I DO Have Time to Teach Science

Brian Campbell, FOSS Developer, Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California at Berkeley
September 05, 2006 | FOSS in Schools

Top image: In a corner near the front office, samples of student notebooks and projects are displayed for parents and students.

Finding time to teach science is a common concern for all of us in science education. Science time was a major issue that the teachers and administration at Jay Jeffers Elementary School tackled during the planning year leading up to the opening day in August 2005. Located in Clark County School District, Nevada (Las Vegas), Jeffers Elementary is one of 12 new schools opened in Clark County in 2005.

Like every other elementary school in the district, Jeffers students' academic performance in reading, writing, and math would be monitored by district, state, and national assessments. Principal Wendy Roselinsky knew her students would be 90% English language learners, and 90% would qualify for free or reduced lunch. Meeting academic standards would be a challenge, but Roselinsky was right where she wanted to be. She had a vision for Jeffers Elementary.

Roselinsky would build the entire curriculum around science. With science as the curriculum core, finding time to teach science would not be an issue. Roselinsky is an experienced educator. Prior to becoming a principal, she served as a Clark County Teacher on Special Assignment in math and science. She worked in schools with diverse student populations. She provided professional development for 30 schools over a period of three years. She attended weeklong training sessions to learn how to implement FOSS and worked with teachers and principals to bring FOSS into Clark County schools. When she moved into an administrative role, she continued to encourage and support her teachers to use inquiry based methods to teach science.

In order to make her vision a reality, Roselinsky would need to hire teachers who shared her educational philosophy and her desire to devote all their professional energy to the student population of Jeffers. As she began interviewing teachers, she made it clear that working at Jeffers meant that science was going to be taught, and time would be allocated to do it thoroughly. She looked for teachers with the requisite science teaching experience, as well as those who were open to the idea of using inquiry methods to build student understandings in science.

Planning for the opening of Jeffers Elementary started months before the building was even completed. The planning team included one teacher from each grade level, a librarian, an ELL facilitator, a reading specialist, and support staff. The first task was to prepare a mission statement—one that would reflect not only Roselinsky's ideas about science and children, but those of the entire planning team. The mission statement follows.

The Jay W. Jeffers Inquiry-Based Science Elementary School community provides a safe environment to support the learning of each student, parent, and staff member. We collaborate in the discovery of paths that each of us take to be responsible members of society, reach academic excellence, and remain curious lifelong learners.

With the mission statement in place, the teachers needed to identify and refine tools to help the students develop proficiency in reading, writing, and math while keeping science at the core. Roselinsky's mantra during the development of the programs was, "Science is a common experience for children. With science as the core, we can build academic language." The term "academic language" refers to the precise, specialized vocabulary associated with science and the conceptual understanding that it represents. The idea of developing academic language through inquirybased science became the first goal that Roselinsky and the teachers at Jeffers would spend time working toward.

To encourage her teachers to devote class time to teaching science, Roselinsky had to clarify her expectations and provide support. Her initial expectation was that teachers would teach science at least three times a week, and they would have their students keep science notebooks in some form. When school finally began, Roselinsky initiated a procedure that activated science thinking first thing in the morning. After the students gather on the playground for roll call and to say the pledge, Roselinsky asks, "Who learned a new science word yesterday?" As students share words, such as "erosion" and "breezy," she asks, "What do you think that word means?" While this seems very casual, it established the importance of words and their meaning. This type of dialogue between the principal and students became common in the classroom as well. Students soon realized that their principal valued science knowledge and the academic language that helped them express their science understandings.

Table of modules

The Core Curriculum

Teachers needed to teach the gradelevelscience standards adopted by the Clark County School District. And they were committed to developing science academic language. Teachers needed a curriculum that addressed both requirements simultaneously. Firstgrade teacher Rickie Yudin felt that theFOSS curriculum helped him get the job done. Yudin says,"Students essentially learn from their own experience, rather than having to listen to a lecture from a teacher or read a textbook, and then try to pick out, translate, and interpret language, and then make meaning of it all...[the FOSS investigations] allow them to acquire knowledge firsthand."

