Keeping Science In Children's Orbit

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 26, 2008

Bob Nicholson can make the sun rise in the west, the stars come out at noon and the moon wax and wane with his whims.

"I will show you what the sky will look like on your last day of fifth grade," the 56-year-old educator told students gathered one afternoon this month in the domed planetarium at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.

"This is not only a space machine," he continued, "it's a time machine."

Open-mouthed, the Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy fifth-graders stared up as the sun suddenly took Nicholson's cue, rising and setting on the course it would take June 19, the last day of school.

In an era in which the federal No Child Left Behind law has pushed schools to focus on reading and math, Nicholson occupies a perhaps under-appreciated position: He's "the science guy." He runs the school planetarium and within the past year has become the elementary school science coach, a new position for the city schools. In that job, he rotates through classes, helping teachers energize lesson plans on topics including sound waves and types of matter.

Linda Froschauer, the retiring president of the National Science Teachers Association, based in Arlington County, said such a role is especially important at the elementary level. There, science is one of several subjects that compete for lesson time, unlike in middle and high schools, where specialists teach a variety of science courses. The subject also is neglected at times, educators say, because science test scores are not used to grade schools under No Child Left Behind.

Froschauer said teachers tell her at conferences: "My principal told me to stop teaching science for the year and just concentrate on numeracy and literacy because that's what's being tested."

Although reading and math coaches are abundant in elementary schools, the number of science coaches varies by region.

"There are places where there are absolutely none," Froschauer said.

In the Washington area, few school systems have a position like Nicholson's, in which the main goal is to improve science education at the elementary level. But several have staff members who serve as science advisers across all grades.

Alexandria created Nicholson's job after realizing that its hopes of placing a science teacher at every elementary school would cost too much, said Kris Clark, executive director of elementary programs for the school system. The idea was that Nicholson would rotate through the schools where no one was assigned the task. But as word of his expertise spread, she said, the other schools wanted his services, too.

"One of the best things he's done is help teachers get messy with science," Clark said. "One of our goals as educators is to help children live wide-awake lives in regard to nature and the world and to have a million questions. We have to expose them to those questions and those what-ifs."

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