The science of science

Evolution is only one of the 18 "big ideas" in Florida's new standards.

By Donna Winchester, Times Staff Writer
Published February 22, 2008

Like an overactive child who refuses to sit still in class, evolution stole the spotlight in recent months in nearly every discussion about the state's proposed new science standards.

Debate over the topic nearly derailed a year's worth of work on the part of science teachers who crafted the 96-page document, and it prompted a last-minute rewording that appended the phrase "scientific theory" to the E-word.

But in reality, evolution is only one of 18 "big ideas" Florida teachers will be expected to cover beginning this fall. The standards also provide guidelines for how to teach chemistry, physics, anatomy and marine science.

And so days after the Board of Education's 4-3 vote to adopt the new standards, state officials have turned their attention to the next step: making sure teachers get the training they'll need to support the sea change in the way science will be presented to Florida students.

"If you look at the new standards you'll see words like compare and contrast, investigate and experiment," said Mary Jane Tappen, the Education Department's deputy chancellor of secondary reform. "Students will be involved in doing science rather than just reading about it."

That means teacher training will focus not only on what to teach, Tappen said, but how to teach.

The distinction is not lost on local district science supervisors, who agree that Tuesday's vote was the first step on the path to more rigorous science education.

"The state has done its work and has come to a conclusion," said Blythe Lodermeier, secondary science supervisor for Pinellas County schools. "Our challenge now is getting the professional development delivered to the teachers so they feel comfortable with the new standards."

Lodermeier already has begun working toward that. In Hillsborough County, science supervisor Nancy Marsh said she soon will begin discussions with her science department heads.

"There are some significant changes," Marsh said. "We'll do an analysis of them to see what we'll have to change in our curriculum."

But before teachers can be trained, the state has to find the money. While it's unclear how much the training will cost, Education Department officials say about $6-million is available through a federal grant. Districts most likely will supplement that using additional federal funding.

New standards may challenge teachers

Janet Acerra, a teacher at Forest Lakes Elementary in Oldsmar and a member of the team that wrote the new standards, said training will be the key to their success.

"That's one thing we've said to the governor and to our commissioner of education," Acerra said. "We basically said, 'You can roll out these wonderful world-class standards, but you have to support them with professional development.'"

The primary challenge for many elementary teachers will be moving beyond their fear of science, Acerra said. Unless they have a special interest in the subject, they usually come to the classroom without much background in it.

"Not only will we have to provide content instruction, we'll have to provide help for instructional delivery," she said. "We'll need to hand them a microscope and show them how to get kids really involved."

That wasn't as critical with the old standards because they didn't rely as much on active learning, said Pinellas' elementary science supervisor Julie Poth.

"Before, a teacher might set out two or three different kinds of soil for kids to look at with a hand lens," Poth said. "Maybe they'd even draw a picture of the soil, but there would be no real inquiry into the differences between the soils. No critical questions would have been asked by the teacher, and there would have been no discourse among the students."

Kids would have come out of the experiment saying they'd had a lot of fun, Poth said. Now, science has been "kicked up a notch" to get kids using critical thinking skills.

Effect may not be obvious for years

Those skills will be put to the test on the 2012 Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Until then, students will continue to be tested on the old standards, even though teachers will begin teaching to the new ones this fall.

But the true test of whether the new standards are better equipping kids for the 21st century may not be apparent until today's elementary students reach middle and high school, said David Campbell, a science teacher at Ridgeview High in Clay County, near Jacksonville.

Campbell, who was part of the team that wrote the new standards, already has volunteered to help train his district's elementary science teachers.

"If I invest a couple of hours this summer and a couple of hours next summer and the summer after that," Campbell said, "I'll see the benefit. The kids who come to me will be better prepared, and maybe there will be more in Advanced Placement science or honors classes."

Earth and space science, grades 9-12

Old standards

-The student understands the interaction and organization of the solar system and the universe and how this affects life on Earth.

-The student recognizes the vastness of the universe and the Earth's place in it.

New standards

-The origin and eventual fate of the universe still remains one of the greatest questions in science. Gravity and energy influence the development and life cycles of galaxies, including our own Milky Way Galaxy, stars, the planetary system, Earth and residual material left from the formation of the solar system. Humankind's need to explore continues to lead to the development of knowledge and understanding of the nature of the universe.

-Over geologic time, internal and external sources of energy have continuously altered the features of Earth by means of both constructive and destructive forces. All life, including human civilization, is dependent on Earth's internal and external energy and material resources. The theory of plate tectonics provides the framework for much of modern geology.

-The evolution of Earth is driven by the flow of energy and the cycling of matter through dynamic interactions among the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, geosphere and biosphere, and the resources used to sustain human civilization on Earth.

Source: Florida Department of Education