An indicator of a science renaissance in Oakland public schools, 13 elementary schools and 55 teachers won awards in the past month for their commitments to science education from a local science advocacy organization.
Oakland Unified School District‘s Chabot Elementary School, Lafayette Elementary School and PLACE @ Prescott Elementary School all received awards for their school-wide commitments to teaching science from Community Resources for Science, which puts scientists in schools and supplies hands-on science lesson plans to teachers.
CRS also gave awards to individual teachers from Bridges Academy at Melrose, Burckhalter Elementary, Community United Elementary, Encompass Academy, Howard Elementary, Laurel Elementary, Lincoln Elementary, Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary, New Highland Academy, and Parker Elementary.
What did they win? Science equipment, science books, and access to classroom presentations by scientists from U. C. Berkeley graduate schools and professionals from area scientific companies and organizations.
After Chabot Elementary was honored a couple of weeks ago, it received its prize in the form of biologists from the Bay Area Puma Project coming to the school and leading two assemblies on the lifestyles and biology of the feline animal kingdom.
“Did you know mountain lions travel the widest range of any mammal on earth except humans?” the biologist asked a roomful of kids, explaining that the territory mountain lions roam can span several states, whereas many animals spend their lives within a few square miles.
“Science happens a lot in our school,” said Chabot science teacher Julie Ward. Younger students in kindergarten, first and second grade have at least 60 minutes of science a week, and older students in third, fourth and fifth grades receive 100 to 150 minutes of science instruction per week.
Elementary school science in Oakland Unified School District is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, said Caleb Cheung, the manager of science instruction for the district.
“Oakland is actually leading the state in elementary school science implementation in many ways,” Cheung said. OUSD adopted a new science curriculum a few years ago called FOSS (Full Option Science System). It includes equipment for hands-on science lessons, which come in kits. Through a major logistical effort, the science kits are rotated among the 57 elementary schools in the district, so that each classroom gets three significant hands-on science curriculum kits a year. “That means 950 elementary classrooms,” Cheung said, which together teach about 20,000 students. “Every single teacher is expected to teach science at least once a week.”
Outside funding and resources have been key to allowing OUSD to beef up science instruction, he said. After he became the science manager, he began developing a Oakland Science Partners Network, largely through the help of Community Resources for Science.
“CRS actually has been a really important partner in our work,” Cheung added, particularly in recruiting and placing volunteer professional scientists and graduate students to teach lessons in OUSD classrooms.
That is a key part of what CRS does. It recruits volunteers among the scientific, professional and academic communities to teach their specialties. Then, in turn, it offers schools a matrix of available lesson plans, complete with the scientist ready to spare a few hours of his or her time to go into classrooms to teach it.
Its lesson plans include such titles as, “Buoyancy: Who Sank the Boat?” a physics lesson for kindergarteners taught by bio-engineering students at U. C. Berkeley to “Bones, Muscles and How We Move,” a biology lesson on multicellular organisms for fifth graders, also taught by U. C. Berkeley graduate students, and about 17 other lessons.
The awards CRS distributed in Oakland since late May were for what it calls Science Super Star Challenge champions. They are teachers and some entire schools “who have made a commitment to include a range of science teaching best practices into their classrooms” and who successfully completed a CRS challenge. That challenge included teaching 14 hands-on science lessons, taking professional development classes in science, bringing students on field trips, and writing about science.
Cheung says that bringing in scientists is key in engaging students and helping teachers in an era when nationwide emphasis on test scores has led many schools to zero in on math and English, and neglect science.
“Because of No Child Left Behind, across the country there’s been an emphasis on English and math because those are being tested,” he said. “A lot of schools over the years have given less emphasis to science.”
Having outside scientists come in helps, as does giving teachers incentives to devote more time to science. “Teachers have incredibly difficult jobs, and they are underpaid and overworked,” he said. “Every time you have some outside incentive that honors their work,” that helps.
Teresa Barnett, CRS Executive Director, said, “You may be surprised to discover science is often missing from the elementary school classroom, pushed aside by the mandates of testing in language arts and math,” in an email explaining the organization’s work.
In any district, “Elementary teachers often lack the training and background in teaching science, and time and resources for professional development and teaching supplies for investigations can be limited.” Community Resources for Science started up in 1997 to work with elementary school teachers to boost science learning experiences for students, Barnett said. Based in Berkeley and drawing from the rich academic and scientific community here, CRS runs one of the largest scientist and engineer volunteer-in-the-classroom programs in the country, she said.