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Keeping Science on the Agenda

Elaine Woo

Competing reform agendas can have both positive and negative effects on a science program's sustainability. A major reform that has coincided with our LSC is the advent of high stakes accountability. As in other school districts across the nation, we are faced with pressure to raise high stakes test scores in reading, writing and mathematics. Unfortunately, this focus draws attention away from science instruction. There are, however, strategies to help keep science instruction on the forefront. One major strategy is integration. Integration would be important for student learning and for collapsing time in any case; now we highlight how integration will support student achievement in both writing and mathematics.

This paper describes how we have approached integration of science with literacy and with mathematics. By integrating inquiry-based science with both expository writing and the statistics strand of mathematics in a deep way, we have created a purpose for on-going science instruction.

In order to be effective, integration must be meaningful. Integration can become superficial unless the standards of each subject are addressed. For example, if students write physics poems, they most likely will not be focusing on explaining their conceptual understanding. More likely, they would write about definitions or more superficial aspects of the concept or the processes used in their investigation. Sometimes objects are humanized and students write stories; the storyline can lead to misconceptions. If students explain their thinking about what they observed in a physics investigation, provide data, and then write their conclusions, they would be much more likely addressing the physics related standards.

Using science notebooks to integrate science and literacy
A major focus in our district is literacy. When children receive support for writing in a content area, they not only improve their technical writing capabilities, but they have the opportunity to further develop and strengthen their thinking, and at the same time deepen their conceptual understanding of the science concepts they have investigated. Consequently, taking a focus on the science notebooks has become very important.

Expository writing in science notebooks is one of the most immediate points of integration with inquiry-based science. We want students to do science as scientists do; scientists write their observations, reflections, and conclusions in their notebooks. They illustrate and label these illustrations, collect data, and make charts and graphs to organize the data before analyzing it. With appropriate guidance, children can do the same. Research provides additional justification that a strategy like the Science Notebook Program supports literacy. "The connection between reading and writing is... evident in research, which has shown that students who are taught how to write and edit different forms of expository text improve their comprehension of the content textbooks." (Raphael, Kirschner and Englert, Teaching Reading in the Content Areas: If Not Me, Then Who?,1988)

Since our pilot year, we have searched for strategies our teachers can use to help their students write in science notebooks. In the fourth year of the project, we embarked on the development of a unique, well-defined science notebook program. We hired a science resource teacher who has a very strong background in English and language arts; she also implemented science units in her classroom in an exemplary way. In this new role, she began to work more intensely on ideas she had been developing while teaching the science units in her classroom with the following outcomes: enhanced student performance on state and district tests in science and expository writing, especially for underachieving students; increased reasoning and problem solving abilities; and improved skills in such expository forms as observation, comparison, explanation, and analysis. In the fifth and sixth years of the LSC, we received a separate grant so that this resource teacher could continue to develop the science notebook program. Three components emerged: a supplementary writing curriculum for the eighteen grade-level science units for the K-5 program; writing sessions (professional development) for teachers who are in the LSC science program; and the Lead Science Writing Teachers team.

To help sustain the Science Notebook Program, we have developed a Lead Science Writing Teacher group. In recruiting teachers for this group, we found we were able to help motivate some teachers with strong language arts backgrounds to become more interested in science instruction. These classroom teachers meet with the resource teacher about eight times during the school year and attend the five sessions for their grade level. These teachers try the strategies with their students and then together in the Lead Science Writing Teachers' sessions adjust and refine those strategies. They assess student work and then design their next teaching strategies based on that assessment. Finally, they provide student work for the resource teacher to use as examples in the Science Notebook classes, and they share their experiences with other teachers in these class discussions.

Over seven hundred of the nearly one thousand elementary teachers in our district have attended at least one of the Expository Writing and Science Notebook classes. Many teachers come to several classes. Teachers who are implementing the strategies in a comprehensive fashion and who come to multiple sessions of the notebook classes are finding that their students' writing and statewide mathematics scores are going up. (We do not yet have a statewide science assessment.) In our state mandated mathematics assessments, students are required to explain their thinking and problem solving in writing. Teachers say that a number of their students look up to the science writing frames on the classroom walls for support and use other science writing strategies for completing their mathematics assessments. The teachers of one school, whose statewide mathematics scores increased 21%, felt the problem solving developed in the science investigations and the expository writing practice in science notebooks heavily impacted these scores. When teachers see this transfer of skills from science to mathematics, they are more likely to continue consistent science investigations and science notebook writing in their classrooms.

