Conifer High students work on the PhET simulation "Build An Atom."

Most Colorado students are not doing well in science – less than half score at grade level on state tests and many of them lose interest in the subject by 3rd or 4th grade. Educators and business leaders say it's crucial to draw more students into the subject because the country needs that kind of expertise to stay competitive. And some in the state are working to make that happen. Today in the first of a two-part series, we focus on free computer programs that can help students understand things like how atoms and molecules work. And it’s also changing their perceptions of science.

 Here is a transcript of Colorado Public Radio education reporter Jenny Brundin’s report. 

Reporter Jenny Brundin: When you start to explore the gargantuan question of why so many kids are failing in science, you find some of the answers just by talking to Conifer High junior Elizabeth Rasmey.

Elizabeth Ramsey: A lot of us did not enjoy science class during middle school and it kind of carried through with us here. Either they just talked at us and we didn’t really do anything or take the occasional note and listen and the others didn’t do a really good job at explaining. We couldn’t understand what they were saying and they couldn’t explain themselves very well.

Reporter: I ask if she’s had some of those lectures that drone on?

Ramsey: Oh yes, laugh, many times.

Reporter: So what’s going on in classrooms? Lots of talk about facts and procedures. And students mostly get to listen. They don’t get their hands on things, or they’re often not required to figure things out on their own. That’s according to a National Research Council study of high school science classrooms. It estimates that only 12 percent of science lessons are high in quality while 66 percent are low quality. And that shows on test scores.

Melissa Colsman: We’re clearly dissatisfied with the level of achievement for kids.

Reporter: Melissa Colsman of the state Department of Education hopes new science standards --tough ones like they have in Finland and Singapore -- will help. Getting kids to think critically and invent, using real-world examples. Dissecting a frog or mixing chemicals in a beaker isn’t enough.   Research shows those lab exercises are more like following a recipe than discovering scientific principles. In fact, some say, students have learned they’re not in charge. Here’s Barry Cartright, former science specialist with the state Department of Education.

Barry Cartright: More recent research has found that the method of delivery isn’t as important as making sure the kids are really engaged in the material and having to do some deep thinking about it.

Reporter: That means “minds-on" instead of just “hands on.” They have to be mentally engaged. And that means asking questions, debating ideas, gathering evidence to refine those ideas. The teacher guides the discussion and discovery. She asks challenging and reflective questions. But it’s still not happening in far too many classrooms. That may be changing. 

Kathy Perkins: If physics actually was just a collection of memorized facts, I would find that boring.

Reporter:  Kathy Perkins directs the PhET Interactive Simulations at the University of Colorado Boulder.  It originally stood for Physics Education Technology, but now they just call it Phet Interactive Simulations because it's gone far beyond physics into other branches of science.  The lab has developed computer simulations that allow students to see the invisible in science. 

Reporter: Let’s see how it works in a high school Chemistry class at Conifer High with teacher Trish Loeblein. 

Elizabeth Ramsey: Six protons, and six neutrons, and six electrons?

Reporter: Students are in pairs working on a “PhET” called “Build an Atom.” Kids start by playing with the atom simulator for a few minutes. Research shows that leads to students forming ideas. And teachers asking more open-ended questions. 

Loeblein talking to students: So what do you think if I  put the neutron in? What do you think is going to happen?

Student: It’s going to change. 

Reporter: Then the exercise becomes a bit more guided. Tanner Burrows reads out the instructions: “Play around until you discover a rule for what determines the name of the element you build. “

Tanner Burrows: …what determines the name of the element you build.  Hmmmm.

Reporter: He and his partner Lucas Rudisill first have to figure out what the question is asking.

Lucas Rudisill: Oh, I know! What makes it so that the element changes to a new element?

Reporter: Here’s Kathy Perkins take on what happens for students using PhET:

Perkins: ....and so it becomes a real active puzzle that they’re solving.

Reporter: By clicking and dragging another proton over to the atom, the boys soon discover that’s what changes the element – so when you add one more proton to hydrogen, it changes to helium.

Student: It changes every time you take out a proton.

Perkins: …and then when they figure it out, it’s more something that they own. They own that knowledge – it wasn’t something that a teacher told them. The simulation had that knowledge in it, but they had to discover it.

Reporter:  Back in the day, that would have been something you just memorized and soon forgot. Research shows the students who discover the answers will remember them much better than if a teacher told them in a lecture. Tests at the college level have shown PhET to be as or more productive in lectures, labs, and for out-of-class assignments than lab equipment or textbooks. One study of fifth graders in a high-poverty school showed before the simulation, five percent of students could draw a molecule correctly using the chemical formula. After, it was 83 percent. That understanding stayed for 78 percent of the kids when asked the same question two weeks later.  Loeblein say PhET appears to prompt students to discover things and teachers to guide that discovery rather than lecture.  And she sees a change in attitude.

Loeblein: I have less negative, “I can’t do this.” I don’t hear that so much. They feel, a little more like, “This is comfortable. I can do this.” So they seem to be a little more positive about what could be.

Reporter: The Obama Administration’s goal is to get more kids to major in science in college. So who ends up sticking with it? It depends on how a student perceives science. Beginners and typically those who dislike physics for example, tend to see it as a collection of facts to be memorized.   PhET’s Kathy Perkins says research shows those who see it as a powerful set of concepts that can be used to explain the world around them -- they are the ones who end up with a physics or chemistry major.

Perkins: So I think it’s really critical for students in middle and high school to be developing this more expert-like perception of what science is. 

Reporter: PhET is one idea. It’s free and on the state’s tool kit web site for science teachers. But it takes training for teachers, money school districts don’t have. Loeblein thinks training can be done in small groups with coaches like her....but that takes a principal who sees the value. In the meantime, science specialists say teachers should start small - perhaps one student-generated project a week. Here’s Conifer teacher Trish Loeblein’s advice: 

Loeblein: Try to figure out how to get the teacher out of the center stage and how to get the students realizing that they’re the learners and that they need to be the doers.

[Photo: CPR]

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