Learning English through science
New program partners with Exploratorium (Originally Published: March 23, 2010)
Teachers and school administrators agree that science education has fallen by the wayside in favor of English and math development because of the heavy emphasis on passing state and federal tests created by the No Child Left Behind Act. There simply isn't time to teach everything.
A pilot program launched last year at El Verano Elementary School is attempting to kill two birds with one stone by merging science education with English language development through a new partnership between the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, the Exploratorium's Institute for Inquiry, the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation and the Vadasz Family Foundation. The goal is to develop English-language learners' vocabulary and language skills through engaging hands-on science inquiry.
"I love the fact that you can address the English language development standards and the science standards in one lesson," said Louann Carlomagno, superintendent of the school district. "One of the biggest challenges is trying to fit a really rich education into the day … There is power in integrating subjects." The program involves creating open-ended opportunities for students to explore scientific concepts on their own without being required to follow predetermined steps. For example, third-graders at El Verano recently learned about light reflection, and instead of following a lesson plan, teacher Craig Madison handed out flashlights and mirrors and turned out the lights, allowing the students to explore the concept on their own.
"We know kids are curious, we know they like to play," said Madison. "When they're allowed to discover things on their own, they really retain that." Following the personal exploration, the students read about and discussed light reflection, learning specific vocabulary words to use when speaking about this new concept. Students then broke into groups and were asked to identify a specific question about light reflection like, for example, what happens if you bounce a light through a circle of hand mirrors.
"They get to decide on a question they want to investigate," Madison said. "They're taking ownership of their education." After making an educated hypothesis on what the students' think might happen, they test out their assumption.
All steps, including the inquiry, question and discovery, are compiled on a poster that outlines the students' findings.
The final step is to give a presentation on their research to a younger class, developing both language and public speaking skills.
"It's fun. You can experience stuff you don't really know about," said 8-year-old Yubani Herrera, one of Madison's third graders. Herrera said his family speaks Spanish at home, but having to discuss and present his science projects has "helped me learn to speak English better at school because I have new words." The San Francisco-based Exploratorium launched its Institute of Inquiry in 1972 to develop more exciting, hands-on science education to Bay Area schools. In 1995, the program went national and has helped create inquiry-based science curriculum, where students develop and answer their own questions at 700 school districts in 44 states and 10 countries. More recently, the Institute sought a school partner to explore the relationship between science and language development.
" (El Verano) is very, very focused on language development, so it was a natural match as we were interested in seeing how science impacts language development," said Lynn Rankin, director of the Institute of Inquiry.
The Institute worked with the school district to develop a three-year plan in which the program begins within a few classes and gradually grows both within El Verano and to other elementary schools within the district. Launched in January 2009, it began with four El Verano teachers taking a series of workshops hosted by the Exploratorium based on inquiry-based science curriculum.
"It's really on teachers' minds how best to get English language learners excited about science," said Fred Stein, science educator with the Institute of Inquiry. "The teachers really took ownership of developing this program." Over three years, the core teachers are charged with continuing to develop inquiry based lesson plans that combine both science and language developments. Those teachers will also be required to teach inquiry-based science curriculum to 24 El Verano teachers and 48 other teachers at Prestwood, Sassarini, Flowery and Dunbar elementary schools.
"I think having it expand to our other elementary schools is wonderful, our teachers are really excited about it," Carlomagno said. "It's a costly program but I think it's worth every penny." The program is expected to cost $398, 662 over three years, which includes Exploratorium salaries, teacher salaries, materials and evaluations.
The costs are being covered through education grants for English language learners, the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation and the Vadasz Family Foundation. It was Vadasz Family Foundation founder Les Vadasz who first connected the school district and the Exploratorium, setting the entire program in motion. "We brought the two organizations together and wonderful things happened," said Vadasz, who added his foundation is focused on supporting education.
"I'm very satisfied with the program, but that's really minor. The fact that the school community is satisfied, that's what's really important." The program will be reviewed annually, with a completely independent report conducted by the Inverness Research Associates. The results will be useful both to the school district and the Exploratorium, which hopes to utilize this program in other schools with a large population of English language learners.
Although the program is new, so far El Verano has seen a largely positive response.
In a report about the first year of the project, Maite Ituri, principal of El Verano, wrote "We are in awe of the level of language and engagement the students demonstrated." Madison said he too has been impressed at how his students have reacted to the increased focus on science education.
"When you ask them what their favorite part of school is, besides recess and lunch, it's science," he said.