quickly agreed to take it for the following year. The district science supervisor suggested that we start with a couple of Elementary Science Study units, Clay Boats and Primary Balancing. The unit guides and equipment were ordered. I was all set to begin my new teaching role.
Never having had a science lesson in elementary school, I was not predisposed, as I had been with the other subjects, to teach it as I had been taught. In fact, without any real textbook to guide the students, I was left with the materials and a few general instructions in the teacher’s guide. And so it was that my students and I became “explorers of materials.” We had a great time. The students were engaged. They talked a lot about what they were doing and we all asked a lot of questions. But I wanted to do more than just explore and ask questions. I wanted to learn some basic principles and have a clear vision of where we were going. I wanted to lead my students to discover and understand something. But what was it that we should understand? I hadn’t a clue. This is when I first came to recognize that if I were to become a truly effective teacher, I would need scientific skills and understandings that I had not been required to develop during my undergraduate years.
Not long after this recognition of my deficiencies, I happened to glance through the school district’s newsletter, and came across a notice for a Summer Institute in Physics and Physical Science for Elementary Teachers. I applied and was accepted.
The professional development provided by that first summer’s intense coursework was the first meaningful education I had experienced since high school. Nothing I had been exposed to in college had really addressed what I needed to know to guide my students to develop the conceptual understanding and thinking and reasoning skills needed to make sense of the world around them.
I walked away from that summer feeling that my brain had been to boot camp. No course of study, no one teacher had ever demanded so much of me. I had never before been asked to explain my reasoning. A simple answer was no longer sufficient. I had been expected to think about how I came to that answer and what that answer meant. It had been excruciating at times, extricating the complicated and detailed thought processes that brought me to a conclusion, but I found it became easier to do as the summer progressed. I also began to realize that just as important as what I came to understand, was how I came to understand it. Through the process of inquiry, I had come to an understanding of content that I had always felt was beyond me. I wanted to be able to ask the questions that would lead my students to the same kind of understanding. The key to the questions was first understanding the content.
The content had been the focus of the summer institute and as a result I had developed a conceptual understanding of several basic science concepts including balance, mass, and volume. Along with these concepts I had discovered an appreciation for the need to control variables in an experiment. I was now better equipped to take a more critical look at the science units I had used the previous year. I recognized that Clay Boats had probably not been the best choice for a teacher with only a budding understanding of sinking and floating, but Primary Balance seemed to be an appropriate choice since I had explored very similar materials and had some ideas of how I could lead students to discover, through experiments in which they would come to understand the need to control variables, which factors seem to influence balance and which do not.