Math and Science the Right Way

“That’s it! I’m digging in!”

With that, a third grader at Griggs Elementary in Mobile, Ala., pulled on his surgical glove to examine an owl pellet for rodent bones.

Engaging explorations in STEM content are daily occurrences for the young mathematicians and scientists-in-training at Griggs and other schools throughout the state of Alabama. Here, students benefit from rigorous, hands on, investigative science and math instruction provided through a partnership with the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative, or AMSTI. This state-funded initiative partners with K-12 schools to ramp up the integration of STEM education at the elementary school level.

Students Dissect Owl Pellets

Students at Griggs Elementary in Mobile, Ala., examine an owl pellet for rodent bones.

On the day we visited schools in Alabama, while one class at Griggs examined owl pellets, another room of students focused on the importance of fractions in math by examining strategies for dividing a paper “brownie” square into equal parts. In a classroom at J. Larry Newton Elementary School in Fairhope, students discussed the importance of measurement precision as they performed chemical tests on household substances like baking soda and flour.

Outfitted in goggles and gloves, the students owned the roles they took on in class and told us about their futures. “I love math” and “I’m going to be a scientist” were common statements among these young children.

What was so remarkable was that throughout these classrooms, the students conducted much of their own learning and challenged each other with questions. The teachers were the facilitators, not lecturers, who nurtured and compelled their students to be risk takers, critical thinkers, and data analysts. Students were encouraged to be curious and that curiosity was used as the natural foundation for the lessons. Said one teacher, “I used to be one of those lecturers, but now…I see my students’ excitement, and I’m excited to facilitate.”

These partnerships illustrate effective math and science instruction, accomplished through authentic experiences that allow students to take the lead in discovery and learning. Across grade levels, these elementary school students are engaging in scientific and mathematical discourse, defending their hypotheses, explaining their thinking, and examining their strategies.

Schools across the country could benefit from such educational experiences and instructional practices. As the Teaching Ambassador Fellows continue to conduct outreach with educators in schools across the nation, we’ve seen pockets of best practices like these in Alabama. But if our country is going to meet the President’s goals and the needs of the economy, this type of system-wide partnership and STEM instruction must become more of the norm. Early exposure to and experience with STEM is critical to fostering future STEM professionals. Given the national priority and importance of early childhood education, we must also start thinking about how to begin such exploration early, even in pre-school and kindergarten.

In Alabama, math and science is being done the right way. Let’s learn from this example and build more.

Jennifer Bado-Aleman is an English teacher on loan from her school in Gaithersburg, Md., and Patrice Dawkins-Jackson is the Gifted Instructional Support teacher at the Dunwoody Springs Elementary in the Greater Atlanta area. Both are serving as 2012 Teaching Ambassador Fellows for the Department.


  1. My name is Jacques Gimeno I’m a motor vehicle engineer teacher.

    In the centre where I teach we have students who have been excluded from main stream education for different reasons. They come to our centre with behavioural issues, as they see it, unfairly rejected and are not in a working frame of mind. Some of our learners are de-motivated and as a result, in various subjects, they have low motivation, are very insecure and have no sense of belonging to our centre. They are looking for mischief and distractions to avoid being part of the lesson or doing their own work. As a motor vehicle teacher I realise that practical activities are top of the list for my students. They learn with hands on activities, with teachers guidance, discussion Q&A, and team activities. I do think that practical subject are easier to teach at the moment. Although there is also a great improvement in behavior when the whole class is being observed by external moderators.

  2. We love this article and applaud the district and teachers! @projscientist we believe that ages 4 – 12 is the perfect time for hands on science and math learning, kids are born with an interest in the sciences and we need to nurture that throughout their education!

  3. As a classroom teacher of 20 years, this is 100% the approach to take. I have taught elementary and middle school, kids who are gifted, kids who have autism, kids with ADD/ADHD and kids who who do not. If there have been problems with learning in the classroom, it is due to classroom management by the teacher, not by a STEM method of instruction.

    It is also a well researched fact that when we (adults and children) are actively engaged as learners (and that includes having “fun”) our brains are more receptive to making deeper connections with prior knowledge.

    My classroom continually ranks well above the national average, the children exceed AYP and I intentionally design lessons to be interactive, inquiry-based and…fun.

  4. While I can appreciate the concerns brought up by Ann Marie, it seems that she is over-simplifying the idea being presented. I am not reading that the goal is for students to have more “FUN” in the classroom, but that they are enabled to engage in their learning.
    Further, while in her particular school this approach may have led to chaos, when implemented in a well-designed and thoughtful approach, it will lead to deeper participation, more thoughtful discussion, and a higher percentage of interest in the students.
    Also, this article is in regard to an elementary school, in which the ability to sit still, take notes, and memorize information is at a much lower level (comparatively speaking). When this approach is employed at the earlier stages, it can result in sparked interest in the world around us, and peak curiosity. As the student grows and matures, and interest is continued to expand, the ability to listen to lecture-style teaching will naturally increase, as the student is now interested for reasons other than to earn a grade.

  5. I think hands-on activities and experimentation are great. They really drive home the learning done beforehand by real teachers telling and showing students the facts and procedures necessary so they are able to get something out of the hands-on activities.

    They are learning from teachers first, right? I don’t read anything about that in the article. Hmmm.

  6. As a mother of 2 college students and former math tutor, I’ve seen real problems with this approach in the classroom.

    First let’s start with my nursing student/daughter. She must sit, listen to lectures, take notes, study and memorize a large amount of academic content. Her teachers in a Parochial high school prepared her well by not using this approach in the classroom.

    They required the students in high school to read the text, take notes, and memorize the material. That helped prepare her compared to the 25% of nursing students who’ve had to drop out of the program because they were not prepared.

    While this sounds like “FUN” in the classroom, one has to wonder if this will lead to problems as children get older and are required to be disciplined enough to handle the college workload.

    Making a subject “FUN” may actually have a negative consequence vs expecting children to learn to become self-disciplined to the point where they can easily transition into the STEM field upon entering college.

    My son/14 year old did experience this approach in his science class recently. His teacher came to the Parochial school from a public school and used this approach at the beginning of the year.

    What we as parents saw was:
    Chaos in the classroom
    Little actual learning taking place

    The Principal was made aware of the problems that erupted from this new approach to science and it was quickly changed back to a more traditional classroom setting.

    When my 14 year old reveals that he’s learned nothing in science the first semester, I’d say that speaks volumes.

    When the teacher comments about the loud and disruptive nature of the classroom, this speaks volumes.

    I have to wonder about all of those children w/ADD, ADHD who need structure and an atmosphere that isn’t chaotic.

    When pushing these kinds of methods, it would be helpful to the reader and parents to actually look at ALL sides of an issue. It helps one to become a critical thinker if you can add information that offers a different perspective.

    This sounds more like a sales job rather than offering quality information to your readers.

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