October 4, 2013

Joshua Johnson teaches middle school science at a D.C. charter school.

At the beginning of the school year, I start off my class with a quote. In my best orator voice, I exclaim, “We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated but the winner of the science fair. We need to teach them that success is not a function of fame or PR but of hard work and discipline.” President Obama said that in his 2011 State of the Union address.

I use this quote not only to inspire my students but also to remind myself of how necessary it is to promote science in our country.

Luckily, science is a subject in which children quickly invest. A simple fizzing reaction, loud pop or (controlled) explosion can convert nearly any bored, slouching student into a wide-eyed wonderer. I have seen an open-ended discussion of natural phenomena turn a classroom wallflower into a curious questioner.

Recently, however, this quote from just two years ago began feeling as if it had been dredged up from the history books. Instead of creating Super Bowl scientists, the Common Core State Standards Initiative seems to be asking me to put away my beakers, hang up my lab coat and crack open more nonfiction texts.

Conversations with peers who also teach science reveal that our courses are rapidly being converted into classes in which informational texts are read to support a nationwide shift in standards. Science educators are constantly asked: What can you do to support our students in highly tested subjects?

Personal experience reinforces this trend: My class periods have been chopped this year while reading, and math classes have been elongated significantly.

For anecdotal evidence, Google the words “science” and “Common Core.” Many of the search results are resources on how to teach nonfiction reading.

To allow for content, I wonder: Should I cut out that blood-typing lab or get rid of the week of hands-on gardening? Maybe this year my students don’t need to experience the bed of nails at the Maryland Science Center to teach them about forces. I could save a lot of time if I cut out their camping trip. Surely an informational text could show my students the same things they would take in while crabbing on a boat in the Chesapeake Bay.

Of course I won’t eliminate these incredible experiences from my plans this year.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am a proponent of Common Core standards, which have many benefits for students. I am also aware of excellent resources such as Project 2061 and Next Generation Science Standards, both of which promote hands-on learning. Today, however, many schools are systematically deprioritizing science, and it makes me uneasy about our nation’s future.

I recently had the opportunity to attend with my students the Congressional Black Caucus’s (CBC) Science and Technology Brain Trust. This fantastic event, hosted by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), placed in front of my students 20 incredible scientists from Facebook, NASA, Google X and elsewhere.

We heard from some of our nation’s most prolific and successful scientists. National Education Association Secretary-Treasurer Becky Pringle noted in her speech that no amount of money could replace seeing students’ eyes light up when they learn something new.

That day, seeing my students’ faces as they heard about new inventions and career paths nearly made me tear up. I realized that the only way to reach the president’s goal was to pursue a slightly uncommon approach to the Common Core. I must methodically insert both informational texts and inquiry-based hands-on laboratory investigations to fulfill systematized requirements and children’s insatiable thirst for hands-on learning.

I hope that science teachers everywhere will continue to advocate for their students’ scientific futures. Create the next Bill Nye in your classroom; inspire the next Neil deGrasse Tyson to shoot for the stars; or just let one kid put Mentos in Coke and teach that child why the soft drink bursts into bubbles.

My goal is that, sooner rather than later, I get to head back to the CBC science and technology event and watch one of my former students stroll onstage and explain his latest discovery or invention. Or maybe when I am old and gray, I will be quoting one of my scholars from her State of the Union address, as she thoughtfully reminisces about how long ago, in our nation’s past, science education was not a priority.