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Why Hands-On Science Isn’t Enough

Essentials on education data and research analysis.

The subject of science lends itself naturally to lab experiments, field experiences and other “hands-on” activities. If well implemented, such activities can engage students and significantly increase learning. But if science education is to prepare students for life and for possible careers in science, providing hands-on activities is not enough. According to the American Educational Research Association’s (AERA) review of the research literature, “Improving science achievement will require coordinated changes in science standards, curricula, laboratories, assessments, professional development, and uses of modern technologies” (Rangel, 2007, p. 1). The following recommendations are based on the AERA review and other recent studies.

Focus on key concepts. U.S. science textbooks cover a broad range of topics and standards. Compared to their counterparts in countries that score higher on international tests, U.S. students cover more topics but have fewer opportunities to develop deep understandings of concepts. Taking a narrower and more integrated approach will require that teachers design lessons to help students “make connections among ideas, experiences, patterns, and explanations” (Rangel, 2007, p. 3).

Carefully guide scientific investigations. Students need opportunities to learn scientific methods and to use these methods in real or simulated settings. Teachers can support students’ interest in science and promote long-term understanding by selecting science activities that are relevant to students’ lives. Further, teachers need to guide students as they collect data and “connect findings to their existing ideas” (Rangel, 2007, p. 2).

Use visualizations. Technology can be a powerful tool in helping students visualize scientific phenomena such as plate tectonics. Research shows that visualizations are more powerful than text or drawings alone when it comes to helping students connect ideas and gain insights (Rangel, 2007, p. 4).

Ask higher-level questions. Science teachers can help students learn and remember new material by asking them to explain their thinking as they integrate new ideas and concepts with prior knowledge. Higher-level questions require students to make distinctions, integrate new knowledge, organize ideas, and articulate understandings (Rangel, 2007, p. 2).

Help all students succeed. Empirical research suggests that children’s beliefs about their abilities are central to determining their interest and performance in different subjects” (Halpern, Aronson, Reimer, Simpkins, Star, & Wentzel, 2007, p. 6). However, a recent study conducted by a Purdue University research team suggests that as early as kindergarten, teachers may unintentionally dampen the enthusiasm of students who like science but show low levels of competence. Among 110 kindergarten students in six classrooms in two schools in a Midwestern suburban school district, the Purdue team found that kindergarteners who fit the high liking/low competence profile reported less teacher support for learning than did students with high motivational beliefs (Patrick, Mantzicopoulos, Samarapungavan, & French, 2008).

According to a nationally representative survey conducted by the Center on Education Policy, some elementary school students may be getting shortchanged when it comes to science. Of the 349 school districts surveyed, 28 percent said they have reduced instructional time in elementary school science to make more time for reading and math in response to NCLB (McMurrer, 2008). Ironically, some research indicates that reading and math performance improves when elementary students participate in inquiry science (see Douglas, Klentschy, Worth, & Binder, 2006).

Some studies show that in early adolescence, U.S. girls generally begin to show less confidence than U.S. boys in their math and science abilities. According to a practice guide released in 2007 by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, teachers can strengthen girls’ beliefs in their own abilities by teaching explicitly that academic abilities can increase with effort and practice, providing feedback on learning strategies, and connecting course content to related careers without reinforcing gender stereotypes. The guide also suggests that girls may especially benefit from training in spatial skills—for example, mentally rotating images (Halpern et al., 2007).

Teachers of English Language Learners may need to help students understand the context-specific uses of simple words such as pour in addition to specialized scientific terms such as hypothesis and inference (Luykx, Lee, & Edwards, 2008).

Chris Emdin, recipient of the 2007 Phi Delta Kappa Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award, found that teachers in urban settings can motivate students (especially minority students) and improve their own teaching by engaging students in what he calls cogenerative dialogues. These are small-group conversations, held outside of class, during which teachers and students share ideas or frustrations about the science classroom then jointly develop a plan of action to address issues one at a time (Emdin, 2007).

Carla Thomas McClure is a staff writer at Edvantia (, a nonprofit education research and development organization. Keith Smith directed the Coalfield Rural Systemic Initiative at Edvantia, which was funded by the National Science Foundation.


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