Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2008 | Features

Science Experiment

By Kathryn Howe
For the sake of U.S. schoolchildren—and the country's economic future—a UI professor hopes to take the fear out of a "tough" subject.

An empty pop bottle. Two balloons. A roll of tape. Ordinary items found in recycling bins and junk drawers become tools in a scientific experiment that will alter the critical thinking of a group of fifth-graders.

Oh, and also improve America's economic and educational future. Not bad for a bunch of junk.

These young Iowa students fiddle and fix, poke and prod. By no means goofing off, they're hard at work constructing a model that helps them understand just how the diaphragm inflates a human lung. Teacher Peggy Hansen's lesson on the functions of the respiratory system turns this Lewis Elementary classroom into an interactive laboratory. Her students chat and pose questions, use trial and error—and within 20 minutes, one group has figured out the role that muscles play in each breath we take.

The bottle cut off at the bottom represents the ribcage, while the balloon stretched over the bottle top replicates the diaphragm. Air goes in, the latex expands, and metaphorical lightbulbs flash on above the heads of curious 11-year-olds. For once in her 20-year career, Hansen reports that the first thing students ask after the school bell rings is, "When's science?"

Hallelujah. That's all UI science education professor Brian Hand has to say. He truly believes any student can succeed at science—although he knows that intimidation and sheer boredom often hold young people back. In fact, U.S. students lag behind other nations when it comes to science achievement, a worrisome development that casts doubt on America's ability to hold its own in an increasingly complicated, technology-driven world. As Davenport Democrat Elesha Gayman recently told the Iowa House of Representatives during a discussion about enhancing the state's educational standards: "When we were growing up, they said, 'Eat your dinner. People in China are starving.' Today we're telling our children to 'Do your homework; people in China want your job.'"

To help prove his theory that science can be fun and accessible, Hand recently received a three-year, $400,000 grant from the Iowa Board of Regents, State of Iowa, and the Iowa Department of Education. He's enlisted the assistance of several rural Iowa teachers to test approaches that can potentially boost student science performance. Although he's confident that his methods can improve standardized test results, Hand's ultimate goals are more far-reaching. He wants to cultivate informed, scientifically competent global citizens who can compete in the international marketplace, pursue science-based careers, and think independently.

"We want to encourage students to be more confident and comfortable with science," says Hand, whose work is the latest chapter in the UI's long, distinguished history in researching innovative approaches to science education (see sidebar). "We do a huge disservice to our kids if we don't train them at every opportunity to understand the structure of an argument and to determine what's valid. We have to prepare students to understand what they run into every day, whether it's a fitness claim on a television commercial or an informational program on global warming."

Science Ed at the UI

At the University of Iowa, the idea of "science as doing" is a half-century old.

In 1958, Professor Emeritus of Science Education Robert Yager, 53MS, 57PhD, first offered research that challenged traditional methods of textbook teaching. UI professors and science education students have since maintained that memorization and testing leave young people uninspired and uninterested. Further, they say, such practices discourage questions-the basic dynamic of creative intelligence.

Yager and his colleagues argue that science should be an inquiry into the nature of the world. Year after year, the UI has released new generations of teachers who believe students should think for themselves and explore the relevance science has in their lives.

At the UI, the field of science education is defined as a discipline "concerned with the interface between science and society." Graduates endeavor to make science appropriate, useful, and understandable to all students, regardless of age or intellectual development.

Currently, 28 students in the selective UI program are pursuing coursework to become science teachers. They're expected to meet rigorous course requirements in both their science major and in science education methods-and they must spend significant time in real-life classrooms.

Often, the department receives calls from school superintendents across the country, thanking the UI for preparing such dynamic, effective teachers. Still, despite proof that the UI's learn-by-investigation methods work, Yager says some schools are resistant to change. He compares the UI's educational theories to scientific understandings about plate tectonics-revolutionary and slow to earn acceptance.

People are accustomed to the status quo in most science classes. As Yager points out, "It takes a lifetime or more to change what we assume to be true.


The U.S. Department of Education reports a 51 percent increase in jobs requiring science, engineering, and technical training in the past decade—four times faster than overall job growth. But, according to the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment, which compares academic performance among students in industrialized, democratic countries, the U.S. appears on a persistent downward spiral, ranked 21st out of 30 nations in science competency, down from 19th in 2003 and 14th in 2000.

Other research shows that far fewer American students go on to earn college degrees in the sciences. Adding to what has been defined as a science education crisis, some experts contend that the federal No Child Left Behind Act has fueled an obsession with "teaching to the test" at the expense of valuable experiences such as hands-on lab projects and educational field trips.

An emphasis on critical thinking and other important 21st century skills also preoccupies the minds of Iowa's governor, legislators, and the state board of education. As of this writing, Iowa leaders are considering a state mandate that will require local school districts to adopt a uniform core curriculum for math, science, and literacy—an effort to bolster educational standards and ensure that students in all corners of Iowa are equally prepared for work and life.

