Inside: Science is a unique and difficult subject to manage well. There are a number of critical problems faced by science teachers. Passion and training in the subject are key to overcoming these difficulties.
There are a number of critical problems faced by today’s science teachers. In my years teaching high school science, I have had kids enter high school with a huge range of experience in science and math. You can tell within the first week which one’s had enthusiastic elementary teacher’s who had a passion for the subject. You could also pick out the kids who had never had the chance to do a science experiment.
Once Ontario got rid of Grade 13, most curriculum was pushed down to lower grades so those higher level classes could be completed by the end of grade 12. I saw my own kids struggle with material their brains were just not ready for.
Regardless of a kid’s previous experience, science is much more difficult for most kids.
Why is Science Difficult for Students?
Motivation is key for getting kids to love science. If you don’t have enthusiastic teachers with the needed science background, it is almost impossible to provide that needed motivation.
Science is harder for kids to grasp. Lab work which is a necessary part of all science classes requires higher cognitive skills such as analysis and evaluation. Reaching a conclusion and evaluating the meaning of an experiment is the most valuable part of the class and this higher level thinking is used in science class more than in other subjects. So…science is more difficult for most kids.
Making sure the science class provides many chances for kids to practice this higher level thinking while making the subject appealing to kids is a challenge for teachers. There are a number of problems unique to science teachers. They can create challenges for even the best teachers.
What are the Challenges of Science?
The problems faced by science teachers are a result of the challenges of science itself. The science community is plagued by funding problems. Funding needs to be found, often by the researchers themselves, to do their experiments. Classrooms and teachers face similar funding shortfalls when trying to put together a meaningful science program. As mentioned above, science requires higher level thinking. Not all kids’ brains get the memo at the same time to understand abstract ideas. So, there is fallout for the teachers when teaching this subject.
What are the Common Problems of Science in the Classroom?
The following are the critical problems faced by science teachers:
- Safety Issues
- Dealing with Sensitive Topics
- Not Being able to Go Deeply
- The Amount of Time Required for Preparation
- Teaching aids
- Times and Timetabling
- Budget Constraints
- Aged Facilities
- Missed Lab Work
The Critical Problems Faced by Science Teachers
Lab work is an important part of a chemistry course, but it can involve coming into contact with dangerous chemicals. In addition, objects such as bunsen burners or a gas supply can cause hazardous conditions if they are not supervised carefully.
Because many kids find science hard, they often act out with inappropriate behaviors. Even normally good kids can get carried away when classmates break the rules.
Students don’t always follow instructions, and some can be foolish or even malicious. They might be careless about wearing protective equipment and in handling their experiments. Science teachers need to be aware of what everyone is doing during the lab lesson. However, this gets really challenging when students start asking them questions.
Science teachers feel like they need eyes in the back of their head to keep a lid on bad behavior while at the same time answering the questions of those kids who really want to learn.
Dealing with Sensitive Topics
Certain topics related to science can be considered sensitive and get parents up in arms. For example, some states only wish to teach creationism. Creationism is not science. But there are still areas where evolution is considered taboo. In biology, lessons to do with the human reproductive system and discussions of birth control can get teachers into trouble. Whenever a teacher starts at a new school, they need to investigate what the school district policy is concerning the way they teach topics such as evolution, cloning, stem cell research, and so on.
Not Being Able to Go Deeply
The science curriculum is driven by taking tests and exams, and the coverage of so many topics. Lab work is critical and often lab exams are a big part of the evaluation. To fit everything in, it is difficult for science teachers to do more than scratch the surface. There is often little time for in-depth studies.
The Amount of Time Required for Preparation
Like all teachers in general, the majority of science teachers would just like to teach. Unfortunately, there is a lot of preparation and set-up time for lab work, and clean-up time afterwards. Especially my first few years of teaching but even afterward, I spend hours after class setting up for the next day or cleaning up after that day’s activity. You want to be super prepared for any lab the next day so nothing goes wrong. An accident during a lab can spell disaster in the classroom. Glassware and Bunsen burners can cause serious injuries if something goes wrong. Being prepared is key to avoiding accidents. In science lab work, that takes a lot of advance planning.
There is also a lot of lesson planning and grading of assignments which can’t be done in class. Science teaching is more hands-on than other subjects. Getting ready for the hands on labs can’t be done at home. Therefore many science teachers come in early and work quite late to get it all done.
When I first started teaching science, it was very hard to find prepared teaching materials. Worksheets, diagrams and prepared labs were hard to find. I relied on teacher’s who had taught the subject before and borrowed their materials and modified them for my own use. Once in a while I found a decent package to buy to make my life easier. The age of the internet has make it easier to find resources but for some specific circumstances and topics it is still hard to find great teaching aides.
Budget constraints limit what school boards will provide. Science departments have a limited budget so specific needs for certain courses will not be met. Often it is the science teacher who will create or find and buy the resources needed to do the job.
Times and Timetabling
Each school has its own length of lessons, and it is not always easy for students to complete all their lab work within 45 minutes, for example. In Ontario, Canada most schools have a semester system with 72 minute classes. Even with that amount of time, some lab work needs multiple days to get it all done. Science teachers need to plan ahead carefully, and may not be able to do certain experiments because they will take too long. In terms of timetabling, most science teachers would love a double period to give them a greater chance of getting everything done, but are at the mercy of regulations out of their hands.
Creativity is key for science teachers to come up with interesting and relative lab work that can be fit into their existing schedule.
Basic lab equipment can be quite expensive. Then there are the ongoing costs of maintaining inventory as students use up supplies and/or damage items during their lab work. Ambitious new teachers often feel the pinch as they come from college and have to face the reality of life in a primary or secondary school.
Primary schools tend to have only the basic supplies to do simple science. Secondary school science departments have a bigger budget but expensive items must be made to last and are accumulated over the long term. Very often, science teachers have to make do with what is available and plan around limited resources.
Because of budget constraints, many schools can’t afford up-to-date equipment. Many rooms are makeshift and configured in such a way that there might not be enough room for all students in the class.
Many schools are old and were built before new ideas and safety considerations were demanded. Some classrooms are too small for the number of students in one science class so safety issues become a real concern. Science can be messy. Some of the equipment used has real safety concerns. When I first started teaching science I would have 40 kids in a class using Bunsen burners. I’m proud to say there were no accidents in my classes but I prepared long and hard a head of time to make sure that was the case. I was relieved when my school began using hot plates in grade 9 and 10 science and in higher grades where it made sense.
Aged facilities are a real concern in many school districts. Modifications to the science program are often necessary to make the science program safer for all in these circumstances.
Missed Lab Work
Absent students can pose particular problems because in most cases, it isn’t possible to set experiments up individually to complete the work. This means the science teacher will have to come up with reading, research or other alternatives to help them make up the work. This means still more lesson planning and grading.
One solution might be to film the labs and make them available on YouTube, but this also takes time and the student will still have to complete written work related to the missed lab.
Science is a key subject and the best schools will understand the challenges facing science teachers and do their best to address them.
All teachers have challenges they need to overcome to do their job well. Discipline and awesome planning are requirements for all teachers. Science teachers, however, face additional hurdles that make it that much more difficult. Heavy demands in preparing for lab work so all goes safely is a big concern. Kids are unpredictable and if something goes wrong during a chemistry experiment, the results can be damaging.
Budget limitations present another hurdle that often makes it difficult if not impossible to cover all aspects of the curriculum well and in an interesting manner. Time constraints are also a problem for lab work.
Teachers with enthusiasm and post secondary training in the subject are key to a successful science program. Also key is strong support from school administration and school board staff.
Read these other posts in the Importance of Science Series: