STEM Beats - science

From Chem Lab to Crayon Box

May 11, 2017

In 2009, chemists at Oregon State University (OSU) discovered a new blue color—the first new blue in over 200 years—purely by happenstance.

“People have been looking for a good, durable blue color for a couple of centuries,” said Mas Subramanian, a professor of material science in the lab where they made this discovery, told NPR last summer.

But why is blue so coveted—besides being America’s favorite color? Looking at the earth’s oceans and sky, there certainly seems to be no lack of the pigment.

“Blue pigments can’t be readily extracted from the natural environment,” said scientist and blue-enthusiast Marc Walton. “So, artisans across the millennia have had to use their innovative abilities to manufacture synthetic blue pigments.”

When referencing difficult extraction, Walton talked about the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli—a deep blue metamorphic rock found in Afghanistan.  This stone has mesmerized the world since the beginning of time. In fact, the word for blue in many languages, including the English azure, comes from the latin name of this stone.

The history and science of manufactured blue pigments as well as the world’s love of it, opened the door for commercial use of Subramanian’s bright and durable material.

The staff at Crayola, especially, jumped at the chance to bring a new blue to the littlest consumers. Crayola collaborated with OSU and Shepherd Color Company to add the shade to the crayon box.

“Curiosity starts at a young age, as chemists we are curious just like kids,” Subramanian said. “I can understand the excitement of adding a new crayon color to the box, like adding a new element to the periodic table,”. 

Now, Crayola wants your help naming the color! Submit your suggestions on Crayola’s website through June 2. And on July 1, cast your vote for one of the top five color names. 

Photo courtesy of Crayola.

Tags: science

Lack of Teacher Support Prolongs the Elementary Science Drought

May 10, 2017

On Monday, we explored the troubling state of science education in the nation’s elementary schools. One likely reason for the drought? We argued that elementary teachers are unlikely to spend much time teaching science, because they feel so ill prepared to teach it. 

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress support our suspicions. They show a compelling relationship between the amount of professional development fourth-grade teachers receive in science and the number of hours they spend teaching it.

Fourth-grade teachers who receive more training in science instruction spend more time on science

Fourth-grade teachers who receive training on lab activities spend more time teaching science

Yes, these data do not prove a causal relationship between professional development and instructional time, but they do support a pattern that shouldn’t be surprising: the elementary science drought will probably continue unless teachers get the support they need. 

Tags: science, Next Generation Science Standards, teachers

Will Elementary Science Remain the Forgotten Stepchild of School Reform?

May 8, 2017

Great science standards can help schools accomplish great things, but only if those schools spend time teaching them. That may sound like a truism, but that simple fact could hamstring efforts to improve science education across the country.

Change the Equation dug into survey data from the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for fourth-grade science and found that many of the nation’s elementary school children were on a starvation diet of thin and infrequent science instruction. Elementary teachers received precious little professional development in the kinds of science instruction favored by new science standards adopted by dozens of states, including the Next Generation Science Standards.

If these conditions do not change, the new standards may not fulfill their promise, and states may squander a vital chance to give children a strong foundation for achievement in middle school science and beyond.1

Fortunately, states can adopt policies to encourage much more robust science teaching in elementary schools. By including elementary science in their school accountability systems and supporting better professional development, they can counter the forces that drive science out of elementary classrooms.

Hands-on, inquiry-based science is scarce in elementary school

Only about half of the nation’s fourth-graders do hands-on science activities at least once a week, and only one in four have teachers who focus on inquiry skills:

Few 4th-graders engage in hands-on or learn inquiry skills

To put it bluntly, most fourth-graders don’t experience very good science instruction. (And, as we’ll see later, their teachers aren’t really to blame.) Decades of research support the value of hands-on science experiences that develop students’ ability to engage in sustained scientific inquiry. In fact, that research informs the animating vision behind the Next Generation Science Standards, which aim to transform science education in states across the country. That vision is still far from reality.

Few elementary students spend much time on science

One major constraint on elementary science is time. Students who spend little time on science will have less exposure to hands-on, inquiry-based science.

Unfortunately, time for science is a scarce commodity for most U.S. fourth-graders:

Many fourth-graders in in the United States spend little time on science

Most U.S. fourth-graders spend less than three hours a week in science—and one in five don’t even get two hours. A mere 14 percent spend at least five hours a week, or one hour a day, on science. In 12 states, at least two thirds of students fall below the three-hour threshold (To learn where your state stands, visit our Vital Signs website and select your state from the drop-down menu.)

How much time is enough?

Those looking for ironclad consensus on just how much time elementary schools should spend on the subject will look in vain, but few would consider three hours a week a very ambitious target. The National Research Council advises schools to provide enough time for “sustained investigations,”2 and notes that “opportunities to engage in the practices of science require…more time than the 30-45 minute session that elementary schools typically allocate to a science lesson.”3  

After all, children need time to define problems, carry out investigations, analyze data, explain results, design solutions—all priorities inscribed in the Next Generation Science Standards. Children cannot develop scientific habits of mind on the margins of the school day.