Tools of the Academic Language Trade

As the teachers began to implement the FOSS curriculum, they soon recognized the opportunities for developing academic language. The time spent on language introduction and review exceeded that suggested in the FOSS Teacher Guide, but the time was well spent. Teachers realized that investing a little extra time making sure that students associated new vocabulary and the scientific meaning paid large dividends down the line. Kindergarten teacher Martha Grainger said, "Science vocabulary in context is no more difficult than any other English words they are learning. We may as well use correct terms now rather than have to reteach them later." Teachers began to modify the lesson to allow students more time to develop the language. The following are some examples of how students acquired and used appropriate language while doing science.

A first grade student's notebook showing how rocks were sorted while working in the Pebbles, Sand and Silt module.

First Grade

In a first grade class, students were involved in the FOSS Pebbles, Sand and Silt Module. In Investigation 1, Part 3, students observe rocks, sort them, and describe the properties used to sort the rocks into groups. Students repeated the activity several times. They needed several experiences to develop the concepts "rough" and "smooth" and to use them to describe properties of rocks. The students needed to discuss these properties with each other, draw pictures of them, and repeat the tactile experience before they began to use "rough" and "smooth" as part of their natural academic language. The students then recorded their rock groupings in their notebooks, using words accurately to describe the properties of color, shape, size and texture. (See sample above)

Rickie Yudin, a first-grade teacher describes why he focuses on academic language and content knowledge in his classroom, Allowing students to talk with each other, with minimal teacher interference, has helped my students learn words. As they discuss [the words], they complement each other's understanding with new ideas, and then synthesize those ideas into more complex conceptual knowledge. Once they have created an accurate and complete concept, they are able to take ownership of it as something they have created, not something given to them by the teacher. As a result, they buy into what they are doing and take responsibility for learning and using the concept.

Second Grade

In second grade, students worked with the FOSS Air and Weather Module. During Investigation 2, Part 1, students went outside, observed the weather, and recorded their observations in their notebook. After they observed and recorded for several days, the class had a word bank with words and pictures similar to the weather symbols provided in the teacher guide.

Second graders observe balloon rockets while working with the Air and Weather module.

Each day before the class went outside to make observations, the class would review the weather words that were introduced in previous lessons. The teacher would say something like, "Yesterday we used the word windy. What do you think windy means?" The students were familiar with this type of academic language questioning from the scienceactivation questioning that started the day during roll call. The review helped ELL students recall the sound and look of words they might use to describe that day's weather. As the students observed the weather, they talked with each other to seek the best word to describe the observed weather. The teacher would encourage students to be more descriptive or use more formal terms by asking, "You said there was air moving. How else could you say that?" At the end of the lesson, students are asked what words they used from the word bank and what they thought the word meant.

Fourth Grade

Students in a fourth grade class used the FOSS Magnetism and Electricity Module. During Investigation 2, Part 2, students made open and closed circuits. During the Wrapping Up session, students discussed the meaning of "open" and "closed" with a partner and then, as a class, developed definitions for open and closed circuits using academic language.

As part of another strategy for working with English language learners, the teacher introduced the objective for the lesson, "Explore objects that can be used to complete a circuit." The students worked to determine which objects in the bag of test objects could be used to complete the circuit. The teacher called the students to sit on the floor with their science notebooks. The teacher asked students to identify objects that completed the circuit and objects that did not. The names of the objects and the materials from which they were made were recorded in a class Table. Students then transcribed the table into their notebooks.

Two fourth-graders explore conductors and insulators and record their observations in their notebooks.

