Cross-Domain Science Instruction

I remember attending a school board meeting in Pennsylvania some years ago at which a board member posed a rather dispiriting question: “With everything else we are responsible for, how can we possibly teach more science in elementary school?” State standards dictated a certain level of proficiency in students’ reading and mathematics on standardized tests and school funding depended on student performance in those subjects. With the stakes so high in reading and math, this board member worried that there was simply not enough time in the academic year to devote to a first-rate science program. Thankfully, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction responded with a bit of wisdom that is TEMP1.001too often forgotten in American curriculum design. She said, “Science is very cross-curricular in its implementation. Good science instruction incorporates mathematics and language arts. It touches upon social studies and geography. It is relevant to everything else we teach.”

The back and forth continued, however. The opposing school board member likened the elementary curriculum to a postal airplane approaching its maximum weight capacity. He feared that by increasing the district’s commitment to science education, other key curricular components, such as reading and mathematics would have to be thrown overboard to be able to accommodate the extra weight. Again, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction rose and spoke, “By increasing our commitment to science instruction, we will only compliment our literacy and mathematics initiatives. In fact, if we properly integrate science instruction into our overall curriculum, we will increase the efficiency of instruction. Nothing will be thrown overboard, we will only soar higher.” She was right.

This entire discussion occurred a number of years prior to the introduction of Common Core mathematics and literacy standards. Were the same discussion to occur today, the assistant superintendent would most certainly include information on how both the literacy and math components of Common Core demand the integration of these domains across the curriculum. In addition, if one were to consider the new Next Generation Science Standards, we would once again encounter very specific mention of the importance of considering science as a cross-curricular enterprise.

A simple point must be made – by tightly integrating the science curriculum with other elementary school domains; more time can be devoted to teaching science and better outcomes can be reached across all disciplines. If the science curriculum integrates reading, all the better for both the reading and science programs. If the science curriculum integrates mathematics, all the better for both the mathematics and science programs. The same can be said for other curricular areas as well. Time taken to weave science instruction into the fabric of the rest of the curriculum is time well spent.

In addition to making economical use of precious school hours, weaving science instruction into other areas of the curriculum, and visa versa, also helps students remember and apply science concepts. When the science and mathematics curricula are congruent, students can use newly learned math concepts – perhaps decimals, multiplication, or solving for an unknown variable – to analyze and interpret data they gathered in an experiment. Such a practice will go a long way to answering one of the most typical student complaints about mathematics – “When will I ever use this?” In short, now!

By tightly coupling science instruction to other areas of the curriculum, students can immediately begin the process of transferring science concepts to other areas of study. This will act to highlight the relevance of science. Students can see at an early age that science is not a separate endeavor that occurs in isolation of other human and societal interactions. The environment and pollution, weather changes and global viral pandemics are not just topics of importance to scientists, but are also central issues in social studies and health.

Ensuring that science is taught in an interdisciplinary fashion will improve student understanding and engagement in all of their subjects. Hopefully, it will also put an end to the era of parents and policymakers wondering if science – a key subject for understanding our world – is surplus to our students’ needs.

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