Supported SiteSupported Site Towson University (Elementary): Course Reform

Teaching Science in the Elementary School


  • Our early teaching (field experience) course for elementary education majors was reformed through the re-establishment of clear course goals, the coordination of the course and school partnerships by the project faculty, the creation of guiding principles of inquiry, the teaching of certain course sections by the project faculty, inquiry-focused instructor and mentor teacher workshops, and the creation and distribution of an inquiry-focused teaching resources CD-rom for course instructors.
  • The teaching structure of the field experience course was successfully redesigned such that the ~13-20 interns in any given section of the course are spread across a small number of classrooms in a single school; ideally, between four and six interns are placed in each science classroom. During the allotted teaching time, the classroom is broken into four to six groups of elementary students, with each small group being led through an inquiry-based science activity by a single intern.
  • After the reforms were implemented, when compared to baseline data, the field experience interns spent more time teaching (and less time observing), the interns more frequently taught modified science lessons (rather than teaching the official school lessons as-is), and the interns’ science lessons focused more frequently on scientific investigations and the communication of ideas (rather than scientific demonstrations, lectures, and the verification of ideas). Additionally, the interns’ attitudes and beliefs about science and science teaching shifted in a more positive direction.


  • Since Towson University offers as many as eight sections of the field experience each semester, the course has a fairly significant amount of instructor and mentor teacher turnover. Any reforms of our field experience course therefore involved strong coordination between multiple course sections, some of which were led by relatively inexperienced part-time instructors and/or mentor teachers.
  • The project obtained mixed results in its attempts to help the field experience instructors and mentor teachers develop a deep, shared understanding of standards-driven, inquiry-based science teaching; this was due to the fact that the project PIs had limited time for close interactions with mentor teachers and part-time faculty, and also due to the turnover associated with these positions.

 Sustainability/physics department buy-in

  • The course reforms will continue as long as funding and personnel are available for workshops and any follow-up coordination and communication.

Lessons learned

  • The multiple-interns-per-classroom model for early teaching experiences works well. This “small group” teaching structure is one of the primary reasons for the success of our reformed course; this structure should serve as a useful model for other institutions attempting similar course reforms.
  • Inquiry-based science lessons can vary widely in their intent and structure, and yet still adhere to the basic principles of inquiry. Certain inquiry lessons might consist entirely of open-ended, evidence-based discussions, while others might hold to the more typical predict-experiment-discuss-conclude lesson plan format.
  • Expecting the interns’ science lessons to be almost completely inquiry-based across all course sections is an unrealistic goal. Interns’ science lessons arise from a complicated interaction between many different factors: the expectations of the university instructors, interns, and mentor teachers; the degree to which the university instructors, mentor teachers, and interns possessed a shared understanding of inquiry; the ability of the interns to put their inquiry teaching goals into practice; the practical constraints of elementary classrooms and the early teaching course (e.g., the availability of science materials); and other contextual/environmental factors, such as a school’s general stance toward inquiry.
  • Coordination across content, methods, and field experience courses leads to the highest potential for educational success. Ideally, in their content courses, the preservice teachers learn science content and reasoning skills through inquiry, while at the same time reflecting on and explicitly discussing the structure and value of inquiry-based instruction in their methods/field experience courses. This methods and science content is then reinforced by the interns’ inquiry-focused teaching experiences in the field experience course.
  • Providing quality, in-depth feedback on interns’ lesson plans and lesson implementation, while time-consuming, is critical to the success of an early teaching course. Feedback that is overly general does now allow interns to reflect on the important details and nuances of lesson planning and instruction – with the result that the interns are not supported in making substantial improvements in these areas.
  • Interns’ teaching reflections need to be heavily guided and focused. In the absence of specific guidelines, interns will often focus solely on whether students had fun, paid attention, and learned the basic concepts in the lesson. In an inquiry-focused field experience course, the interns should be directed to reflect on inquiry-specific aspects of their instruction, including the evolution of students’ ideas, the effectiveness of teacher guidance and group discussion, and the degree to which the lesson is driven by evidence-based reasoning.
  • It is possible, given the proper course structure, support, and feedback, for interns to experience a radical change in attitude toward science and science teaching after only a single semester. In our project, a significant number of interns left our reformed course with a sense that (1) science teaching is fun, interesting, and worthwhile, (2) inquiry is an effective method of science instruction, and (3) they are able to teach science effectively.
  • Due to a lack of post-workshop communication between the project team and the course instructors, our improvement efforts still resulted in some communication and coordination problems. As a result, the 2-day instructor workshop will be further improved by splitting it into two separate workshops: a short workshop held before the beginning of the semester and a second, more in-depth “in session” workshop held during the first few weeks of the semester.