When asked to describe what happened when test objects were placed in a circuit with a lightbulb, students explained that objects made of metal resulted in a closed circuit, but no one discussed the flow of electricity through the object. The teacher felt that the students had a partial understanding of the concept of conductors and insulators, so she introduced the words conductor and insulator, knowing she would need to spend time in the next lesson discussing the flow of electricity. The teacher understood that in order for the new vocabulary to rise to the level of academic language, students would have to develop functional conceptual models associated with the words conductor and insulator.

Reading in the Science Content Area

With science as the curriculum core, teachers at Jeffers Elementary reviewed and selected a substantial body of nonfiction text to support and enhance science concepts while at the same time exercising reading skills. The school librarian used the FOSS resource list and a list of nonfiction books provided by the district math and science department to help locate appropriate nonfiction books. "Reading about real things is more comprehensible to ELL kids. Nonfiction is more concrete and helps build academic language," according to Roselinsky.

The staff uses a series of leveled readers during content-based reading time. Content reading happens during reading time, not during science time. Fourthgrade teacher Eric Hoose said, "The stories are great. They are about the same topics (e.g., the rain forest), but each student is reading at his or her own level. All the books have the same photos, graphs, charts, and so on, but the text is presented in various levels of complexity. This really helps eliminate the 'good reader/bad reader' stigma that sometimes becomes an issue. The books help with reading confidence and create the feeling of becoming a successful reader."

Because reading and writing go hand in hand, teachers were encouraged to incorporate science notebooks into the inquiry science. Some teachers had had training with the use of notebooks, but many had not. Those with experience began to share their methods with others, showing particularly how they used science notebooks to develop academic language. The teachers quickly saw the dual benefits of using notebooks during the science lessons—their students were simultaneously developing and applying their language arts and math skills while communicating science.

"This time was well spent," according to thirdgrade teacher Maria Dufek. "I have seen much more writing, recording, and explaining in math and science this year. When I compare the students' notebook entries at the beginning of the year and now at the end of the year, the growth is very evident. Their questions are more sciencefocused than material-focused. That growth happens with each investigation."

In June, several staff members attended a notebook workshop led by author Lori Fulton. According to Rickie Yudin, the workshop "motivated grade-level and school-wide collaboration to develop ideas and methods for using the notebooks. It gave us an opportunity to see what areas we could improve upon, but also what we have been doing well, how students are progressing, and what our next steps for success should be." The group of teachers that attended wanted this workshop to do more than just help them in their individual classrooms; they wanted it to benefit the entire school. They developed a mission statement about the use of notebooks at Jeffers.

Jeffers Elementary has invested a lot of time and thought in pursuit of academic language and science knowledge. The principal and staff are dedicated to helping students develop science literacy and language literacy simultaneously. In thinking about the first year at Jeffers, with science as the core, Roselinsky had to say:

The science focus has been a very positive element for the Jeffers School community. We have noticed high levels of student engagement due to the science focus as well as parents commenting on their children's excitement and interest in science. Teachers have been motivated to reflect upon the science and literacy connections they see in their classrooms. All in all it has been a great first year for all Jeffers's stakeholders.

About the Author: Brian Campbell taught grades two and five in Clark County School District for seven years. In 2005, after participating in the initial planning for the opening of Jay Jeffers Elementary School, Campbell joined the staff of the Assessing Science Knowledge (ASK) project at the Lawrence Hall of Science. The ASK project is an NSFfunded project researching, in part, the use of science notebooks in a comprehensive assessment program linked to the FOSS science curriculum for grades 36.


  • "Connecting FOSS and Science Notebooks: A South Carolina Experience," by Jeri Calhoun and ellen mintz. FOSS Newsletter.
  • Science Notebooks: Writing about Inquiry, by Brian Campbell and Lori A. Fulton. Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH, 2003.
  • "Student-Centered Notebooks," by Fulton, L., and Campbell, B. Science and Children, November/December 2004.
  • "Project Notebook," by mintz, e., and Calhoun, J. Science and Children, November/December 2004, pp. 30-34.