher preparation programs look for ways to improve science education, particularly in the early grades. Prior research found that teachers of young children are frequently up against many challenges when it comes to science instruction. Although young children are often interested in and engaged by science, teachers do not always receive the right training or resources to support this early interest. For example, early ed teachers, nervous about teaching inaccurately, are less likely to offer science lessons to their students.

Also, science lessons often take a back seat to instruction in other areas; they are frequently bumped from the schedule to allow teachers to deal with exhaustive math and English standards and looming state tests. A 2018 survey found students in kindergarten through third grade are taught science for an average of 18 minutes a day, compared with 89 minutes for English language arts and nearly an hour for math.

The new AIR report, which reviewed 25 projects funded by a National Science Foundation program aimed at improving pre-K and elementary science teaching, suggests that some of these trends can change if better training and professional development are offered all around.

Researchers found, for example, that science instruction improves when teachers-in-training take science classes taught by science professors, rather than learning about science through a methods course within the teacher ed department. Although such courses generally offer instructional strategies, it’s preferable for teachers to build the strong foundation in general science concepts that is taught by science professors, said Danielle Ferguson, a senior researcher at AIR.

At the same time, providing science training to mentor teachers — typically more experienced educators who provide coaching and support to new teachers — can also improve science education. Despite having extensive classroom experience, mentor teachers may not necessarily be well-versed in science content, Ferguson said. Because there is generally little training in how to teach science, misconceptions or ineffective science instruction strategies can “get passed down from one generation of teachers to the next,” she added.

Researchers found that mentor teachers became more confident with science content and strategies for teaching science after they received professional development instruction. One study included in the AIR report found that after participating in training, mentor teachers shifted from discussing classroom management strategies to focusing on quality elementary science instruction. That focus then filtered down to the new teachers they were coaching, and those new teachers went on to deliver more high-quality science lessons to their students.

Several research projects included in the report also looked at the benefits of sustained professional development experiences, which were defined as those that last a year or longer, rather than the “one-shot workshops” that are common in professional development. Researchers found the long-term professional development experiences provided much-needed support as teachers taught science to young children. Students’ content knowledge also increased after their teachers received long-term support.

The long-term professional development training offered to teachers varies. It can include several activities, such as video-based lessons, online coaching and feedback for teachers based on recorded lessons. Ferguson said regardless of what method was used within the training, simply having long-term support had a positive impact.

“Having sustained [professional development] seemed to be beneficial for the teachers and the students,” she said. “Just the time and access to someone that could work through whatever resource they were using, was important.”

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