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GULFPORT, Miss. — Two 10th-graders stand over a large whiteboard in their chemistry class at Gulfport High School, trying to recall the previous day’s experiment so they can present it to the class.
“What substances did we use?” the first student asks.
His classmate picks up a paper with notes and examines it for a moment. “It was sodium hydroxide and…”
The first interrupts excitedly before his classmate can finish and quickly writes on the whiteboard. “It was sodium bicarbonate decomposed to create disodium oxide in water. And carbon dioxide.”
At Gulfport High, such hands-on learning through experiments is common. Laboratories are well stocked with equipment and supplies. The school boasts a large classroom dedicated to building and testing robots, and its robotic team has won several awards. There’s even a separate wing where students can practice in-demand skills like repairing cars and welding.
Gulfport High, though, is an anomaly in Mississippi, a state that lags behind in both the types of science classes offered and the way students are taught. Students post some of the lowest test scores in the country on national tests. Only 19 percent of Mississippi’s eighth-graders scored proficient or advanced on a 2011 national science exam, compared to 31 percent of all U.S. students who took the exam.
Research has found that hands-on learning and collaboration can be very effective ways to teach science and boost interest in the subject. Yet just 42 percent of eighth-graders in Mississippi do hands-on activities or investigations at least once a week, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
That’s a big problem for a state already having trouble graduating high-school students with sufficient science skills for higher education and the many STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs expected to become available in the near future.
“The kids are just underprepared,” said Joe Whitehead Jr., dean of the College of Science & Technology at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, who said many freshmen graduate from Mississippi’s public high schools without encountering physics or advanced math, like calculus.
Some experts believe the root of Mississippi’s problem is a weak teacher-preparation pipeline, with programs that don’t provide the skills or deep knowledge of science necessary for educators to teach it well.
There is no national standard for the number of classes related to science that aspiring elementary-school teachers must take; preparation programs vary greatly in how much, or how little, they teach teachers about science.
“Most elementary teachers often don’t have the content background to teach science, and have sort of a science phobia,” said John Rudolph, a professor of science education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In addition, the amount of classroom time spent on science in the younger grades is declining. Elementary teachers in Mississippi spend an average of just 2.4 hours per week on science instruction, slightly higher than the national average of 2.3 hours.
At the same time, the hours dedicated to math and reading have steadily increased over the past decade. Teachers now spend an average of 5.6 hours a week teaching math in elementary schools, and nearly 12 hours teaching English language arts, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Educators are also increasingly teaching science through reading rather than through hands-on learning, which can make the subject less appealing to students.
A visit to Lori Johnson’s second-grade classroom in rural northeastern Mississippi illustrates why. On a recent spring morning at Saltillo Primary School, Johnson’s second-graders were spread out across her room in small groups, clutching Post-it notes as they examined a passage about the Earth’s layers.
“Find your words worth noticing,” instructed Johnson, as she circulated around the room to help students. “We do a lot of vocabulary for science,” Johnson explained.
The room erupted in chatter as students chose words from the text, wrote them on sticky notes, and added them to a growing cluster of vocabulary words posted on a chart at the front of the room.
Johnson’s was a typical elementary science lesson possibly aimed at improving test scores, according to Rudolph. While some students searched the passage earnestly for new vocabulary words, others skimmed the passage quickly and then opted to draw a picture to visually depict the vocabulary words that group-mates had found.
It was the second part of her lesson—where Johnson had the class build a Play-Doh replica of the Earth—that truly generated excitement.
“What color do you think we’re going to use to represent the mantle?” Johnson asked.
“Red,” answered one student. “It’s really hot.”
“When we get to the crust, we’re going to use blue,” Johnson said. The class grew loud with confusion.
“Why?” Johnson prompted, as the class quieted down.
“About 70 percent of the Earth is made of water,” responded a student.
After finishing the directions, Johnson dismissed groups of students to begin. Back at their desks, the second-graders buzzed with excitement as they got to work.
By the end of high school, research has found that the initial enthusiasm for studying science so evident in Johnson’s class may die out, according to a 2010 report by the Raytheon Company.
Some students grow discouraged by repeatedly low scores on STEM tests. 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.
In many schools across the country, science instruction tends to focus heavily on preparing for state tests.
In Jill Daniel’s class at Saltillo Elementary School on a recent morning, the fifth-graders sat silently listening to directions for their test review game. The students had just 16 days to prepare for the first science assessment of their educational careers.
“The students aren’t used to taking rigorous science tests,” Daniel said, as she prepared to lead the review. Some concepts, especially in the physical sciences, are challenging because they’re so abstract and students have little background in them, she said. “Especially since it’s kind of put to the wayside in other grades. By the time they get to fifth grade, it’s pretty deep for them.”
While some students start fifth grade performing on grade-level, Daniel said many lack the study skills necessary to do well on state tests that involve extensive memorization.
“The hardest part is remembering everything,” agreed 11-year-old Seth Clark, as he sat with two classmates, stumped by the test question projected on the board.
After a few minutes of debate, the group was last to raise their white board with their answer tentatively written on it. The three boys breathed a sigh of relief when told they were correct.
“That was a wild guess,” Clark confessed in a whisper, wiping his white board clean.
Mississippi’s fifth-graders have traditionally had a tough time with the state’s science test. Last year, only 54 percent of students scored proficient or advanced, and there was a large gap in the performance of white and black students. Just 36 percent of black students tested proficient or above, compared to 72 percent of white students.
Kendra Taylor, program supervisor for technology education and STEM in the Mississippi Department of Education, says that schools’ lack of resources could be contributing to this achievement gap.
For the past four years, Taylor has been pushing schools across the state to join the state’s STEM Cluster program, which provides sequences of classes in 33 schools to prepare students for some of the state’s major STEM industries, like engineering and polymer science.
This year, in anticipation of new job opportunities, the state added an energy technology program.
“I think it’s important that we try to ensure that our students are successful and have the skill-set where they can be successful in those types of careers,” Taylor said.
But Joe Whitehead Jr. of the University of Southern Mississippi believes that it’ll take more than four years of STEM classes to improve student preparation. “Kids need exposure over a number of years in these subjects to really learn it,” he said.
Some educators say that Mississippi’s adoption of new common math and English language arts standards—which 44 other states have also adopted—may improve outcomes in science. The standards emphasize reading nonfiction texts, which Lori Johnson said has increased the amount of time students learn about science concepts during instruction in other subjects.
New science standards, which were developed by 26 states and unveiled earlier this year, have yet to be adopted by Mississippi. Several scientists and groups like the National Science Teachers Association have endorsed the standards, saying they will better prepare students to enter college and the STEM workforce.
For students in Mississippi who wish to major in a STEM field but are underprepared when they graduate from high school, Whitehead says that community colleges could play a key role. Although the University of Southern Mississippi sees about 200 students transfer out of biological sciences a year, they gain back the same number with students who transfer in from community colleges.
“The transfer population have already gone through the general-education courses and what we call the ‘gatekeeper courses’ on the STEM side,” Whitehead said. “If we want to solve the problem on a long-term basis, we’re going to have to change the mainstream secondary school system. We need to do a better job helping students understand what science and engineering [are] all about.”