Adding More STEM to the School Day

Middle school students dissect a frog as part of a hands-on lesson from Science from Scientists, an in-school enrichment program in Massachusetts and California.

Middle school students dissect a frog as part of a hands-on lesson from Science from
Scientists, an in-school enrichment program in Massachusetts and California. (Photo by Arturo Martinez)

Schools seeking to enhance students’ learning of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are adopting in-school STEM enrichment programs that reach student populations in need of additional learning opportunities, connect students with scientists, and/or provide more challenging curriculum. One such program, Science from Scientists (SfS), was established in 2002 “to help teachers with challenges in presenting science content,” says Erika Ebbel Angle, SfS founder and executive director. “Some teachers may have taken only one science course, or [find that] students need more science for test preparation,” she observes. “Teachers have told us that the only way to reach all of their students is through an in-school program.”

SfS offers an In-School Module-Based STEM enrichment program that brings two scientists to grades 4–8 classrooms every other week during the school year “to work with teachers and bring content [that supports] the NGSS [Next Generation Science Standards] and MCAS [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System],” explains Angle. Teachers can choose from more than 85 hands-on STEM lessons, and the scientists “bring the necessary materials with them.”

The program aims “to inspire students and improve both attitudes and aptitudes,” she notes. The scientists conduct “pre- and post-assessments every other week” to chart students’ progress, she relates.

“The program succeeds because teachers see us as a great resource to bolster their curriculum and let students interact with scientists as role models,” Angle contends. While SfS “isn’t genderspecific,” it exposes boys and girls to female role models, she notes.

SfS has been adopted by 46 schools in Massachusetts and California, and “many districts seek us out,” she notes. Assessments have shown that “SfS raises standardized test scores by an average of 25% in our partner schools,” she reports.

SfS is provided free to public schools during the first two years. (Privateschools must pay for the entire program.) During year three, public schools start bearing the program’s costs. SfS “can help schools get grants and offers fundraising ideas,” says Angle. The goal for year four is “to have the program be self-funded in districts where we have relationships,” she explains, but SfS can help with funding if a district isn’t able to cover all the costs. “If we have classroom teachers who want us, we are committed,” she maintains.

An Import From Israel

“Twelve years ago, we were looking for out-of-the-box-type science improvement programs for Jewish day schools in the United States,” recalls Judy Lebovits, vice president and director of the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE). CIJE connected with the Israel Center for Excellence through Education to bring the Excellence 2000 (E2K) program to Jewish schools in the United States. Aimed at highly motivated math and science students, the program also has been adopted by several U.S. public schools and implemented in 77 schools nationwide, she reports.

E2K’s 24 modules involve “teaching totally hands-on, cultivating personal excellence, fostering creativity, and learning how to learn,” and appeal to “students who…like to tinker,” she contends. Each module starts with a story and a problem to solve, then students begin to experiment. “The kids come up with the formula on their own…They can take the answer and apply it to other situations,” she observes.

Carmel Academy in Greenwich, Connecticut, uses E2K with gifted sixth and seventh graders. Grades 6–8 science teacher and E2K coach Rhonda Ginsberg says the program “is a chance for students to do pure science” and design their own experiments. Last year, students designed and tested insulation for a polar bear’s cave, for example.

Often E2K students “bring back what they’ve learned to the regular science class,” and Ginsberg says she has “moved some of the E2K material into the regular science class.”

E2K students compete in national and international competitions and have won 10 awards, which “has created excitement around science,” she relates. They compete online with students from 25 other schools in a competition held in Israel. “The scientists in Israel were blown away at how fast my kids answered the questions,” she reports.

Not all gifted students are admitted to E2K. Ginsberg evaluates fifth-grade candidates, meeting with their science and math teachers to determine their “thinking ability,” she explains. Her biggest challenge is “how to say no to a kid who isn’t yet there analytically and to [his or her] parents. It’s tough.”

Kindergarten Enrichment

When the Batavia, Illinois, Public Schools downsized kindergarten classes from full-day to half-day, some parents complained. Seeking a solution, the district contacted the Batavia Park District, which supervises the area’s parks and recreation facilities and activities. The Batavia Park District designed an enrichment program, now in its fourth year, to extend the school day to six-and-a-half hours for kindergarteners whose parents were willing to pay for it. “About one-third of [area] kindergarteners are enrolled in our program,” says Sarah Schneider, kindergarten enrichment teacher for the Batavia Park District.

The program runs in each of the school district’s six elementary schools, with its own classroom and teacher. “In half-day kindergarten, the kids are only able to do core literacy and math; there’s not a lot of time for science and social studies,” Schneider observes. “We have a solid science program to get kids interested in science early on.

“We have a Delta Education [science] curriculum consisting of six different lessons: oceans, trees, insects and spiders, weather, body and senses, and health and nutrition…[S]ome of us also study the rainforest, arctic animals, space, pumpkins, and basic chemical mixtures,” she explains. “[We chose the curriculum] because we didn’t want to teach the same topics taught by the [school district’s teachers] in preschool,” she relates.

“Our kids are very well prepared for first grade because they’re in school for a full day and getting extra content,” she reports. “We don’t worry about [test] scores; we just make sure students are engaged, growing, and getting something positive out of it.” Without the testing, “we’re able to hold smaller classes with more creative projects.”

Schneider notes there is a trend in some districts to return to all-day kindergarten, which would mean the end of the enrichment program. She believes this could be a real loss for students because district teachers “won’t have the flexibility that we do.” 

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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