Paving the Way: How State Leaders Can Improve Science Education for All Students

As our country continues to push past two pandemic-heavy years, academic recovery remains at the forefront of education conversations. While it’s been great to see examples of states and districts investing in math and reading acceleration, it’s been harder to find those focusing on the subject of science. But that doesn’t mean science isn’t on the radar – or that there isn’t a critical role for state leaders to play in advancing science education.

That’s why I was excited to talk to Heidi Schweingruber as the next expert in my science expert Q&A series. Heidi is the director of the Board on Science Education at the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine and brings a wealth of knowledge about the potential of science education to change lives. What’s more, she mixes that knowledge with true passion for reaching all students with the science experiences they deserve – and shares some practical advice for state leaders.

Many people–students and adults–feel left out of the science world or like it’s “not for them”. How can we change this narrative?

Heidi: For many people this feeling might come from their experiences in school, or their image of scientists as geniuses set apart from us “normal” people. But the truth is that science is just a way of understanding the world around us. And in our increasingly technological world we all need a basic, working knowledge of how science advances. This basic science literacy is something that should be accessible to everyone, but we need to change the way science is taught and examine our assumptions about who can succeed in science.

A key move we need to make is to create learning experiences in science that are meaningful and relevant to students. To become scientifically literate, students need opportunities to DO science, not just read about it in a book. Students need opportunities to explore interesting phenomena in the world or problems that are relevant to their communities. Linking to students’ own lived experiences – at home and in their communities – is key. They need opportunities to pursue their own questions and to talk about science in their own words without worrying about always using technical science vocabulary. We need to move away from the “gotcha” style of science teaching that focuses on correcting students’ “wrong” ideas or “incorrect” language. Through engaging, relevant experiences, students can start to see themselves as competent science learners who can use science in their everyday lives and maybe pursue a scientific career.

Making this classroom shift and ensuring that all students have these kinds of learning experiences requires educators and decision-makers in education to re-examine their own assumptions about who can do well in science. We need to shift our frame to “inviting students in” instead of “weeding students out”. This requires a shift to an asset frame meaning that we look for what students DO know and CAN do and then build on it. And we embrace students’ diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds and experiences as assets to draw on in science classrooms.

What is the biggest opportunity for advancing high-quality K-12 science education across the country, and what is the biggest challenge?

Heidi: One of the biggest opportunities we have right now is that over the past decade, the science education community has been working toward a shared vision of what science learning should look like that was laid out in 2012 in The Framework for K-12 Science Education. The vision in the Framework emphasizes that to learn science students of all ages need the opportunity to DO science. Adoption of this vision in states is a huge win. But, now the real work of implementation is starting. That takes time and we need tools, training and investments to make it happen.

One of the biggest challenges to moving the vision forward is that science isn’t seen as a core academic subject. This is especially a problem in the elementary grades where science often takes a back seat to ELA and math. But, it also is a problem in high school where we essentially do not expect all students to pursue science courses.

A second challenge that is important to highlight in the wake of the profound impact COVID has had on public education is teacher shortages. There were already shortages of science teachers before the pandemic, but these have been exacerbated over the past 3 years. The specifics of shortages are very local and often vary by community or region. But, we know, in general, that in many states and districts there is an acute lack of physical science (physics and chemistry) and Earth science teachers. This shortage makes it difficult for many districts to provide the kind of science learning opportunities that all students need.

Are there opportunities you see – especially at the state level – to advance science education?

Heidi: At the state and district level, a key move is to think about science as a core subject in the same way as we think about ELA and mathematics as core. An area of both need and opportunity for elevating science as a core subject is to give more time for science at the elementary level. This can be done in numerous ways, including developing strategies for thoughtfully integrating science with ELA and math. States can signal the importance of science in elementary by setting guidelines for how much time should be devoted to science and by making investments in high-quality curriculum materials.

Approaching science as a core subject also requires attention to systems for assessment and accountability and providing time and funding for science-specific teacher learning opportunities. I’m very excited about the curriculum materials that are becoming available nationally. States and districts need to develop strategies for encouraging adoption of high-quality instructional materials and provide funding for purchasing them.

Finally, if we are serious about providing all students with access to meaningful science learning experiences we need to address disparities in access to high-quality science across schools and districts. States can build this kind of tracking of “opportunity gaps” into their assessment and accountability systems and then use the information to guide investments.The key question is “where are students lacking in opportunity and what can be done to address disparities and give all students what they need to thrive?” 

My thanks to Heidi for laying out these important questions and opportunities. 

Jocelyn Pickford is an education policy and communications specialist focusing on understanding and promoting practitioner-informed public policy across the private, public and non-profit sectors as a Senior Affiliate with HCM Strategists. She began her career in education as a high school English teacher in a regular and special education inclusion classroom and is now a public school parent and recent member of her local district school board. Previously, Jocelyn led the design, launch and implementation of the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship at the U.S. Department of Education to integrate teachers into the national education policy dialogue. Jocelyn’s passion for her work was seeded during her own public school education and took root during her classroom teaching experience in Fairfax County, Virginia, where she led action research and presented instructional materials to a variety of audiences. Jocelyn earned her bachelor’s degree from Trinity College (CT), working as a professional writer and editor prior to becoming a teacher, and obtained her master’s in secondary education from the George Washington University. Jocelyn lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and two children.