Administrators Can Make Science FUN!

How to Build a Flexible, Integrated Hands-On Elementary Science Program

Joyce R. Blueford

Imagine that you are an elementary school principal just returning from a meeting with the superintendent. The words of the superintendent vibrate in your mind, "Science and math are important to the future of our country. We want our children to have more science and math, so they can be part of that future. The experts say hands-on science and math in elementary schools will produce science-literate adults. Go make your school a hands-on science model for the state."

So your task is to have your teachers instruct students using hands-on science and math methods. Where do you start?

"Elementary science should be easy," you think. "You purchase kits from the catalogs, and teachers can go from there."

You open science catalogs that were collecting dust on your shelf, and you look for science kits. The teachers can use a microscope. (Oops! That won’t work— there are no electrical outlets!)

A butterfly kit would be nice (the units last for 10 weeks, but then you realize there are only 36 weeks to a school year!).

A computer program on learning rocks sounds great, but where are the rocks!

This is hard work. "If I buy the materials, will it make a coherent science curriculum? Who is going to take care of these materials? Who is going to replace the consumables year after year?" The list gets longer and longer, and the price tag is unimaginable. The superintendent didn't give you any more funds for science reform. Hands-on science and math is not easy! Help!

"Why," you ask yourself, "does effective science teaching seem so difficult?" You realize that scientific information is evolving and changing more rapidly than any period in human existence. Computers allow the quick retrieval of experiments conducted almost anywhere in the world and make it easier to keep adding new discoveries. New instrumentation is helping us see further into the Universe and deeper into the structure of the atom. Scientific principles—long thought to be unshakable—are not only shaking, but actually falling.

The future is for our children, but are adult educators equipped to teach the future?

Why worry about teaching science?

A sixth grader comes up to you in school and wants to know if a computer virus can give humans any diseases. Is a computer virus the same as the virus that causes AIDS?

Somewhere in our science curriculum this sixth grader should learn that a virus is a non-living entity that reproduces by using the replication ability of a living cell. And that the human immune system is the best way to combat it. A good science curriculum should compare and contrast a viral disease with bacterial, genetic, protozoan, and fungal diseases. Students need these tools to understand how they can get diseases, and why doctors do not always prescribe antibiotics.

And no, you cannot get diseases from a computer virus—just headaches when these insidious programs damage a computer or its data, depending on what the programmer had in mind for his victim.

For another example, suppose you read the headlines about a new light bulb that utilizes plasma, which may make light bulbs last for decades. Plasma??? Isn't plasma something in your blood? What’s it doing in a light bulb?

It turns out that plasma is a state of matter, just like the solids, liquids and gases we all learned about when we went through elementary school. Scientists have also discovered a fifth state recently—the Bose-Einstein condensate, found in some supercooled materials.

There are many examples. The bottom line—science is important, and changing constantly!

What Your Science Curriculum Needs

Suppose a first grader brings you a rock and wants to know what it is. You don’t have any idea, but don’t want to discourage curiosity. What do you do? Can you help children observe their own world?

Does your curriculum have the student look at the trees outside, or the clouds, or the ecosystem that they live in? Does your science program make students understand their own body? Does it explain that most drugs come from plants, both the good drugs and the bad ones? Is your science curriculum designed to incorporate new advances in science without major overhauls?

It’s not easy to develop a hands-on science curriculum that will actually teach students that science is all around them and important to their everyday life. "This job sounds impossible! Maybe I'll go back and talk to the superintendent again," says the principal.

Why teachers have problems with science

Administrators must understand why science is not being taught by teachers and then develop realistic strategies that will integrate both science and math into the curriculum. The goal of these strategies should be to overcome a school’s weakness in these areas. Certain steps can save years of frustrations, and actually teach the future.

Administrators many times fail to realize that elementary school teachers have not been adequately trained to instruct coherent and integrated science. Even today, teachers coming from universities and colleges are still not prepared.

In many cases, elementary teachers are only required to take a "science methods" class, which may treat science as a side show. A magic trick here, a neat illusion, experiment after experiment that don’t connect to each other at all.

Many new teachers still leave school not knowing why science is important and what the goal of their program may be. Additionally, teachers do not understand how science can be a vehicle to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic.

The Quick Fix

Let’s assume that you want to develop a coherent and integrated hands-on science program. You might select a committee, hoping to gain additional insight from your staff. You ask a few teachers to spend a week to developing the district's science curriculum. The teachers feel empowered, but soon realize that the goal is unrealistic, given their lack of science knowledge and lack of time. Anxiety attacks ensue, and the committee begins to look at textbooks. Many feel that new textbooks are a solution that is acceptable to parents, teachers, and administrators. They are easily purchased and after all, the book does say "Science." The chapters have science sounding names and there are hands-on activities mentioned. Only one problem.... you still have to purchase the hands-on material!

