Monday, July 30, 2012

Back To The Future

I know, that title has been used before--in movies and in other blogs as well.  But it came to mind when the White House announced in the last week or two that that President Obama will request one billion dollars for improving science and mathematics education in the United States.  My aging brain sent me a red flag--we did this once before.  I was there when it happened.  In a grade school classroom..... and my kids and I had several discussions on how we could make math and science bette in our classroom.  

I had just returned that year (1958) from serving in the U.S. Army in the Korean war (25th Inf Div) and because I was by law allowed my old job back (elementary music teacher) the school district would have to fire my replacement.  However, I knew that the district was building new elementary schools (2) and we would need several elementary music teachers in the near future and didn't want him fired therefore I had asked to be a elementary classroom teacher for the short term.  The district was in need of elementary teachers at the time and they quickly agreed to my request and made me a fifth grade teacher.

I was assigned thirty six students....  I remembered I didn't have enough textbooks to go around at first some of the kids had to share books.  I had enough paper and pencils to go around, two blackboards and one gigantic bulletin board that the principal wanted covered.  We had no other supplies and we didn't have a library for the school.  About thirty grade level 'library books' were put into each classroom and we were asked to exchange them after several months with another classroom.  

I remember we ran out of ditto's around April so that eliminated handouts and work sheets.  A month later we ran out of paper for the ditto machines.  I bought ditto paper from Sears--they had the best price.  There were no science supplies whatsoever.  Most of my science instruction came out of the science textbook assigned to my classroom.  The class would read a section and we would talk about it.  Sometimes I would have kids bring stuff from home to do little experiments like batteries, wire, and such.  

And then it all, not the fan but SPACE!  The Soviet's Sputnik was shot into space in 1957 and this provided the necessary motivation to congress to authorized funding for the National Defense Education Act  or as it was commonly called the NDEA (became law in 1958).  It provided about a quarter of a million dollars in several programs.  I don't remember them all but one was to assist undergraduates in mathematic and science education.  But these students didn't have to go into teaching, they could get jobs in industry if they so chose.  However it also provided monies for foreign language  and engineering undergraduates.  That was the defense part of the act.  The only thing that trickled down to my classroom was a science cart.  The kids and I really liked it.  It was on wheels (very small wheels so that pushing it on the cement walkways outside my classroom was not feasible so in essence it stayed in my classroom although it was suppose to be for all the intermediate classes.  

The science cart had a sink at one end with a hand pump lever and faucet into the sink.  Inside the cart was a plastic jug for water and another plastic jug for whatever ran out of the sink.  The counter top was especially made out of some sort of plastic that would resist chemical spills.  The kids and i never did find out if it did this as we never had any chemicals to play....which was probably a smart move on somebody's part.  The cart has some drawers at the other end of the cart--aways from the sink and jugs below which turned out to be handy for scissors, rulers and several other items for which we had no storage in the classroom.  But we loved out cart, the kids and me.  We could roll it down the aisles and stack textbooks on it, stand on it to clean the top of the blackboards and also to put stuff on our large bulletin board (the wheels locked).  We never used it for science or mathematics.  I heard later on the company that made the cart made millions off the NDEA act.  Maybe that was the purpose of the act to begin with.

So as I mentioned earlier on, the White House announced recently a request for a billion dollars for science and mathematics.  I've also read someplace that the president wants monies for engineer students as well.  My oh my I wonder if I will get a tee shirt this time around.  

One of my concerns is that if we want more science, math, okay, let's throw in engineering for the fun of it, we need to start in the elementary schools with basic science and math.  The engineering can come out of the math--OR--we can teach engineering and have the math come out of it.   But I have my doubts and I suspect we will see a new type of science cart that will be made available for elementary schools once more.  Hello Future, good to see you again.

I did learn to teach science and I was successful in my endeavors.  For several years the Washington State Dairy Council supplied me with four tiny laboratory white rats.  The class (and I) learned to mix dry food products by the gram and volume, to weigh the rats and keep charts and to observe skin and tail conditions depending upon the food eaten.  Two rats would get a good food supply (with dry milk) and two would get a poor food supply (of course without milk) and after a time, the rats were reversed in their eating habits.  It was all simple science methods and the kids loved it.  One of my students came to me while she was in high school and wanted to do a similar experiment for her high school biology class and wanted to know where I had gotten the white rats.  So I guess some of the scientific learning paid off.

I tried to teach science.   I suspect with a minimum of equipment, storage areas for supplies, and enough stuff for the kids we would have done rather well.  At that time I would have liked to have taken a basic science course during the summer school for teachers but I don't remember any being available.  I wonder what the NDEA monies were used for.

I still contend that if we want to improve science and mathematics we need to start in the elementary school curriculum.  And we'll need teachers.  Not larger classes, not state ordered curriculums, and not tests.  Just people who want to be teachers

I don't think we'll get them.  Perhaps some science carts, but not teachers.

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