Expanding time for elementary science can make a difference

Time is no panacea, but it does clear space for better science teaching. The NAEP data we examined bear this out.

Students who have more time for science in school are more likely to do hands-on activities:4

The more time fourth-graders spend on science, the more often they do hands-on activitie

Their teachers are more likely to emphasize inquiry skills:

The more time fourth-graders spend on science, the more often they practice inquiry skills

And it should surprise no one that they also tend to earn higher science scores on NAEP:

Fourth-graders whose teachers spend more time on science tend to score higher in the subject

No, time alone will not work miracles. If it did, rising time for science would prompt even faster gains in scores. Still, the evidence points to time as a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for student success.

When and why did elementary science become a forgotten stepchild?

States used to recommend more time for science. As far back as 1986, states commonly counseled schools and elementary teachers to devote a minimum of 175 to 225 minutes per week to the subject. Teacher surveys at the time suggested that the average teacher cleared the lower bar, spending roughly 190 minutes on science.

How times have changed. The few states that still make recommendations set the minimum bar higher than three hours, but these days those recommendations are about as binding as a New Year’s resolution:

State recommendations on instruction for elementary science have little effect

Beginning in the late 1980s, states ramped up pressure on schools to lift students’ performance in reading and math, while science tumbled down the priority list. The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act codified accountability for reading and math results in federal law, before The Every Student Succeeds Act replaced it in 2015.

One national teacher survey found that, between 1994 and 2008, the average time for science in grades one through four fell from 3.0 to 2.3 hours, before rebounding somewhat to 2.6 hours by 2012.5 Early in the new millennium, school and district leaders attributed similar trends to No Child Left Behind.

Another reason for the elementary science drought: scant support for teachers

Teachers who aren’t confident in science are probably not inclined to spend much time on it. Many elementary teachers would be among the first to admit self-doubt when it comes to science. In a 2012 survey, only 39 percent said they felt “very well prepared” to teach science.

Small wonder. Few receive much professional development:

Fourth-grade teachers receive little or no good professional development in science

Such lack of support for elementary teachers compounds another problem: few have a strong background in science to begin with. In 2012, only 36 percent of K-5 teachers said they had taken courses in all three of the areas the National Science Teachers Association recommends for every elementary teacher: life, earth, and physical science.

Lack of accountability for science may fuel this dynamic as well. Districts and schools have little incentive to spend precious professional development dollars on elementary science as long as the subject does not count in any school performance ratings.

A tale of two states: making elementary science a priority in schools

The good news is that states can have a dramatic impact on the amount of time elementary teachers spend on science. The difference between Texas and Oregon is instructive:

Texas teachers are much more likely than their Oregon peers to spend time on science

What is Texas doing that Oregon isn’t? Unlike Oregon, Texas makes elementary students’ performance in science count towards schools’ overall accountability ratings. (Schools in states that do so generally devote more time to science.)6 In addition, its elementary teachers are much more likely to receive professional development in science.7 

Both options for bringing elementary science back into the fold are within every state’s grasp. As states submit their plans for holding schools accountable under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), they have the option to add science to the list of indicators on which they will judge schools. States can also provide funds for professional development in elementary science.

It is too early to tell how many states will follow this path—their ESSA plans are still rolling in—but Oregon is making some promising motions. The state’s draft plan says state leaders will consider “including science in the accountability system” after its new science assessment launches in 2018. It also cites the state’s STEM plan, which explicitly aims to boost “time for inquiry-based science” to “at least 3-4 hours per week in elementary school.”

The national data on elementary science may look grim, but advocates for science education should still take heart. As more states adopt new science standards that focus on inquiry and build new science tests to match them, they may yet create more incentives for elementary teachers to teach science—especially if advocates continue to make the case.

Post-script: Take advantage of afterschool!

The troubling data on elementary science should also fan the flames of afterschool advocacy. The fact that millions of children get such a thin diet of science at school provides ample reason to support hands-on science outside of the school day. Research by The Afterschool Alliance finds that millions of U.S. children would participate in afterschool programs if such programs were available to them. At a time when so many elementary schools neglect science, afterschool offers a largely untapped strategy for fueling children’s interest in the subject.

Updated on 5/9/2017 to correct the percentage of teachers who said they felt “very well prepared” to teach science.


1 Decades of research hold that elementary-age students can grasp sophisticated concepts and practices in science. Surveys suggest that many scientists choose to pursue the field by middle school or even earlier.

2 National Research Council, Framework

3 National Research Council, Monitoring Progress Toward Successful K-12 STEM Education: A Nation Advancing?  https://www.nap.edu/read/13509/chapter/1#iv.

4 These and other NAEP data in this report do not prove causal relationships or tell us about the direction of cause and effect, but they do suggest a logical story. Hands-on activities and sustained inquiry take time, and so do the kinds of teaching that improve students’ performance.

