‘Here come the scientists!’ UIndy students infuse science lessons into second grade classrooms


In second grade classrooms at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School, Fridays at 2:30 are the best time of the week. That’s when teachers tell students that “The special visitors are coming,” and students wait eagerly for the visitors to appear in the hallway. When the gang of college students comes around the corner, clad in orange T-shirts and carrying large brown boxes, the eager whispering begins. “Here come the scientists!”

The “scientists” are with instructor Mary Gobbett’s Biology for Elementary Education class. Some are Biology Club members, some are Americorps volunteers, and some are students who’d taken the class earlier and simply loved the experience.

Make room for science
The need to teach children STEM-related subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) has been well documented. Still, science is not a graded subject in second grade, so teachers have to try and work science instruction into the literacy portion of their teaching. Teachers focus on reading and math, since that is what students are tested on, but there usually isn’t an entire chunk of time set aside for science in the second-grade curriculum. At least that was the case until Gobbett’s daughter was in second grade at Abraham Lincoln.

When Gobbett noticed that her daughter wasn’t learning as much science as she could, she wanted to change that. She started bringing in college students now and then to teach age-appropriate science lessons to the second graders. What started as a few lessons in just one classroom has blossomed into two or three visits per month in all six second-grade classrooms. Brittany Summers is a freshman Elementary Education major. Thanks to this program, she is already gaining teaching experience in the classroom.

“I enjoy being around the kids and seeing their excitement,” she says. “It’s fun to be interactive and to be involved in hands-on projects with the kids.”

The UIndy students teach creative lessons on fossils, weather, the solar system, plants, even topics such as chemistry and physics. The second graders might plant seeds to observe how plants grow or dissect an owl pellet to discover what’s inside.

“We just love all the material the UIndy students bring,” says Abraham Lincoln’s Lori Beaupre, who has been teaching for 13 years. “It’s so engaging and hands-on, and they teach the kids about things that they don’t see every day. We love when they visit.”

Benefits for teachers, too
Even after the UIndy students leave, the teachers are finding ways to incorporate the lessons into future discussions or readings.

“Because the UIndy students are based in science, they bring in more things than I as a classroom teacher would know about,” says UIndy alumna Corie Steed, a teacher at Abraham Lincoln for seven years. “They do some really cool things with the kids—such as bringing in worms or slugs—that I wouldn’t have access to on a regular basis. I watch the UIndy kids and think ‘Wow! I never would have thought of that!’”

Steed enjoys being able to interact with her own students on a different level when the UIndy students are there—not as teacher, but as observer. She takes the opportunity to see what the UIndy students bring to her classroom and think how she could incorporate their lessons with her weekly lesson plans.

Making it permanent?
Gobbett hopes to expand the program over the next couple of years, eventually turning it into a required element for a class that elementary education majors take as sophomores. She is working with Nancy Steffel and Bev Reitsma in UIndy’s Department of Teacher Education to develop a class that would cover all science areas and include a practicum at the school. UIndy students would be learning college science as well as how to apply the techniques and content knowledge to teaching elementary students.

“I’m really excited that our kids are getting exposed to science and piquing their curiosity in the subject,” says Steed. “It’s fun to see the creativity that the UIndy students bring to my classroom and to see how much my kids enjoy learning from them.”

Stemming the tide of science inadequacy

Though they might not always don lab coats, wear goggles, or carry test tubes in their pockets, UIndy’s elementary education majors are becoming confident scientists in their own right, thanks to a grant from the I-STEM (Indiana Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Resource Network and some experimental University faculty. The focus on science developed after the UIndy Department of Teacher Education discovered that graduates were motivated to become more comfortable teaching in this subject area.

The department secured the two-year, $60,000 I-STEM grant in 2009 to develop a curriculum designed to enhance content knowledge and develop positive attitudes toward science in elementary education majors. Freshman and sophomore biology students now engage in seminars and labs twice a week, then visit local elementary school classrooms to apply their learning by teaching a lab themselves. This experience is open to all UIndy students taking introductory biology, not just teacher candidates, because people learn best by teaching others.

Capitalizing on the department’s nationally recognized expertise in literacy, the faculty revised elementary education coursework to connect science with reading and writing in elementary classrooms. UIndy teachers-in-training now study specific science curricula and learn how to integrate books and nonfiction writing to develop science knowledge in elementary students. Science also plays a role in every field experience for UIndy elementary education majors and is embedded in all teaching units.

The two-year experiment with new coursework and field experiences is being evaluated to ensure that it’s helping future teachers gain the competence and skills they need to incorporate science at even the lowest grade levels. Their own interest in science, and their skill in teaching it, could spark a lifelong interest in a child—good news for a state bent on producing more STEM graduates.