published February 1, 2007

SENCER E-Newsletter, February 2007, Volume 6, Issue 5

Content-based Courses for Pre-Service Elementary School Teachers

Adrienne Wootters, Department of Physics, and Mike Ganger, Department of Biology - Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, North Adams, MA

In the October 2006 newsletter (Science Education for Pre-service Teachers: What Constitutes Adequate Preparation?), we raised the question of whether typical institutional science outcomes and curricula adequately addressed the needs of pre-service teachers, both science and non-science majors. The question of adequate preparation varies with whether the student is planning on teaching elementary, middle, or high school. We noted that a typical pre-service elementary teacher generally is not a science major and takes only two or three science courses during their undergraduate career; those courses are most likely to be lecture-based with no laboratory component.

Adrienne Wootters

Mike Ganger

In talking to in-service elementary school teachers in Northern Berkshire County, who represent average American school teachers, we have found that many of them feel underprepared to do science activities with their students; many do not fully trust themselves to accurately present information, nor are they particularly comfortable with doing inquiry-based activities with their students. Our persistent question is: what can we do to better prepare our future teachers?

We begin with a compare/contrast between MCLA's learning outcomes and the NRC's National Science Education Standards1 for K - 12 education. MCLA's outcomes for core curriculum science courses are fairly typical of those at other institutions:

Successful students

1. learn the content of the offered course,

2. understand the scientific method,

3. can communicate what they have learned orally and in written form,

4. can apply mathematical techniques where applicable.

The National Science Education Standards (NSES) have several sets of standards, but since we are talking about content courses as opposed to pedagogy courses, we focus here on the K-12 Content Standards:

  • Standard A: Science as Inquiry

  • Standard B: Physical Science

  • Standard C: Life Science

  • Standard D: Earth and Space Science

  • Standard E: Science and Technology

  • Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

  • Standard G: History and Nature of Science

NSES Standard A, Science as Inquiry, may be addressed in MCLA's Outcome 2, "understands the scientific method." However, MCLA's science core curriculum outcomes do not state that successful students will necessarily have had direct experience with the scientific method; they may be able to analyze an experiment's validity, but they don't necessarily have experience doing science. Some pre-service teachers are fortunate enough to take courses in elementary school science pedagogy, and there they see and experience inquiry-based learning. But we argue that they must experience inquiry-based learning in the content courses also, so as to experience science firsthand. It seems a great disconnect if we model science education for our pre-service teachers by lecturing them and then expect them to be able to carry out hands-on activities with their own students.

NSES Standards B - D are the content one would see in many college courses, and directly correlates to MCLA Outcome 1. Elementary school teachers will see a few of these subjects, but not all. The K - 5 frameworks suggested in NSES are simply too extensive to be covered in only two courses, even courses which are designed to meet the frameworks. We would argue that an overall goal of our core courses is not to fill our students with gobs of information, but to create scientifically literate students; that is, people who know enough science to teach themselves more science.

Not addressed in MCLA outcomes are NSES standards E - G, which revolve around understanding the impact of science in the world, including technological applications, societal impacts, and an understanding of where we've been and where we are going. Whether these subjects are addressed in any course is solely up to the discretion of the professor; many will not address these subjects in a traditional course simply because there is not time to both consider applications and cover the content deemed necessary.

A SENCER-ized course will often meet many of the NSES standards, which is a hopeful development for pre-service teachers lucky enough to take those courses. MCLA has implemented several courses which either meet the SENCER ideals or are on the way to meeting them, and the number offered increases each year.

While focusing on course development, we have encountered a new challenge, that of offering courses which will be acceptable for licensure. Students seeking elementary school licensure in the state of Massachusetts must have at least two content-based science courses, one in physical science and one in life science, and the content of these courses must address a significant portion of the state's frameworks. That is potentially a great step towards excellence in the classroom. The problem for students is that courses whose titles are not straightforward run the risk of being rejected as not fulfilling the requirement. In other words, courses lacking words like "physics", "chemistry", "earth science", or "biology" in the title are likely to be flagged, thus delaying the licensure procedure for the student. In order to have a course accepted at MCLA the student must submit the syllabus of the course and a signed letter from the professor which details which of the state content frameworks were met. Examples of suspect titles would be Case Studies in Science, Quarks to Quasars, and Forensics. (All three of these courses cover multiple content frameworks, by the way.) Indeed, most of the titles of the SENCER model courses could come under scrutiny.

We find ourselves with two challenges: First, we want to continue to encourage our colleagues to offer courses which meet SENCER ideals. It is our vision to have institution-wide science outcomes that mirror the NSES standards, thus ensuring that all pre-service elementary students will be better prepared to teach science, regardless of the MCLA science courses they choose.

Our second challenge comes in making sure that our pre-service teachers will be encouraged by their advisors to take SENCER-ized courses, and that they will not be penalized for taking courses which do not have standardized titles. For the short term, mapping each individual course to our state's frameworks and giving copies to students for their files is the only recourse. This is a tedious process, but perhaps one that will help us understand better the context within which our pre-service students work. Indeed, we have found the process of carefully scrutinizing both the national and state frameworks to be enlightening on many levels, further connecting us to our community's schools. For those interested in keeping the frameworks in mind when planning their courses, there are several resources available. We have found the National Science Teachers' Association3 to be a great source of information and support.

A slide from the authors' presentation at the New England Regional meeting that shows prerequisites for courses, as well as content covered under each course type.

MCLA Slide

The full presentation is available to view and download at Resources under "New England Regional Symposium."