Using statistics to integrate science with the math program
Another area of meaningful integration is with the mathematics strand of statistics. We provide a course called Data Analysis that provides strategies for helping teachers to address the mathematics standards related to statistics while teaching science.

Early in the project, a research professor from the Department of Biostatistics and Division of Medical Genetics at the University of Washington identified every kit that had activities with reasonable possibilities for graphing and statistical data analysis. She then created a course and packet that provides assistance in extending science kit activities into the statistics strand of the mathematics curriculum. The graphs and charts suggested for use with the kit activities were chosen to emphasize the national, state and local essential learning standards in mathematics. These graphs and charts are well matched both to Addison Wesley-Scott Foresman and the TERC Investigations purchased by our district. The packet contains descriptions of various graphing styles, when to use them, and how to set up class graphs. The packet is meant to clarify the uses of the graphing styles in the context of the specific data analysis activities designed for each kit.

Seven types of graphs are suggested: bar plots, line plots, histograms, stem-n-leaf plots, box plots, time series plots, and scatterplots. In addition, the two-way table is also introduced. The two terms "plot" and "graph" are used as synonyms. There is also extensive use of different ways of extending these types of plots, including back-to-back and parallel plots. Not all types of graphs are appropriate for use in the younger grades, and not all graphing styles can be used in each kit. In a few cases, we can offer advice for modifications to the kit manual that make the activities more usable. For example, one resource teacher noted that when the modified graphing approaches were used, in some situations the students grasped the scientific concepts much more easily than when the original graphing methods were used.

The researcher advises that it is important for students to become familiar with all of the graphing methods used during the kit activities. In many cases, the graphs will help to emphasize and clarify the science concepts, so that even if students have mastered the graphing technique, they may still benefit from use of a graphing session to explore the science. This reinforces the statistical concepts. The way the graphs are constructed - generally with objects, post-its, or dots, makes the graphing of class data very fast so that the time element of constructing graphs is not a barrier in their use in the kit data analyses. (2)

We have not yet been able to analyze students' test scores before and after their teacher has this course, but teachers report back that they see their students' scores on statistics items rise on high stakes tests. One third grade teacher said, "I used many of the activities with my students. I was amazed at how my students' ITBS scores increased in the data collection and graphing sections." A district teacher leader stated, "Clear connections are made between our mathematics and science curricula... There is a nice balance of support provided to help teachers develop their own understanding of statistics and to learn various ways to work with their students to meet the standards in statistics."

In conclusion
Certainly, science should be taught in elementary school because it is a core subject. Sometime in the future this will be the case. As we transition into the new paradigm, however, teachers will be more willing to spend time teaching science if they have effective methods for integrating other core subjects. It is the right thing to do in any case. While we do not encourage teaching to the test, we believe it is important to provide tools and strategies for helping teachers prepare their students for required assessments as well as for the workforce and quality of life. There are not many available strategies to help elementary teachers to teach expository writing and our state writing assessments show that students need to improve in this area. We have provided this. Statistics is a challenging area for many elementary teachers, and in the Data Analysis class, we give teachers some general background as well as some meaningful strategies for applying statistics in science. Science is more likely to be sustained in the classroom and in a district where teachers receive high quality support for implementing such strategies for integration.

(1) The Expository Writing and Science Notebooks work is developed by Betsy Rupp Fulwiler, a Science Curriculum Consultant in the K-5 Inquiry-Based Science Program.

(2) This workshop is based on the Exploring Data Workshop of the grant "Quantitative Literacy in the Elementary Mathematics Curriculum" (EQL), with modifications of specific activities to integrate with Seattle's LSC curriculum. EQL was developed through the American Statistical Association with major funding from the National Science Foundation and support from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the Association of Elementary Principals. Dale Seymour Publications publishes many of the EQL workshop activities now in the series "Exploring Statistics in Elementary Grades." Initial training for this workshop in the State of Washington was provided with Eisenhower funding, through the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Dr. Ellen Wijsman, a research professor from the Department of Biostatistics and Division of Medical Genetics at the University of Washington, leads the development and instruction for our Data Analysis Course.

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