Md. schools refocus on science

Education: Districts launch bold efforts to improve instruction and comply with No Child Left Behind.

Schools refocus on science class

October 04, 2004|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

In Room 204 at Dundalk Elementary School, signs of science are suddenly everywhere.

The kids, 21 fifth-graders, spend all day at shiny black lab tables instead of desks, even when they're working on reading. They are surrounded by native Maryland plants and new equipment that includes eight wireless laptops and self-sterilizing goggles. Overseeing it all is teacher Charla Helmers, who is working on a master's degree in science education.

This class is benefiting from Baltimore County's renewed investment in science.

In recent years, a common complaint in education circles has been that schools were giving science short shrift as they scramble to prepare for the high-stakes tests in reading and math required by the No Child Left Behind law. No longer.

Starting in the 2007-2008 school year, No Child Left Behind also will require testing in science. Baltimore County is gearing up, and other districts will be following suit.

"We're seeing a lot of states starting to direct efforts to make sure their schools are going to be prepared," said Anne Tweed, president of the National Science Teachers Association. "We are excited. ... Science has been an area that has not been a focus for a couple of years."

Around Maryland, school districts are getting ready: Anne Arundel County schools are buying new textbooks and materials for many of their science classes. Carroll County schools are putting much of their science curriculum online.

As in Baltimore County, Howard County and Baltimore City schools are working to incorporate science into reading and math lessons, and vice versa, so that no subject suffers as a result of spending more time on another. In Howard schools, for example, students read technical science material.

The Baltimore school district is one of many making sure that its science curriculum is aligned with the state standards that will be measured on the tests. City schools have posted online for teachers the scientific concepts their pupils need to master each quarter.

"Everybody is really examining their resources and determining the best course of action," said Dixie Stack, the state director of curriculum.

Changes ahead

No Child Left Behind will require students to be tested in science one time each in elementary, middle and high school. The federal law passed in 2001 leaves it to the states to decide whether scores on the science tests will contribute to the formula that determines whether a school has made "adequate yearly progress." Like most states, Maryland has decided it won't, but nevertheless will set passing scores and publish the test results.

Ronald Peiffer, deputy state superintendent, said schools are at "an interesting point" in science instruction. "Even if we did not have No Child Left Behind, I think there would be a lot of work in making sure science instruction is up to date," he said.

Christine M. Johns, Baltimore County's deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the changes are about an overall effort to improve instruction, not just preparing for tests.

"Science is really the application of reading and mathematics," she said.

In Baltimore County middle schools, students are participating in a new online science fair. The district has installed high-tech white boards - chalkboards without chalk - that pupils control from their seats with remote writing tablets in 188 of about 250 middle-school science classrooms.

In high schools, officials are studying whether students should take physics at the same time as algebra so they can better relate the concepts.

At the elementary school level, where most of the $4 million that Baltimore County is spending this year on new science programs is directed, one emphasis is teacher training. The district has hired 35 science-math resource teachers to work at 38 schools, and has funding for four more. The resource teachers spend most of their time training the staff, though they sometimes work directly with small groups of children.

This summer, the county launched a training program for elementary science teachers. The 125 who participated this year committed to further training in each of the next six summers, and district officials plan to expand the program.

In addition, Baltimore County is funneling elementary school teachers, who traditionally do not have degrees in science education, into master's programs at area colleges. Forty of the county's elementary science teachers are working toward degrees in science education at Loyola College. Another 39, including Helmers, are studying at Towson University, while 20 from Anne Arundel County are enrolled at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Hands-on learning

Last spring, Baltimore County held its first elementary school science, engineering and technology fair. This school year, third-graders at several dozen schools will build race cars for eggs, a project that combines math and physics. Two portable planetariums are making the rounds at elementary schools around the county.

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