Hand's new grant—"Helping Iowa Teachers Promote Critical Thinking and Inquiry in Science and Literacy in K-8 Classrooms"—builds upon his earlier work with a $1.5 million National Science Foundation award to produce books and a professional development manual for teachers. The methods he considers effective depart from the traditional way of teaching science—an instructor lecturing from the pulpit—to embrace a learning environment that promotes critical thinking and mirrors what really happens in professional science laboratories.

They also help teachers incorporate writing into lessons so that students can explain scientific concepts and experiments in their own words.

Together with principal co-investigator Lori Norton-Meier, 95MA, 98PhD, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Iowa State University (ISU), as well as a group of colleagues from the UI, ISU, and Iowa Area Education Agency (AEA) 13, Hand works closely with 30 western Iowa grade-school teachers who've agreed to try it his way. Hand's project equips these teachers with interactive lesson plans, training, and professional assistance to do their jobs well.

The most dramatic transformation is in ensuring that kids really understand concepts rather than "play the memory game" in order to fill in the correct bubble on a test. "Kids get so turned off by [memorizing facts]," Hand explains. "How many of us remember stuff we memorized to pass an exam? But if you understand a concept, how something really works and why, you can apply it all the time."

Take dinosaurs. An old-school method would teach the topic. Students would memorize names like T-Rex and Stegosaurus, what they ate and how much, where they lived. Teachers using Hand's approach instead teach around a concept such as "physical adaptations that help animals survive" and use dinosaurs as the vehicle for learning.

In these classrooms, students don't take any spoken or written word at face value. They investigate, make claims, find evidence, and argue positions. The teacher won't tell the children to turn to page 148 and commit plant parts to memory. Instead, students ask questions such as "Do all plants have roots?" before marching to the playground to dig up chunks of grass to see for themselves.

Students discuss their findings with classmates and seek different opinions. They're allowed to change their minds. Finally, they compose an article, write a letter to their parents, or e-mail a real scientist to share what they've learned.

"As teachers, we think we control learning. But we have no control over what goes on in a person's head," notes Hand. "This approach seeks to get [theories, thoughts, and notions] out of kids' heads so teachers can challenge them and help them truly understand the big ideas."

Students aren't the only ones being challenged. Teachers have to get out of their comfort zones, away from teaching the way they were taught.

Teaching methods that incorporate inquiry aren't necessarily new—although they're still not widely accepted or used. But Hand's emphasis on argument is; and it's this element that he says requires a major shift in how teachers relate to their students.

A science consultant for AEA 13, Kim Wise helps teachers in Hand's study implement the new methods in their preschool through eighth-grade classrooms. She helps them adjust to an approach that takes more time and revisit their expectations for what they want to accomplish in a school year. Instead of covering ten units a year, they may only teach four—but present them in a deeper, more meaningful way.

Project participant Peggy Hansen, who teaches in the Griswold Community School District, says it's taken some patience and effort to relinquish more control to her students. She constantly resists the urge to fix what they might be doing wrong or to blurt out the correct answers. She's learning how to guide them toward discovering the answers for themselves. Initially, Hansen said she balked a bit at the respiratory system lesson, thinking that it would take hours. Her students surprised her. "They figured it out on their own and feel so successful," she says.

Wise points out that most elementary students are lucky to get 30 minutes of science education a week. Ideally, she'd like to see 30 minutes or more a day. "Through this approach, kids become so much more confident in their knowledge. They're so engaged, so totally digging science," she says. "We need to keep fueling their passion—or we aren't doing our jobs."

Students who arrive at high school passionate about science, with a positive foundation for learning, are far more likely to enjoy continued success. That's important, because experts note a significant drop-off in scientific pursuits among older students at the high school and college levels. Kevin Koepnick, 82BS, 89MS, a science specialist at City High School in Iowa City, says he's lucky. The Iowa City Community School District already supports interactive, laboratory-based teaching practices.

Koepnick has employed such approaches for awhile in his own classrooms, and he can testify that lessons requiring individual exploration and debate take additional time—which many teachers just don't have. He points out that many teachers already feel underpaid, overworked, and pressured to cover core curriculum, prep students for high test scores, and undertake myriad other tasks in a nine-month school year.

Koepnick has the "luxury" of focusing solely on teaching biology to high school students. In small, rural district schools, though, instructors are hired to teach general science to ninth-graders, biology to tenth, chemistry to 11th, and physics to 12th. They can barely keep up, let alone immerse themselves in the presentation of a particular concept.

"Plus, these teachers might be traveling to the junior high to teach. And, of course, coaching three sports," Koepnick says. "They probably wouldn't have time to prepare labs and might tend to teach with textbooks and videos."

Hand and his supporters agree that obstacles clearly loom in the path of this learn-by-discovery approach. But they stand firm on what they consider the keys to understanding science—and they hope that, one day, the United States will follow in the footsteps of international leaders in education and universally invest in its teachers and children.

Hand acknowledges that students in pockets of this nation perform as well as any world peer in science and math, but that's not good enough. In his perfect world, children in urban, rural, and suburban schools will enjoy success and the self-esteem it brings. They will flourish in classroom laboratories that allow them to eagerly construct tall structures with straws; play with batteries and bulbs; mix powders and liquids and investigate what turns purple or fizzes or collapses into goo.

They will all have experiences that make them think. Now, that's real teaching.