Teaching Science in the Elementary School-- Activity Summary

  • Teaching Science in the Elementary School is a field experience (early teaching/practicum) course taken by elementary education majors during Towson’s “math/science” semester. In the years leading up to our project, instructor and student complaints had been steadily increasing. Discussions with instructors and interns revealed that the different sections of the course (as many as eight per semester) were no longer uniform, and also that there was a general lack of communication about the goals, structure, and logistics of the course. The lack of uniformity was primarily due to the fact that the only resource provided to new course instructors was a sample syllabus, which proved lacking as a means of instructor support and guidance.
  • Early in the reform process, the project team created an updated list of course goals for the field experience course to guide our improvement efforts. The updated course goals required that the interns in each section of the course should: begin to understand and apply inquiry-focused theories of science teaching; become exposed to content and teaching standards; teach science as often as possible; receive in-depth feedback on their teaching; and engage in self-reflection and make steps toward improvement.
  • To further clarify the course and project goals, the project team created a list of four principles of inquiry-based instruction:
  • Students should figure out science concepts and underlying mechanisms on their own whenever possible.
  • Lessons must be driven by clear, common sense, contextualized, and non-obvious questions.
  • Lessons are to be minds-on as much as possible, which can be accomplished through discussions, mentally-engaging hands-on and cooperative activities, active reading, and other means.
  • Lessons focus on ideas and evidence-based reasoning rather than memorization of right answers and vocabulary words.
  • After trying a number of different teaching formats for the course, the project team has settled on a novel “multiple interns per classroom” teaching and planning format that is used in all course sections. In this format, the interns in any given section are spread across a small number of classrooms in a single school; ideally, between four and six interns are placed in each science classroom. During the allotted teaching time, the classroom is broken into four to six groups of elementary students, with each small group being led through an inquiry-based science activity by a single intern.
  • To support our course reforms, the project team created half-day workshops for new mentor teachers and two-day workshops for new instructors. These workshops are now offered every August and January, as needed. The goals of the workshops are to: help new instructors and new mentor teachers develop a better understanding of inquiry; clarify the roles and responsibilities of the university instructors and mentor teachers; clarify the format of the course; and hold open discussions about course goals, course logistics, feedback on the interns’ lesson plans and lessons, and other issues of concern. A variety of brief presentations and interactive methods- and science-related activities are implemented in the workshops to achieve the workshop goals.
  • A resource CD-rom (resource folder) for new course instructors was also created. The CD-rom is a comprehensive teaching and curriculum resource that includes a course overview, a list of web resources, science education readings, 25 methods activities (each of which is explicitly linked to the national standards and course goals), and a variety of other support documents: a core syllabus, sample observation schedules, sample lesson outlines, and observation forms.
  • Supporting materials and equipment were purchased for the course and tested in the classroom. The supporting materials and equipment - which included DVDs of children’s inquiry lessons, digital audiorecorders, and DVD videocameras - were used for self-reflection activities and activities where the interns practiced interpreting children’s ideas.

Physical Science for elementary education majors:

  • A teacher’s guide was developed for the course’s inquiry-based activity guide. The activity guide scaffolds the prospective teachers' experimenting, concept development, and group discussion as they engage in guided inquiry of scientific phenomena.
  • Meetings were held for new instructors before the start of each content unit.

Earth-Space Science for elementary education majors:

  • A teacher’s guide was developed for the course’s inquiry-based activity guide.
  • Meetings were held for new instructors before the start of each content unit.