Children are instinctively curious and always on a quest for finding answers to their questions. Given that they naturally want to learn, it is my belief that the elementary classroom is the obvious place to introduce the scientific processes that will help them understand their world. This is a philosophical belief that I hold to be important. However, my experiences have led me to some conclusions that differ with those expressed in the article, "Educating Students for the 21st Century," written by Bruce M. Roberts and Jan Tuomi. Science kits have been adopted by many of the schools in the Albuquerque Public School district where I am employed. They are often seen as replacement for the science curriculum. The kits are designed to teach a particular concept and are provisioned with the necessary materials for implementation. As a way of facilitating implementation, the kits are also delivered to the classroom teacher's door. The teacher simply has to use the kit to teach science. For many teachers this ready-made curriculum is the only way their students will be exposed to science concepts. They embrace the idea willingly and allow someone else to assume the responsibility for science instruction. The materials are simply placed in the room and children are given time to explore them.
All too often this is believed to be science instruction. The children's natural curiosity and innate interest in science leads them to explore the materials and come to some understandings. The teacher is comfortable that science is being taught and is released from the responsibility of developing a broader understanding of science as a discipline.
This approach raises many questions. I will address some of them here. It is true that science kits offer opportunities for hands-on experiences; frequently, however, there is no connection made to their relevance in the bigger scheme of children's experiences. Attention is not paid to the development of science concepts or to the processes necessary to solve problems systematically using the scientific process. This lack of connectedness means that the learner may have had a fun experience but quickly moves on to something new. Each event occurs in isolation.
The teacher, assuming the kit will do the teaching, has no investment in furthering the learner's understanding. This is especially true if the teacher has not developed knowledge about the concept being presented in the kit. Adopting this approach means that the teacher has no responsibility to continued learning. Science instruction, although no longer presented as the memorization of scientific terms, has been reduced to its simplest form.
This style of instruction appears to be based on ease of gathering and convenience of storing materials. Complexity of the materials is therefore compromised. If the teacher does nothing to enhance the kit's implementation with additional materials and resources, the children fail to develop the skills necessary for becoming problem solvers and critical evaluators. Their thinking maintains itself at the comprehension level. This certainly moves us no closer to reaching the standards set forth in the Goals 2000 legislation.
An additional concern is the financial cost for developing kits. Most of the supplies included with the kits are consumable and fairly expensive, and the cost of the kits to the schools is inflated in order to pay someone to purchase, compile, replenish, store (in some situations) and distribute the kits. This additional expense reduces the dollar amount that could have been spent on the purchase of non-consumable items. When purchased, non-consumable items such as books, microscopes, flasks, dissecting tools, etc., become available for all children to use in the future. A yearly addition of further resources for science instruction could prove more beneficial and move the learner and teacher to a more complex understanding of science as a discipline.
I agree that an experiential approach to science instruction begun in the elementary classroom is necessary. As teachers we can also take advantage of the notion that children are natural scientists and have it serve as an invitation to develop a rich environment for science instruction.
I question the practice of using science kits in isolation because they assume that the teacher has neither knowledge of the content nor desire to become more informed. It leads me to wonder: if the responsibility for replenishing kits were returned to teachers, would their use serve as a model for expanding science and making it an integral part of the curriculum, or would science instruction again receive less emphasis?
I targeted the Santa Ana Unified School District which has an enrollment of over 49,000 students of whom 92 percent are minority and 64 percent are limited-English proficient the greatest concentration of such students in California.
With colleagues at UCI, I began the KIDS program five years ago to provide Latino children from low-income families with an engaging and challenging university-based science "camp." The focus of the program was project-based learning on topics at the forefront of biology, especially field biology. We wanted the children to be able to actually believe themselves to be young scientists. They wore white laboratory coats and worked side-by-side with teachers, research faculty, undergraduate and graduate students. In this respect, this was truly an intergenerational model of teaching and learning. We made our laboratories and field research sites places where children from kindergarten through middle school could discover and investigate the mysteries of science. The campus became a place in which low-income children could pose, investigate and answer fundamental questions on such topics as function, adaptation, evolution, gravity, sound, inertia, force, velocity and acceleration in an environmental framework with enthusiastic parents, compassionate student assistants and gifted bilingual teachers from the school district. Bilingualism was crucial for the success of this program since the majority of KIDS students and parents only spoke Spanish.
But the true partnership was that of the KIDS program and the parents. This belief sprung from my own experience. My educational success in a poor south Texas school was largely due to my mother's active involvement in PTA and teacher/parent conferences. Therefore, the program emphasized and insisted that parents be made participatory partners in this unique endeavor.
University faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, parents, teachers and principals all consider KIDS to be a great success. Evaluation data show this to be true. We have seen that a partnership between the campus and K-12 schools can enable minority children to experience the joy and excitement of science and can have an enormous impact on the children's learning and interest in science. A clear indicator of success was the students' improvement in their grades at their "normal" school (a term students used to separate KIDS-UCI from their school) and comments from the parents indicating that the students were more involved in their studies.
Our basic goal for the KIDS program has been to foster the development of a generation of youngsters who learn to think and understand the importance of education in order to go to college and pursue a career in the sciences. KIDS is a year round science partnership between UCI and the Santa Ana Unified School District. In the summer, children from the Santa Ana schools come to the campus where they become part of a research university. The effects of this approach have been profound. Outstanding Santa Ana teachers who have worked with us in designing and carrying out the program are the children's teachers during the academic year. They tell us such things as "The KIDS students . . . value learning about science and see it as very important, fun and challenging" . . . "Both boys and girls have begun to see themselves as scientists" . . . "I am constantly confronted by the KIDS students with their question of 'when can we go to UCI to study more science?'"
Distinguished minority faculty serve as role models and mentors to the school children and to minority graduate and undergraduate students who work alongside K-12 teachers in the program. The KIDS children typically have their first minority scientist role models in the University faculty and students. Faculty visit the children's schools during the academic year, and undergraduates serve as tutors at KIDS schools, continuing to serve as significant role models.
I also want to re-emphasize the critical importance of parents as partners. Parents serve as volunteer homework mentors and others are paid to assist in teaching, mentoring and to serve as staff. Parent programs are offered at school sites in the community daily after the summer camp ends. The activities strengthen parents' skills in supporting their children's learning. Principals at the children's schools tell us that, "These have become some of our most active parents at school. They are eager to share their hopes and their plans for their students to attend college. . . . Most of our KIDS parents are participating in our Parent Institute for Quality Education."
Finally, I want to underscore the value of building on an existing regional infrastructure that has solid community support, if one exists. An important factor contributing to the rapid and continuing success of KIDS is that it has been implemented in conjunction with the Student/Teacher Education Partnership (STEP). This is a collaborative effort involving the predominantly minority Santa Ana School District the largest in Orange County and other institutions of higher education and school districts in the region. STEP, which has been in existence for close to fifteen years, is nationally recognized as a model of school-college collaboration. It has had support at the highest levels, including UCI's Chancellor and the Santa Ana Unified School District's Superintendent.
Notable effects of the KIDS science partnership have occurred in the children's school-year experiences. Teachers tell us, "Many of the KIDS students have become the 'leaders' in their classrooms in the area of science and problem solving." Principals tell us, "Due to the fact that four of our teachers have been KIDS teachers we've been 'infected' with KIDS philosophy and focus on inquiry." It can and does work school-wide across all areas of the curriculum.
I urge colleagues at other colleges and universities to collaborate with school districts in creating similar programs enabling children to participate in the campus scientific life. In these partnerships, the campus becomes a truly common ground for fostering the love and learning of science.