Basic Considerations

Administrators should choose a science curriculum that takes into account the overall development of children. The goal of an elementary science program should be to make science-literate sixth graders for today's world. A good way to evaluate is to look at newspapers for several months—are the science questions raised in the papers answered by the program or textbook currently being used?

An administration that wants hands-on science should provide materials that are non-consumable and space where the materials can be stored. These are vital prerequisites. Administrators should assess space availability for hands-on material. Space allocation is important for transporting and storing materials. Science material is not like gym equipment that can be thrown in a garbage can and pulled out every time you use it.

Inservice is vital, but it should focus on long term strategy. Teachers cannot take one science inservice and then effectively teach science. Quality inservice in continuous, small doses are essential. Administrators should look for speakers who can give teachers confidence in content, not only methodology. Qualifications of speakers are very important. The programs should have statistics on whether they improved test scores overall and the science literacy of the teachers.

More importantly, administrators should realize how effectively a good science curriculum can develop logic and critical thinking skills. Language is "rule"-based; history is events that have occurred. Art and music help express human feeling.

Math is a universal tool that describes everything around us. Science and math are the same in all languages, all socio-economic backgrounds, and all countries. A plant growing in Chile, Africa, Italy, and Iceland all need similar biological requirements. Science affects us all, whether rich or poor.

Administrators are vital in helping teachers improve a school’s science curriculum. Without leadership and continuous dedication, there is little systemic change.

A Science Program that Works

The Math/Science Nucleus has spent 15 years developing an integrated, hands-on elementary science curriculum as well as the techniques for establishing the program in school districts.

We have found that the solution is different for each district, depending on the schools, the make-up of teachers, and type of administrators. The one consistent finding is that the solution is not dependent on the socioeconomic background of the children or community. Strategies in each of the schools must be customized and developed prior to the start of a program. Our most successful schools are those in which administrators became involved in the process.

Keys to Starting a Hands-On Science Program

The following are basic guidelines in bringing hands-on science to a school district or individual elementary school site.

A Logical Content-Rich Curriculum

Our Integrating Science, Math and Technology (I. Science MaTe) Curriculum, is a hands-on program that focuses on all the sciences every year at each K-6 grade level. This curriculum allows new advances in science to be integrated easily.

School Involvement

Administrators and teachers spend several faculty meetings looking at pros and cons of implementing the program. Guidelines are described that encourage input from teachers, parents and industry. A 3-year plan is developed.

Hands-On Materials

Materials on hand at the school site are inventoried. The curriculum is chosen and "non-consumable" materials are purchased. Recruit and organize a parent group to solicit consumable materials.


The school provides space to store materials and develops a system for tracking and using them.

Teacher Inservices

A 3-year plan for teacher inservices is developed. As mentioned earlier, a one-shot class is insufficient. A progressive, logical, continuous approach is needed. The proper combination of workshops will be different for each situation. MSN is developing new and exciting inservice avenues, using shared surface technology and the Internet.


Administrators will need to track overall test scores through traditional testing mechanisms. Parent and student attitudes should be polled.

Evaluation is continuous. If progress is not being maintained, the solutions need to be discussed and implemented.

The I. Science MaTe Curriculum

Math/Science Nucleus has published its successful 34-week program in a 6-volume set of curriculum and lesson plans, divided as follows:

Applied Science includes physics, technology, math and the other sciences "rolled" into some product or principle we use every day. 168 lesson plans.

The Universe Cycle includes the universe, solar system, earth and geography. 84 lesson plans.

The Plate Tectonic Cycle includes volcanoes, earthquakes, plate tectonics and hazards. 84 lesson plans.

The Rock Cycle includes chemistry, minerals, rocks and past life. 126 lesson plans.

The Water Cycle includes water, oceans, atmosphere and weather. 84 lesson plans.

The Life Cycle includes organisms, human biology, plant life and the natural environment. 168 lesson plans.

These volumes outline a flexible philosophy of implementing a program. The individual books describe a scope and sequence that spirals learning from kindergarten to sixth grade. Schools are allowed unlimited duplication of lessons and laboratory sheets.

The entire curriculum is available for $110 plus $6.00 shipping. Call Math/Science Nucleus at (510) 790-6284 or write to 4074 Eggers Drive, Fremont, CA 94536. Purchase orders are accepted.

Further information, as well as help in getting the program implemented, is available from MSN. q