Improving STEM Education: It’s About Time

The following is a guest post from Robert Wilson ’89, a former 3rd grade science teacher at Bryan Independent School District’s Blue Ribbon-recognized Johnson Elementary School. Wilson, a Ph.D. candidate in education curriculum and instruction at Texas A&M and longtime science educator, currently is Director of STEM Classroom Products for Galxyz’s Blue Apprentice, a new app that is putting the interactive adventure into elementary science and making international headlines, including for a recent partnership with Popular Science to create an entire line of game-based K6 science resources.

Although Wilson may no longer be head of the class at Johnson, his heart clearly remains with his students and singularly invested in their best interests, particularly with regard to the S in STEM.



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Sometimes we put too much faith in a system without understanding all that is involved. I support our teachers and administrators and respect the job that they do for our children every day. However, the legislative constraints in which they work are having a negative impact on our students’ STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. If we are to improve STEM education as a nation, we have to take a long hard look at what is happening within classrooms at the elementary level concerning the amount of time that teachers are teaching science, along with topic selection.

Do you have a child in elementary school? How much science instructional time are they receiving?


Food for thought follows, with accompanying citations:

Blank, R. K. (2013). Science instructional time is declining in elementary schools: What are the implications for student achievement and closing the gap? Science Education, 97(6), 830-847.

“The recommendations for improvement of science education from the NRC indicate that the elementary years are an important time to capture students’ interest and motivation for science study and that time for science instruction is critical (NRC, 2007, 2012). A review of some 150 studies of children’s attitudes toward science found that interest in science for some children tends to decline from age 11 onward (Osborne, 2003), and thus elementary grades instruction in science provides a key time for building interest.”

“The current federal requirement of annual reporting on adequate yearly progress in mathematics and reading for all students produces a strong incentive for schools to focus more instructional time on mathematics and reading, which can result in less class time for science, social studies, and other subjects.”

Sandholtz, J. H., & Ringstaff, C. (2014). Inspiring instructional change in elementary school science: The relationship between enhanced self-efficacy and teacher practices. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 25(6), 729-751.

“In contrast to daily instruction in mathematics and reading/language arts, only 20 percent of classes in kindergarten through grade 3 (K-3) receive science instruction on most days, and many classes receive science instruction only a few days a week or during some weeks of the year (Banilower et al., 2013). In the past decade, the amount of instructional time spent on science has declined rather than increased. In 2000, K-3 teachers in the U.S. spent an average of 23 min a day teaching science (Weiss et al., 2001), but in 2012, K-3 teachers spent an average of 19 min on science instruction (Banilower et al., 2013).”

Ness, D., Farenga, S. J., Shah, V., & Garofalo, S. G. (2016). Repositioning science reform efforts: Four practical recommendations from the field. Improving Schools, 1365480216650312.

“Combined, prior science education reform efforts have failed to recognize the impact from the environmental press on learning. More recently, the constraints with which teachers have grappled are increased pressure – resulting, in part, from time constraints for assessments — and an overwhelming focus on mathematics and literacy at the elementary levels (Farenga et al., 2010; Johnson et al., 2008; Ravitch, 2013). As a result of high-stakes testing, too little time is allocated toward the instruction and assessment of the science curriculum. Teachers spend more time on mathematics and reading at the elementary level to fulfill requirements on these exams. As a result, science learning, knowledge, and motivation suffer (Anderson, 2012, p. 119). Suggestions to improve and increase content should be proposed by individuals who have spent a considerable amount of time working or teaching in K to 12 classrooms — a task that might provide a better understanding of the environmental constraints that are found in the K to 12 setting.”

This might give you a little more perspective on why I left the science classroom to work for Galxyz, Inc. Technology is rapidly changing how we educate our children. Blue Apprentice is a fun way to learn science and increases the amount of time students spend focused on STEM — time the students are not receiving in the classroom.