5 U.S. Department of Education, Schools and Staffing Survey, 1994-2012.

6 Eugene Judson, The Relationship Between Time Allocated for Science in Elementary Schools and State Accountability Policies, Science Education, 97 (4), 621-636. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/sce.21058/abstract

7 Fifty-four percent of Texas fourth-graders had teachers who, to a “large” or “moderate extent,” received professional development for instructional methods in science. Only 15 percent of their peers in Oregon had such teachers. Forty percent of Texas fourth-graders had teachers who, to a “large” or “moderate extent,” learned about effective lab activities in science. A mere six percent in Oregon did. (National Assessment of Educational Progress fourth-grade science assessment, 2015.)

Tags: science, Next Generation Science Standards, infographic

New Vital Signs Data: Access to Challenging STEM Courses

May 4, 2017

Do high schoolers in your state have access to challenging courses in math and science? Change the Equation has just released new data on high school students' access to classes like calculus or physics. We found that few states offer anything approaching universal access to such courses. Millions of students attend high schools that do not even offer those courses. As is so often the case, students of color fare worst.

Nationally, one in four Latino students and nearly one third of black high schoolers attend schools that did not offer calculus in the 2013/14 school year. American Indian students faced even worse odds. Access to physics classes was only moderately better.

Students in schools that do not offer calculus and physics

Many students across the country couldn't take a calculus of physics class even if they wanted to. That's a problem. Watch this space in the coming weeks for more analysis of this problem and how states can tackle it.

In the meantime, head over to our Vital Signs website to see where your state stands.

Tags: math, science, standards

NEW DATA: Will We Make Time for Science and Engineering in our Elementary Schools?

March 28, 2017

For years, STEM education advocates have wanted to introduce fundamental principles of engineering as early as the elementary grades. Many have embraced the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for aiming to do just that. Are the NGSS living up to their billing so far? In elementary schools, the answer is…yes and no.

As we noted last month, states adopting NGSS are already devoting more attention to engineering and technology in eighth-grade classrooms. In fourth grade, by contrast, the picture is mixed, with most NGSS states surging ahead in those areas but others staying stagnant. Why? Odds are, the answer has to do with time. States where elementary schools spend little time on science will probably not fulfill the promise of NGSS.

We analyzed survey data from the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress in science to see how teachers are spending their instructional time, focusing on states that adopted the standards before 2014.[1]

We found mostly good news, but with a glaring exception:

­­­­­

Most NGSS states ramp up engineering & tech in 4th grade--but not CA

California started low and ended low, falling well short of the national average for growth.

When we explored how often fourth graders discussed engineering challenges in school, we saw similar patterns:

Elementary students tackle engineering in most NGSS states--except CA & WA

California and Washington State both saw little change since 2009, and both remained significantly behind the national average for students who frequently discuss the kinds of problems engineers solve.[2]

What do these two states have in common? Elementary schools in both spend little time teaching science in fourth grade:

Some states spend less time on science

In 2015, fourth-graders in Washington State and California were much less likely to devote time to science than peers in any other state on the list of NGSS early adopters. Science is almost the only vehicle for engineering in most elementary schools, so if schools don’t attend to science, they won’t attend to engineering.

The relationship between time for science and time for engineering seems to hold for all the states we examined:

Scatterplot--relation between time for engineering & time for science

Things may still look up for California and Washington State. All NGSS states were just starting to implement the new standards in 2015, when NAEP collected these data. In fact, California remains in the early stages of implementation.

As states build their new science tests and adopt new accountability plans, they may yet create more incentives for elementary teachers to teach science. After all, most elementary teachers don’t decide on their own to give science short shift. They take their cues from states or districts that do not include science in their accountability plans, offer meager professional development in the subject, or skimp on teaching materials.

NGSS can achieve only so much if science—and thus engineering--remains the forgotten stepchild of elementary education.


[1] Our findings represent correlations (though strong ones) in a relatively small number of states. Three states that adopted NGSS before 2014 were not part of our analysis, because we did not have data on them: Kansas and Vermont (which did not participate in 2009 NAEP science), and Washington, DC (which did not participate in 2015 NAEP science). We examined results for the following survey questions: “In this class, about how much time do you spend on engineering and technology? (teacher-reported)” (None, a little, some, a lot); “In a typical week, how much time do you spend teaching science to the students in the class? (teacher reported)” (<1 hour, 1-1.9 hours, 2-2.9 hours, 3-3.9 hours, 4-4.9 hours, 5-5.9 hours, 6-6.9 hours, 7 hours or more); “About how often do your science students discuss the kinds of problems that engineers can solve? (teacher reported)” (Never or hardly ever, Once or twice a month, Once or twice a week, Every day or almost every day).

[2] From the evidence at hand, Washington State seemed to do somewhat better in technology than in engineering. The data don’t tell us why, but fourth-grade teachers may have found time for technology content in subjects other than science.

Tags: Next Generation Science Standards, science

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