Science is not boring, so why do so many middle and high school students think it is? According to Cindy Passmore, assistant professor and an expert on science education, students most often experience science in school as the memorization of facts and procedures with little practical utility or intellectual interest.
“This results in an impoverished view of science as an intellectual enterprise,” said Passmore.
Students should have the opportunity to reason like scientists if we hope to ensure long-term understanding and inspire greater numbers of youth to pursue careers in science, according to Passmore. Model-based instruction, in which students observe a phenomenon and then reason through experimentation how that phenomenon occurred provides a different strategy for teaching science that has demonstrated its value in achieving these goals.
For example, instead of having a teacher describe the water cycle and then asking students to memorize the terms and processes, teachers would start with a phenomenon—evaporation—and ask students to conduct experiments to determine where the water went, why and how.
“There are a lot of good things happening and a lot of great teachers, but the challenge is to break out of the cycle of rote memorization and do things differently,” said Passmore.
Finding ways to answer this challenge is Passmore’s passion, and what better place to start than with science teachers themselves?
Recently, Passmore received a five-year $1.75 million grant from the National Science Foundation to fund a unique professional development project for science teachers. Two cohorts of 30 science teachers will spend three years rethinking their instruction, interacting with university faculty, and providing leadership to peers along the way.
“If we can help teachers adopt instruction that focuses on reasoning and experimentation, our hope is that their students will be able to make better connections among the content they study, which will help them retain the knowledge, “said Passmore.
As it stands, students aren’t really learning how to think. “They get very good at memorization, but that doesn’t get you very far when you are looking to solve a problem,” said Passmore.
Most importantly, students engaged in real-world science experience first-hand the excitement of discovery and may be more likely to pursue science in college and beyond.
Ultimately, for Passmore, this approach helps students realize that science is, more than anything else, about “making sense of the world with the tools we have.”