What Moves a Monarch Man

A recent article reporting the lowest level on record of Monarch butterflies reaching Mexico this year reminded me of a related story Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science researcher Dr. Craig Wilson had shared in October prior to agreeing to be a contributing author to this blog. (Incidentally, roughly a month before the Jan. 29 Slate article ran, Craig also had been featured in a PBS piece for his expertise on this very scenario he had forecasted last spring.)

(Credit: Shutterstock.)

(Credit: Shutterstock.)

You see, among oh, so many other things, Craig is a valiant champion of all things nature and educational — subjects he views in constant and quite purposeful tandem. When it comes to butterflies, he is the host and caretaker of his own official Monarch Waystation here in Aggieland, known as the USDA/ARS People’s Garden and created as a outdoor classroom designed to get students interested in science and possible related careers. And last spring, he singlehandedly planted milkweed and other butterfly-friendly varieties in the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Garden. Because it’s the right thing to do, for the children and the butterflies.

After watching that PBS clip as 2013 metamorphosized into 2014, I had emailed Craig to tell him I enjoyed seeing that he has a kindred spirit way down south and that I could totally see him (Craig) breathing life into a Monarch here in Texas. His response?

“Funny you should say that, but I revived a frozen Monarch on a playground in El Reno, Oklahoma several years ago and had it flying around a middle school classroom. The kids made a box for it and provided sugar water, and I transported it with me to Corpus Christi, where I had a conference the next week, and released it in a garden there, sending photos back to the students en route. Helping the migration, one Monarch at a time…”

Texas A&M researcher and longtime butterfly enthusiast Craig Wilson recommends taking the long view -- as well as personal steps like planting milkweed -- toward reversing the alarming decades-long decline in overall Monarch numbers.

Texas A&M researcher and longtime butterfly enthusiast Craig Wilson recommends taking the long view — as well as personal steps like planting milkweed — toward reversing the alarming decades-long decline in overall Monarch numbers.

But I digress. I had mentioned having a past story — why don’t I just let Craig tell it in his own inspiring, firsthand words!

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On Boss’s Day [October 16], we pay homage to our brave and fearless leader. Below is a short essay I wrote in tribute to another Monarch…

From Queen Elizabeth II to other Monarchs including Tim [Scott, Craig’s boss as one of four CMSE co-directors]:

It must be my destiny, to leave one continent behind where I pledged allegiance to a Queen, only to arrive on another where I am again ruled by a Monarch, only this time it is a butterfly.

Last Sunday, I was lucky enough to be invited to a showing of “Flight of the Butterflies” in the IMAX theatre in Austin, Texas where I was enthralled by both the Monarch’s flight and plight, tracing its history through the eyes of a young boy (Urquhart) lying in the pastures above Toronto, Canada, wondering just where they flew, to the discovery near the end of his life that it was to a few acres’ nestling at 10,000 feet in the Sierras that transverse the state of Michoacan in Mexico. The wearing of 3-D spectacles was new to me, but it enhanced the experience beyond my wildest dreams as I felt myself flying with the adult butterflies, munching alongside their caterpillars and dicing with death in the form of crop sprayers, predators and loss of my habitat. But the most wondrous magic for me was to be able to watch the four-year-old girl in front of me, sitting on her father’s lap and reaching out continuously in the total belief that a Monarch would land on her tiny, precious hand. Oh, that everyone could believe.

monarchs-nestingI have been enthralled by Monarchs for several years now and take part in the Citizen Science Project out of Kansas University, through which you can receive individual tags to stick on the hind wing of a migrating Monarch as it flies the 2,000 miles south from Canada in the fall to help track their movements. This is one of the world’s great migrations and, hazardous at the best of times, it has become more so of late due to a multitude of factors ranging from climate change where the extreme heat can dessicate their eggs on the journey north in the spring; wildfires that destroy wildflowers that provide nectar; loss of habitat both in U.S. and Mexico; and, perhaps most drastically, the loss of milkweed plants that are the only food source for their caterpillars.

