One hundred ten minutes a week. It may not seem like a lot of time but it could affect your children's ability to pass the high school science proficiency test down the road.
In Clark County, elementary teachers are required to weave 110 minutes a week of science and health instruction into the curriculum. But with math, reading, and writing getting the lion's share of attention -- and often minimal science in the teaching degree programs in college -- some local teachers admit that their lessons might lack the spark that could excite future scientists.
The answer: Get the teachers excited about science first.
UNLV's colleges of Education and Science have teamed up with the Clark County School District to boost teacher expertise in science. The unique program -- VISIONS (Venture Into Scientific Inquiry Organized around Nevada Standards) -- is funded through a state Department of Education grant. Now in its second year, the program involves a one-week workshop in June for 60 CCSD elementary school teachers who crave more science knowledge as well as tools for applying it in the classroom.
"I have four kids and what I've found is that science can be completely ignored if teachers aren't comfortable with it," said Adam Simon, a geoscience professor at UNLV. Simon is also a content expert for this year's VISIONS Summer Institute. "This is about helping them (elementary school teachers) feel more comfortable with the science content so that the curriculum doesn't get ignored."
This year's workshop focused on geology, atmospheric processes, the water cycle, and the earth's structure. Last summer's program highlighted physical science and issues like matter, energy, forces, and motion. Next summer, UNLV is planning a life science focus. After the one-week program, teachers are encouraged to take fall and spring semester follow-up courses at UNLV to further evaluate content strategies in the classroom. Teachers can receive continuing education credits for participating in the workshop and follow-up classes.
Eileen Gilligan is CCSD's math and science curriculum coordinator for K-5. When the grant first surfaced a couple years ago, Gilligan personally saw a need for such a science-enrichment program like VISIONS and often was approached by district teachers for this type of support. Last year's workshop appears to have already made an impact, as 70 percent of this year's group is returning participants.
"You could just tell the teachers wanted to learn more," she said.
She sees a long-term payoff for providing children an early start in science education. The high school science proficiency exam will become less challenging, but more important, students will be in a better position to compete for the technology and science-related jobs that are the wave of the future, adds Gilligan.
"If we don't start in those early years, you really end up playing a lot of catch-up," she adds. "Middle schools end up having to go back over a lot of basic stuff. We really need to see science happening at the kindergarten level."