Milkweed search and recovery has become a particular obsession of mine. I can spot a milkweed blooming on a highway verge despite going at 70 mph as I traverse the country. That necessitates a sudden but safe stop and, armed with my trusty sharpshooter, I dig below the deeply seated tuber and carry my prize back to the car to be transplanted into the USDA/People’s Garden in College Station outside my office, where I watched a female Monarch carefully depositing individual eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves yesterday. Two weeks ago, I was able to tag a male and a female — the first to arrive in our garden from Canada on their fall migration — the faded coloration of their wings and less-than-pristine condition suggesting that they did indeed have hundreds of miles on their odometers.

Naively, I do believe that, “If you plant it, they will come” — it being milkweeds that are native throughout the land over which this Monarch, I believe, should rule. It would be sad to see her go the way of George III. Perhaps, taking a literal leaf out of Lady Bird Johnson’s playbook, the north-south interstates could be planted with milkweeds and become corridors to aid the migration, but that requires a degree of cooperation and collaboration we are sorely missing currently. Would it not be ironic if a Monarch could unite this nation?

E pluribus unum…

Light Years Ahead and Apart

Every day is a learning experience when you’re covering Texas A&M Science. In many cases, that experience doesn’t end with the finished story — for us as the writers or for the reporters who choose to pick it up.

It should come as no surprise that our professors are natural educators, in and outside their classrooms. Email and social media, along with news outlets that enable and encourage reader comments, offer extended opportunities for those savvy enough to harness them in the ever-broadening realm of public education and outreach.

Take, for instance, the recent most-distant-galaxy discovery. Astronomers Casey Papovich, Vithal Tilvi and Nick Suntzeff went to great lengths to help us get that story not only out but also accurate, from handling initial interviews to helping with multiple revisions and small tweaks to the article in progress as well as to the supporting images and captions.

Galaxy_ArtistRendering_TilviBreathtakingly beautiful, isn’t it? But as good as it is and we thought we did, it turns out people — general readers and even some astronomers — got a bit confused regarding the distance part of that most distant galaxy find. Enter the chance to educate, as illustrated in the following two examples.

In the first, Papovich expands on the 30 billion light years question in response to a direct email from a science writer in Germany:

Technically, the answer is “yes,” but I tend to use the distance the galaxy appears to be (that’s where we “see” it) That distance is only 13 billion light years distant.

The 30 billion light years comes from the following. If you could stop the universe expanding and run a tape measure, then the distance we would measure would be 30 billion light years. But we don’t see the galaxy there. I tend to quote the “light travel distance” because that’s the distance the galaxy “appears” to be (the light left the galaxy 13 billion years ago and has been chasing after us as we are carried away with the expansion). That distance (the light travel distance) is 13 billion light years.

 Now, the galaxy we’re seeing has also been moving in the other direction for 13 billion years, so it has also moved away. That’s why the present-day distance is 30 billion light years (but we can’t see the galaxy at that distance). Because we “see” the galaxy at the light travel distance, I quote that distance (13 billion light years).

Distances are very screwy because the universe is expanding so fast.

Hope that helps, Casey

And here’s the second example, in which Suntzeff responds to a comment on the story featured in the local newspaper, The Bryan-College Station Eagle:

The attentive Eagle readers here have caught an obvious mistake, but let me turn this into a learning moment (hey, give me a break! I am a professor at A&M.) When you measure distances to stuff in the universe, the meaning of distance is ambiguous. It has taken 13 billion years for this light to get to us from this galaxy, and this is one way of measuring distance. Another way, which is often used in astronomy, is asking how much the universe has expanded since that time — sort of how far away is the object in today’s much larger universe. We call this the “scale” distance. That number is more like 30 billion light years for this galaxy. For me, it is easier to think of distance as how long it took the light to get to us, which would be 13 billion years. But the 30 billion year distance is also correct, if not obvious. And yes, this will be on the mid-term.

Any way you slice/write it, I think it’s pretty darned cool we get paid to promote the likes of a discovery of the most distant galaxy known to man (one born only 1 billion years or so after the Big Bang) alongside such great ambassadors for astronomy, Texas A&M University and the state of Texas, and science education as a whole. Welcome to Aggieland!